RIO DE JANEIRO – Not even five months into his four-year term, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is struggling so much to push forward with his agenda despite a big election victory that many of the far-right leader’s staunchest supporters felt the need to get out into the streets to give him a boost.
Sunday’s demonstrations in over 100 cities sought to counter large protests on May 15 against Bolsonaro’s plan for deep cuts in spending on public education, an area he thinks is politicized and poorly run.
With pressure mounting to deal with the government’s huge budget deficit and poor performance by Latin America’s biggest economy, the dueling rallies underscore Bolsonaro’s problems: sagging approval ratings, a crashing currency, infighting within his administration and sniping even from conservatives.
There is no immediate threat to his hold on power, yet Brazilian politics in recent years hold warning signs for the president.
Fury over the largest corruption scandal in the history of Latin America, angst about an economy that has yet to fully recover from recession and a litany of other complaints have made Brazil a hostile environment for politicians. Consider the fate of the last three presidents: In 2016, Dilma Rousseff was impeached and ousted for illegally managing the federal budget. Last year, her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, began serving a 12-year sentence for a corruption conviction. And this year, the man succeeded by Bolsonaro, Michel Temer, has twice been arrested and is facing several graft allegations.
All three situations are different, of course, and Bolsonaro is not facing corruption allegations himself, although his son, a federal senator, is. Rather, the common thread is that in today’s Brazil nobody is untouchable.
That Bolsonaro’s administration is wounded is largely his own fault. He campaigned on the need to curtail the country’s overburdened pension system and to combat rising violence and crime, yet instead of building coalitions to push for major reforms, he has used much of his early political capital on cultural wars, bashing the press and expanding gun rights, the latter of which polls say is opposed by a majority of Brazilians. Instead of working with Congress in the capital of Brasilia, the former legislator has made trips to Chile, Israel and Switzerland and gone to the United States twice.
Bolsonaro’s list of provocative and unnecessary moves is already long: He tweeted a video of a man peeing on the head of another to warn about debauchery during Carnival, posted fake stories about reporters, declared Brazil should not be allowed to become “a gay paradise” and frequently insulted other politicians, even supposed allies. He has also done little to stop social media attacks by his politician sons on military leaders, including Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a former general.
The infighting and theatrics prompted Janaina Paschoal, a state lawmaker from Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, who he considered for vice president, to openly campaign against Sunday’s rallies. “Wake up! If the streets are empty on the 26th, Bolsonaro will realize that he will have to stop causing drama and get to work,” she said on Twitter.
Bolsonaro has received similar admonishments from Rodrigo Maia, whose role as speaker of Congress’ lower house makes him a key player in whether the president’s agenda can move forward. In March, Maia said if Bolsonaro didn’t do the work to persuade legislators to approve a controversial pension overhaul, it wasn’t going to happen, sending shivers through the markets.
In a series of extraordinary public barbs, Maia admonished Bolsonaro for spending so much time on Twitter and so little time in Congress. Bolsonaro brushed Maia off.
Bolsonaro and many of his hardcore supporters argue that the administration is struggling because he refuses to engage in business as usual, such as trading government projects or positions for votes on key legislation. Sunday’s demonstrations were “a message” to “those who stay with the old ways,” Bolsonaro said after participating in a religious service in Rio de Janeiro.
Still, Bolsonaro’s popularity is sagging. Several polls say his approval rating is down about 15 points since taking office, currently hovering around 34%. The Brazilian real has declined sharply against the U.S. dollar in recent months on worries that major economic changes are at risk, the unemployment rate has edged up to under 13%, and Paulo Guedes, the University of Chicago-trained finance minister who was key to Bolsonaro’s election victory, has said he won’t stick around if pension reform isn’t passed.
None of that is insurmountable. The divisive impeachment process against Rousseff, followed by the scandal-prone administration of Temer, the least popular president in modern Brazilian history, and the jailing da Silva, has all left many Brazilians tired of the fighting. Regardless of political stripes, they want the economy improve, to feel safer on the streets and to live under a functioning government.
Bolsonaro will have to bring together disparate groups in one of the world’s most diverse countries, including those who are clearly out to get him. The question is whether he can do that, or will he continue to be consumed by schoolyard fights and the settling of scores.
Peter Prengaman has been Brazil’s bureau chief since early 2016. On Twitter: twitter.com/peterprengaman