Since his election in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly made headlines for his outwardly racist, homophobic, and misogynist rhetoric. A populist, anti-establishment leader, Bolsonaro appealed to a large base, including the Christian right, working-class youth, military elite, and economic elite. After running with a conservative platform in which he promised to tackle Brazil’s crime problem, cut taxes, and preserve ‘traditional family values,’ he won 46% of the vote in the first round and 55% in the second, despite being stabbed on camera at a rally. Nicknamed “the Tropical Trump,” Bolsonaro has emulated Trumpian rhetoric and antics to polarize Brazilian politics and society. With the next presidential election coming in 2022, however, Bolsonaro does not have the same prospects that he did in 2018. The president’s egregious mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has all but guaranteed that his chances for reelection are slim.
Brazil and the Pandemic
Bolsonaro was initially dismissive of the virus, which he called a “little flu,” asserting that Brazilians “never catch anything” as they already had the antibodies to fight the virus. He instead argued that the real danger was shutting down the economy, and made a point to disavow any kind of lockdown or social distancing measures. Despite denying the danger posed by the virus as cases steadily rose, Bolsonaro’s popularity increased with increased welfare spending measures.
Bolsonaro’s popularity in the face of the pandemic was short-lived, however. After the emergence of a highly contagious variant, Brazil has been facing an unprecedented crisis. The Brazilian variant is deadly, causing higher morbidity in young people, and can reinfect those who have already survived an initial bout of COVID-19. On March 25th, 2021, Brazil reported 100,000 new cases and 2,777 deaths in one day, with roughly 125 Brazilians dying every hour. Hospitals were at dire capacity, with over 90% of ICU beds occupied in urban areas. The pandemic has also taken a huge toll on the economy, as service sector jobs diminish and unemployment rates have risen to 14%.
While the country undergoes a health crisis and the economy slumps, Bolsonaro’s popularity has taken a hit. His approval ratings have dropped from 41% in October to 25% in late March. Government officials have also been showing similar dissatisfaction towards Bolsonaro. Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco, often seen as a close ally of the president, endorsed restrictions on restaurants and bars and said that minimizing the pandemic is a “gruesome, medieval joke.” Similarly, Speaker of the House Arthur Lira declared that the House would refuse to move forward on pro-business legislation until something is done to address the health crisis. The business elite – bankers, businessmen, and economists previously in favour of Bolsonaro – have reached out to the attorney general to ask that Bolsonaro be charged for criminally mishandling the pandemic.
Bolsonaro is clearly not oblivious to the pandemic’s impact on his political career. In the past month, there has been a significant shift in Bolsonaro’s public stance regarding the pandemic. Instead of dismissing the severity of the pandemic, he is now focusing his attention on the vaccination campaign, pledging $1 billion towards fighting the pandemic and pleading with foreign leaders for assistance. He has recently made public appearances wearing a mask, almost a year after the Supreme Court mandated that he wear one. He also appointed a new health minister in mid-March, cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, after almost 4 months of the position being filled by a military official.
Threat from the Left
In addition to poor approval ratings in response to his mishandling of the health crisis, Bolsonaro now faces another serious threat to reelection. On March 8th a Supreme Court judge overturned corruption charges against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), a former president and socialist icon in Brazil. The annulment of Lula’s charges means that he is now eligible to run for president in the 2022 election. Lula is a highly charismatic leader and has served in public office since the 1980s. The day after the annulment of his charges, Lula made a speech in which he stated that he was a “conciliatory” leader and attacked Bolsonaro’s outlandish antics. After Brazil surpassed 300,000 cases on March 24th, Lula called Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic the “biggest genocide in our history,” warning Brazil will not survive for much longer under its current leadership. As of March 17th, Lula was polling 4 points ahead of Bolsonaro.
The 2022 Election
What does the chaos of the last few months mean for Bolsonaro in the upcoming election? Right now things are not looking promising for the incumbent. Donald Trump’s embarrassing fall from power in November 2020 carries a bleak omen for other crass right-wing leaders like Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s campaign tactics from 2018 will not work again, with his anti-establishment rhetoric not carrying the same appeal since his policies have resulted in countless deaths. Furthermore, his disastrous response to the pandemic has demonstrated to both citizens and businesses why a strong central government is sometimes necessary.
The legacy of Lula’s two-term presidency from 2003-2011 works in his favour, as he lifted around 20M people from poverty and carried a strong economy that was largely unaffected by the 2008 global financial crisis. His history in office could make him a favourable candidate for the business elite as well as the working class, especially in light of the chaos created by Bolsonaro’s approach. As a “conciliatory” leader, many may look to Lula as a solution to the polarization and hatred brought about by Bolosnaro’s rhetoric.
Bolsonaro could still claim a victory in 2022, but the chances appear slim. Some analysts argue that Lula’s emergence could be helpful for Bolsonaro as it limits any opportunities for centrist candidates, pushing the center and center-right towards Bolsonaro. If Brazil’s vaccination campaign speeds up and Bolsonaro emerges from the crisis looking like a hero, he could potentially win back approval previously lost. In addition, Bolsonaro would need to fix the economy, which is currently suffering under the strains of the pandemic. If Bolsonaro can translate commodity prices to an economic boost, effectively address the current health crisis, and carry out an efficient vaccine campaign, he could have a chance of beating Lula in a presidential race. Without these conditions, however, Bolsonaro’s prospects in the 2022 election are not promising.
Edited by Gabriela McGuinty
Photo credits: “24/03/2021 Reunião com Vice-Presidente da República, Presidentes do Senado, Câmara dos Deputados, do STF, ministros e governadores” by Palácio do Planalto, published on March 21st, 2021, licensed under Creative Commons. No changes were made.
Sage is a third-year student at McGill pursuing a double major in International Development and Political Science. As a writer for Catalyst, she is particularly interested in global supply chains and womens’ education.