If 2019 marked the Brazilian calendar as the year that saw a change of government and worsened the electoral hangover for those who still resented the results of the previous election, 2020 ends as a year in which President Jair Bolsonaro made evident his governmental project.
Between the beginning and the end of a year specifically marred by the advancement of a pandemic, the retired army captain made fun of the coronavirus, repeatedly snubbed science and scientists, tried to sell drugs considered unsafe for certain uses, and trampled on the healthcare system, going as far as proposing the privatization of public primary healthcare units.
In addition, he added to his repertoire of controversial statements with pronouncements that minimized how risky the virus was – at one point, he called covid-19 a “little flu” - ignoring its death toll, and poking fun at reporters who insistently asked him what he would do with the mountain of corpses that grew throughout the year. “I'm not an undertaker, okay?”, he rebuked in April. The statement was followed by a wave of criticism.
“We have seen many other obscurantist rulers around the world, but none of them - neither [Donald] Trump nor those in Hungary, for example - maintained this radical stance of denying the gravity of the outbreak and sabotaging public health measures”, highlights Professor Luis Felipe Miguel, from the Political Science Institute of the University of Brasilia (UnB).
At the height of his attacks, the president politically short circuited the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the entity, questioning the safety of vaccines – medical achievements that since the 18th century have advanced science and reduced humanity’s afflictions, helping to stem the spread of some diseases while eradicating others.
“2020 started off as a normal year, the second of his mandate. Like all of us, he [Bolsonaro] expected, a different type of year, but the pandemic threw us into an abyss of uncertainty. This pandemic sent the whole world adrift, and in Brazil, the ship’s captain steered against the current”, says political analyst Leonel Cupertino.
In June, the Bolsonaro administration was already dead last in the world ranking of government responses to the pandemic. In the Democracy Perception Index, only 34% of Brazilians considered his conduct to be good, while the average positive evaluation of the other heads of state was 70%, in a list of 53 countries.
The Brazilian president's bad reputation spread throughout the world, making headlines and becoming the subject matter of art works in the public domain. In Paris, the tragedy taking place on this side of the Atlantic was embodied by a sculpture by artist Márcio Machado. In September, he showcased a bone shaped presidential throne, to commemorate the hitherto 121 thousand killed by covid-19 on Brazilian soil.
Days later, when speaking at the United Nations (UN), Bolsonaro tried to free the government of any responsibility for the consequences of the pandemic, complained about the amount of the emergency aid being given to citizens, and even blamed indigenous people, the press and civil society groups for the wildfires ravaging the Amazon.
Economic and legislative route
The continuity of a rigid fiscal agenda was not left out of the president's itinerary, made flexible only in part due to the pandemic and actions conducted by Congress to guarantee emergency health funds. Bolsonaro has also left Brazilian workers in dire straits, intensifying insecurity in the labor market and deepening the lack of protection for the masses facing a health and socioeconomic crisis. Authorizing salary reductions and suspension of contracts were also part of the script.
At year’s end, the president had the weight of 14 million unemployed people on his back, an unemployment rate of 14.2% - the highest percentage in history, since measurements by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) began.
Amid the advancing chaos driven by the coronavirus, Bolsonaro was the target of 54 impeachment requests in Congress. If added up, impeachment requests that were denied or withdrawn by the petitioners, the figure reaches 58. In all, 1,459 individuals and organizations signed off on these requests. The future of these petitions depend on the speaker of Congress, Rodrigo Maia, who as of yet has filed none.
"The economic agenda is what holds it all together, because it is an agenda pitting the elites against the working class, which is supported by the political center", summarizes political scientist Francisco Fonseca, from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, in a recent interview with Brasil de Fato.
“Bolsonaro was able to show throughout 2020, that he is still necessary for the right and the ruling class in Brazil. Maia presents himself as a critic of the government's absurdities, but this is part of a political theater”, points out Luis Felipe Miguel, accusing Maia of “complicity”.
The professor assesses that the president ended up a "looser" this year and therefore, became less dependent on the political capital of the ministers he chose, as is the case with Paulo Guedes and Sérgio Moro - the latter left the administration in April, facing a huge media onslaught.
In the midst of negotiations aimed at establishing a base in Congress, Bolsonaro also lent support to legislation and negotiated administrative positions in pockets of power such as the Bank of the Northeast and the National Education Development Fund (FNDE). It’s widely known that the bargain took place in exchange for political support. This path of catering to centrist parties, contrasts with his narrative as a presidential candidate in 2018, when he repudiated centrists while talking about the "old politics".
“Maia said recently that Bolsonaro may be weakened. I tend to agree with him. The president has been steering away from narratives that elected him, such as the fight against corruption. The little that keeps it all together is habit, but he has made very little progress in the Chamber of Congress over the last two years, being more present on Twitter and in the debate about weapons, etc”, points out Leonel Cupertino.
Bolsonaro also avoided, as much as he could, the issue of emergency aid, approved after insistent articulations by the opposition, without contemplating important aspects the discussion, ultimately excluding segments of the population from the assistance package, as was the case with family farmers.
Even so, he managed to take credit for the emergency aid legislation: a survey by the Exame / IDEIA news platform, pointed out that 65% of Brazilians credited the implementation of these benefits to the president, much to the dismay of the opposition.
Bolsonaro also remained focused on his crusade against the press. From January to September alone, the president fired 299 attacks against journalists, according to a survey by the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj). The figure is more than double the 116 registered by the entity during the previous year. In line with discrediting the work of industry professionals, the Chief Executive also made a total of 68 false or distorted statements about data released by the press, according to statistics from the Aos Fatos platform.
At an institutional political level, he accumulated other controversies as 2020 progressed, leveraging his ability to create feuds in different environments: he eroded Brazil's relationship with China amid the pandemic, and sparred with state governors, trying to blame them for the country’s economic woes, associating them exclusively with pandemic lockdowns imposed at the state level, all the while limping through nationwide calls for expedited vaccination plans.
The president also sought to intervene in the Federal Police to protect his children from investigations; he created discomfort within the Federal Supreme Court (STF); he measured forces publicly against his own government ministers, vetoing them at key moments during the crisis generated by the pandemic. At the height of these confrontations in April, former Health Minister Henrique Mandetta was dismissed. While the then minister asked Brazilians to respect the protocols recommended by infectologists, Bolsonaro mocked social isolation and contravened safety guidelines on purpose, including through his own participation in street protests with his supporters.
Bolsonaro also managed to shift the population's attention to other issues, ending his second year in office with a 37% approval rating – according to the Datafolha institue, demonstrating a certain stability with his base.
Despite this, Bolsonaro failed to transfer his popularity to the 63 candidates he decided publicly support in this year's municipal elections. Of the candidacies he backed, only 11 city councilors and five mayors, four of them in small cities, were elected. For professor Francisco Fonseca, from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, this result points to a reduction in the retired army captain’s sphere of influence.
“I think Bolsonaro ends his second year in office with much less than he started. He is going to be very isolated and become a small scale politician - with little relevance, little influence, someone who was only elected due to largescale electoral fraud”.
Edited by: Geisa Marques