Corruption, Health, Human Rights, Justice, Populism

Jair Bolsonaro’s dangerous divorce

Apr 30 2020

The Economist

Brazil’s justice minister storms out, calling the president a scofflaw

ON APRIL 19TH Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, climbed onto a lorry outside army headquarters in Brasília to fire up protesters who were calling for a shutdown of Congress and the Supreme Court. Soon after, according to Folha de S. Paulo, a newspaper, he learned that federal police were investigating allegations that one of his sons, Carlos, runs an online fake-news network that may have inspired the protest. On April 24th Mr Bolsonaro sacked the head of the federal police. Hours later the justice minister, Sérgio Moro, resigned. He accused the president on television of “political interference” in the police to shield his family.

Mr Moro’s resignation is the biggest political blow to Mr Bolsonaro since he became president at the beginning of 2019. An army captain turned congressman, Mr Bolsonaro rose from obscurity by exploiting anger at corruption. His appointment as justice minister of Mr Moro, a judge who jailed scores of politicians and businessmen as leader of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations, signalled his determination to fight graft. Now Mr Moro, a hero to many Brazilians, has accused his former boss of obstructing justice. If an investigation backs that claim, Mr Bolsonaro could be impeached.

That crisis comes on top of twin calamities: the covid-19 pandemic and the economic slump it has caused. On April 16th Mr Bolsonaro sacked the health minister, Luiz Mandetta, who had refused to back his demands that shops and schools reopen. Some supporters are disillusioned. “I voted for Bolsonaro in hopes of a better Brazil,” says Ary, a taxi driver in the north-eastern city of Maceió. “But it was all in vain.”

The allegations against Carlos Bolsonaro are not the first to be levelled against the president’s family. Before he took office prosecutors opened an investigation into possible embezzlement by his eldest son, Flávio, now a senator from Rio de Janeiro. Documents published by the Intercept, a news site, suggest he used public money to finance illegal construction projects run by right-wing “militias”. Now Mr Moro has accused the president himself.

Mr Bolsonaro’s survival in office depends on three factors. The first is the probe triggered by Mr Moro. Its outcome may depend on whether the president’s alleged misconduct achieves its aim. Things are not going as he might wish. The person he appointed to be the new police chief is a family friend. But on April 29th Mr Bolsonaro withdrew his nomination after a Supreme Court judge put the appointment on hold. The same judge had earlier ruled that a new chief could not change the officers leading investigations into the actions of Mr Bolsonaro’s sons.

The second arena of judgment is Congress, which can evict a president from office by a two-thirds majority of both houses. To avoid this, Mr Bolsonaro is cosying up to the centrão, a block of ideologically vacant parties. He has abandoned his earlier pledge not to give legislators benefits, such as government jobs for their allies, in exchange for political support. Impeachment “is not in Congress’s interest”, says Ricardo Barros, a federal deputy from the Progressives party, part of the centrão.


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