Bolsonaro’s Disapproval Grows While Legal Challenges Mount

According to a poll taken in early May, while President Jair Bolsonaro’s approval rating remains above 30%, his disapproval rating climbed from 31% in January to 43.4%. The notable increase comes as Brazil’s coronavirus deaths have topped 12,000 after the president’s initial downplaying of the pandemic and his dismissal of Health Minister Luiz Mandetta, and following the resignation of Sergio Moro, the popular justice minister. Bolsonaro and his advisors have tried to regain influence in Congress, while the Supreme Court considers legal challenges that could impact the president’s political future and governability of the country.

On 11 May, Bolsonaro signed an executive order to reopen gyms and hair salons throughout the country. The order was drafted without the participation of new Health Minister Nelson Teich, who was caught off guard during a press conference when asked whether he was aware of the decree. He later explained that the issue was under the domain of the Economy Ministry, but the episode demonstrates the lack of interagency coordination within the administration.

The order was firmly rejected by state governors across the political spectrum, including Joao Doria (PSDB) from hard-hit Sao Paulo, Rui Costa (PT) from Bahia, Flavio Dino (PCdoB) from Maranhao, Helder Barbalho (MDB) from Para, and Camilo Santana (PT) from Ceara. The governors announced they would not comply with the order, maintaining closures of non-essential services. The president’s former ally Ronaldo Caiado (DEM) announced stricter quarantine rules, ratcheting up his opposition. Bolsonaro protested that the governors are advancing authoritarian measures and undermining the rule of law.

Bahia governor Rui Costa, an outspoken critic of Bolsonaro and prominent leader of the northeast region, rebuked the president’s order, reiterating that his administration would ignore it, maintain strict quarantine measures in accordance with the guidance of public health experts and work to save lives. The faceoff between Bolsonaro and Costa highlights the lack of coordination between the federal and state governments. It also signals the opposition’s escalating attacks on the president as he seeks to rebuild his congressional coalition and defends his conduct in court.

In fact, the Supreme Court is considering challenges to the president’s authority. Justice Celso de Mello will examine video of a cabinet meeting held at the presidential palace to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists over interference in Federal Police investigations. The president allegedly attempted to sack then Federal Police head Mauricio Valeixo and replace him with an ally to disrupt ongoing investigations of his sons Eduardo Bolsonaro, Rio de Janeiro senator, and Carlos, Rio de Janeiro city councilor. After former Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s allegations that the president sought to interfere in Federal Political investigations, de Mello also ordered the president’s advisors – Walter Braga Netto, Luiz Ramos and Augusto Heleno – to be deposed by the Federal Police on the matter.

The case poses the most significant threat to Bolsonaro, but it has also triggered protests organized by his supporters against the Supreme Court. Justice Alexandre de Moraes is currently examining evidence of the administration’s involvement in the organization of rallies that have called for the return to military rule and the closing of the Supreme Court. His examination covers the alleged participation of the president’s advisors, including his son Carlos, and congressional allies.

Then, on 12 May, Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lewandowski assumed responsibility to determine whether Bolsonaro has a constitutional right to prevent the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper’s publication of his COVID-19 tests. An appellate court found recently that the president had a right to privacy after a lower district court ruled in favor of publication. Bolsonaro, who enthusiastically shows off his September 2018 stab wound on television, remarked that he tested negative for the virus but refuses to publicize his results. If the Supreme Court forces the president to disclose the test results and they indicate a positive result, then it could set off another crisis in Brasilia given the president’s reluctance to adhere to measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Rising disapproval of Bolsonaro, growing political opposition to his government and the Supreme Court’s deliberations over his conduct tests the country’s governability as the coronavirus outbreak peaks in the coming weeks. So far, the crisis has not paralyzed regulatory activities for oil and gas. But if the Supreme Court rules against the president on matters now under consideration, those could be affected amid a larger impact on the federal government.