Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Photo: Marcelo Chello/Shutterstock

Bolsonaro is scrambling on shaky ground

After a major cabinet reshuffle, President Jair Bolsonaro should manage to find some political stability. However, it will come at a price

After carrying out the broadest cabinet reshuffle of his presidential term, Jair Bolsonaro is scrambling for his political survival and to preserve agency over his own administration. The result of Bolsonaro’s Hail Mary is that Brazil has new Defense, Justice, and Foreign Affairs Ministers, a new Solicitor General, Chief of Staff, and Secretary-General, and the country will have new Armed Forces commanders. This came in response to the government’s continuous losses in popularity, amid a worsening pandemic scenario and aggravated economic conditions.

Let’s dissect what led to Bolsonaro’s Manic Monday — and where this cabinet reshuffle will take us. First, the causes:

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1. The fictitious federal budget

Last week, Congress passed a 2021 federal budget proposal which represented a scandalous attempt by lawmakers to boost their own electoral stock. They slashed expenses on social security to inflate their own allowance for budgetary grants by 200 percent. 

The justification behind this is a plan to compensate for pandemic-related economic woes by carrying out government-backed infrastructure projects. Regional Development Minister Rogério Marinho is a big advocate for this strategy, to the distaste of deficit hawk Economy Minister Paulo Guedes.

We can say Congress and the Bolsonaro administration see eye to eye on this matter.

2. Parliamentary intervention

The second aggravating factor is the attempt by House Speaker Arthur Lira and Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco to interfere with the government’s inner workings. With the growing anxieties of the Brazilian population and big business, the pair of congressional leaders were pushed into action.

They forced the coronavirus-skeptic President Bolsonaro to set up a crisis committee to tackle the pandemic, and called for the heads of three ministers: Eduardo Pazuello (Health), Ernesto Araújo (Foreign Affairs), and, sources say, Ricardo Salles (Environment).

To add insult to injury, Lira took the stand in the House and warned the president of the “bitter and fatal” political remedies Congress has at its disposal, hinting at the possibility of impeachment if President Bolsonaro fails to change course. 

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3. The military and the pandemic

On Sunday, newspaper Correio Braziliense published an interview with Army General Paulo Sérgio in which he said that the current coronavirus wave may not be Brazil’s last

He also celebrated the fact that the COVID-19 mortality rate among the Brazilian military is far lower than that of the general population (0.13 to 2.5 percent). The general suggested the success was down to the Army’s adoption of measures that were directly opposed by the president.

4. No push against governors

Bolsonaro grew wary of Solicitor General José Levi, who refused to endorse a Supreme Court lawsuit filed by the president to overturn lockdown-like measures in three Brazilian states.

On Monday evening, Levi was fired. By choosing to reboot his cabinet, President Bolsonaro is trying to reassert who is in charge of the government.

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Bolsonaro tries to grip his administration

After analyzing how we got here, allow us to interpret what Bolsonaro’s cabinet changes mean for the administration: 

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  • Defense. The acrimonious firing of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva prompted the joint exit of commanders from all three Armed Forces. In that regard, the choice of Walter Braga Netto as Defense Minister makes sense. Working as Chief of Staff for the past year, Braga Netto — a former general himself — has worked to put out fires in the administration. While military sources say there is no chance of the Armed Forces embarking on any sort of putschist fantasy, Bolsonaro still felt the need to reaffirm his role as commander-in-chief.
  • Justice. Without backing from generals, the administration now seems to be focusing on state military police forces as a source of support. One indication of this was the appointment of Federal Police officer Anderson Torres as Brazil’s new Justice Minister. He was vouched for by Alberto Fraga, a former police colonel and lawmaker in Brasília.
  • Foreign Affairs. Newcomer Carlos França is considered too inexperienced for the role of Foreign Minister, suggesting that Bolsonaro intends to retain control over the country’s foreign policy, completely aligned with his beliefs under predecessor Ernesto Araújo.
  • Secretary-General. Providing an important liaison between the Executive and Legislative branches, General Luiz Eduardo Ramos was transferred from the Secretary-General role to become Chief of Staff. Congresswoman Flávia Arruda took his place. An ally of House Speaker Arthur Lira, her appointment reinforces the power of congressional leaders.

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From all angles, Jair Bolsonaro appears to be a deflated president, looking over his own shoulder in fear. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces are seeking a way out of the administration, following the debacle that was General Eduardo Pazuello’s stint as Health Minister. 

With these wholesale changes, Bolsonaro is seeking to buy time until the worst phase of the pandemic is over. Then, he hopes, he will be able to reassert his political posture. 

Until then, the government is operating under a de facto parliamentary system, under something of an intervention from congressional leaders. While this arrangement will keep Bolsonaro in office, it quickly erodes his political power.

This article was originally published on The Brazilian Report, a website that explains Brazilian politics and economics to foreign audiences.