Jair Bolsonaro’s faults go well beyond the pandemic

Brazil’s far-right leader will be remembered for bungling the economy too

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, faces an uphill struggle for re-election next October © Andressa Anholete/Getty

Few sitting presidents face as many legal woes as Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro. A Senate committee recommended last week that prosecutors charge him with nine offences, including crimes against humanity, for mishandling the pandemic.

More than 600,000 Brazilians have died of Covid-19 and the president has made it easy to blame him for the magnitude of the toll. His attempts to play down the pandemic as “a little flu”, his prevarication over vaccinations, his vehement opposition to lockdowns and his dogged promotion of dubious remedies have provided ample evidence for critics.

Bolsonaro has dismissed the congressional coronavirus inquiry as a “joke” but the damage to his reputation has already been done. Six months of testimony about the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, much of it broadcast live, have pushed his approval ratings down to the low 20s.

This is only the start of the Brazilian leader’s problems ahead of what promises to be an uphill struggle for re-election next October. The close Trump ally is also the subject of more than 100 impeachment requests in Brazil’s congress. The Supreme Court is investigating claims that he and his politician sons deliberately spread fake news. Environmental activists want the International Criminal Court to investigate him for crimes against humanity over his alleged role in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Regardless of their merits, few of these cases are likely to prosper. The man responsible for deciding whether to charge Bolsonaro over mishandling the pandemic is Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras, an appointee of the president. Another ally, lower house president Arthur Lira, is conveniently sitting on all the impeachment requests. For its part, the Supreme Court is reluctant to provoke a constitutional crisis by putting a sitting president on trial.

Yet the most potent threat to Bolsonaro’s re-election hopes may well turn out to be economic, rather than legal. Brazilian markets tumbled last week on fears that his plans to hand out fresh $70 monthly subsidies to poorer voters would strain the country’s already rickety finances.

Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, once a guru of fiscal orthodoxy, has been persuaded to free up an extra $14bn next year to help fund the pre-election spending spree. Four of his team resigned over the decision; Guedes may come to wish he had listened to them more closely. The government’s fiscal indiscipline and the spectre of double-digit inflation have already prompted the independent central bank to jack up interest rates by 5.75 percentage points since March, making it the world’s most hawkish.

As a result, Brazil’s initially rapid economic recovery from the pandemic is faltering; some forecasters are predicting growth will turn negative next year. The stock market is having its worst run since 2014, the real has weakened and the country’s risk premium has risen.

Bolsonaro won election in large part because Brazilians believed that he would prove a better steward of the economy than the left, whose 13 years in power ended in a severe economic crisis. Some voters were prepared to overlook his homophobia, his obsession with guns and generals and his dismal environmental credentials in the hope he would bring prosperity.

Instead, as he enters the last year of his term, Bolsonaro has proved incapable of managing either the economy or the pandemic and Latin America’s biggest nation is paying a high price. For Brazil, the 2022 elections cannot come quickly enough.

Opinion Financial Times View

Publicado originalmente em Financial Times

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