Bolsonaro's tough 2021 balance between ideology, pragmatism

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FILE - in this July 24, 2020 file photo, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who is infected with COVID-19, wears a protective face mask as he talks with supporters during a Brazilian flag retreat ceremony outside his official residence the Alvorada Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil. The South American nation proud of its role as a regional leader in science, technology and medicine, finds itself falling behind its neighbors in the global race for immunization against a pandemic that has already killed nearly 200,000 of its people. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)

BRAZIL – Brazil’s pugnacious president, Jair Bolsonaro, survived 2020 in surprisingly good shape personally and politically, with buoyant popularity ratings despite his own bout of COVID-19 and a broader pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 of his countrymen.

But the new year — and a looming reelection campaign — bring risks on all sides for the populist who has fought to limit environmental protections and rein in leftist influence on government and culture while feuding even with fellow conservatives in Latin America's largest nation.

Resurgent COVID-19 has lifted Brazil’s death rate to its highest in three months, despite the president’s insistence the pandemic is petering out. His sons face corruption investigations. He has no firm block of support in congress. And he's losing his main international ally with the exit of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose off-the-cuff rhetoric and tendency to test democratic norms had emboldened the Brazilian leader.

Perhaps most damaging is the expiration with the new year of a pandemic-inspired financial aid program that has helped fend off hunger for tens of millions of poor Brazilians — among whom his popularity has been growing.

Bolsonaro may be famous for breaking the rules, but he's going to have to be more pragmatic, said Lucas de Aragão, a partner at Brasilia-based political consultancy Arko Advice. “He’s never going to be a president who plays by the book, but he has to start picking his fights.”

More pragmatism starts with choosing his enemies more carefully, de Aragão said.

During the 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro’s broadsides against the political establishment and intellectual elite resonated with disaffected voters, including many moderates. He won handily, and has since kept up his confrontational tone, hammering away at congressional leaders, federal prosecutors, governors and the Supreme Court — many of them people who potentially could help him get bills through congress or win reelection in 2022.

In the United States, Trump held to his polarizing tone and lost. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro does not have a powerful party standing behind him. As a matter of fact, since leaving the Social Liberal Party a year ago, he does not have a party at all — and is now trying to cobble together a working majority in congress, where a Feb. 1 leadership vote could determine the fate of his legislative ambitions.

Bolsonaro has shown some signs of reaching out. After months of demonizing the Supreme Court as biased against him, he was photographed in October hugging Supreme Court Justice Dias Toffoli at an informal meeting in Toffoli's house.

The reaction illustrated his dilemma. Many of his firmest supporters turned to social media to express their surprise, if not bewilderment.

“I need to govern,” Bolsonaro said in response to concerns raised by a supporter on his official Facebook account.

Last month’s municipal elections alarmed the Presidential Palace. Only five of the 16 mayoral candidates who Bolsonaro publicly backed won — none of them in the country’s biggest cities. Three senior government officials told The Associated Press that the results took Bolsonaro by surprise. “He did not expect to have so little influence,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to comment publicly.

Recent polls say Bolsonaro is roughly as popular as when he was elected. But his ratings have declined among richer and better educated Brazilians while increasing among the poor, who have been receiving the government’s pandemic financial aid.

The end of that aid is likely to dent the president’s popularity, said Arko’s de Aragão.

It is the only income for more than a third of those who received it, according to a December study by Brazilian polling institute Datafolha. As many as 70 million Brazilians ended up getting financial support during the health crisis, costing the government a hefty $61 billion at a time when economists are warning of an unsustainable deficit and rising inflation.

The cutoff could leave 24 million of them in extreme poverty, International Monetary Fund Director Kristalina Georgieva warned in December.

With no firm congressional bloc of his own, Bolsonaro has been courting a group of centrist lawmakers known as the Centrao in hopes of winning leadership in the lower house of congress.

Such efforts might not be enough to assure a majority, and if their candidate, Arthur Lira, loses, Bolsonaro will struggle to achieve promised legislation, such as the loosening of gun laws or opening up the Amazon rainforest to development.

The group’s support did not come for free and Bolsonaro faces pressure to grant its members some ministerial positions –– the sort of political horse trading he had promised his supporters that he would never do.

For many Bolsonaro voters, the Centrao bloc represents the kind of corrupt politics the president tried to distance himself from during the campaign.

But any signs of conciliation seem to be overshadowed by Bolsonaro’s hardline stands against pandemic restrictions on gatherings and his skepticism over vaccines.

Bolsonaro, who recovered from a bout of COVID-19, has said he will not take any of the vaccines, and has actively undermined confidence in the Chinese-made CoronaVac shot backed by Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria, who is widely expected to run against Bolsonaro in 2022.

Prominent health experts and opposition lawmakers have accused the government of dragging its feet on a national immunization program. It only presented a plan in mid-December when forced to by the Supreme Court.

With no approved vaccine ready for delivery, Latin America’s largest nation is running behind other Latin American countries.

Oliver Stuenkel, a political scientist who teaches at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, said the president still relies heavily on polarization.

“He continues as a radical ... This is something that is deeply embedded in his political DNA: to polarize, divide and not govern,” Stuenkel said.

Pereira echoed that view: “He needs to moderate to govern, but he needs to polarize to win elections. This is the contradiction of the Bolsonaro government."


Associated Press writer Diane Jeantet reported this story from Rio de Janeiro and AP journalist Débora Álvares reported in Brasilia.