Calls for Impeachment Spark Populist Backlash in Brazil

Alejandro Ramirez
Staff Writer

The presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, the conservative populist who has been president of Brazil since 2016, is under challenge, as opposition protests held across the country this week are calling for his impeachment. According to MercoPress, reports indicate that his support nationwide is dwindling, with national opinion polling placing him in the 22 to 30 percent approval range, with elections being scheduled for next year. Bolsonaro’s well-known military support also seems to be fracturing, with high-ranking General and Vice President Hamilton Mourao refusing to participate in Bolsonaro’s rally in Brasilia last Thursday. 

Opposition support has historically centered around the administration’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, Al Jazeera explains. Protest turnout in support of the opposition’s calls for impeachment has faltered, however, especially considering the outpouring of support for Bolsonaro’s presidency in counter-rallies across the country this past week. Notably, presidential favorite and poll-leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s party did not participate in the impeachment protests, writes The Associated Press.

Bolsonaro’s supporters have held their own, with increasingly fervent protests that included a push towards the Brazilian Supreme Court on September 14, resulting in the teargassing of pro-government supporters trying to take their message to the court itself. Thousands of fans clogged the streets of Rio and Brasilia on Sept. 9, Brazil’s National Independence Day, in support of what they view as a last stand against left-wing tyranny. The Economist reports that attendance included over 120,000 supporters and the event featured an appearance and speech by Bolsonaro.

“I have three alternatives in the future: being arrested, getting killed or victory,” Bolsonaro said, continues the Economist, before calling for the removal of Supreme Court minister Alexandre de Moraes, one of his most vocal rivals. Moraes is spearheading an investigation into alleged spread of disinformation by Bolsonaro’s administration, following a letter published Sept. 13 by over 150 worldwide political leaders and former heads of state. The letter called Bolsonaro’s protests and the actions of his supporters an “imminent threat to Brazil’s democratic institutions,” one that they “stand vigilant to defend… ahead of 7 Sept. and after.”  

The Intercept describes that some commentators have remarked on the similarities of Bolsonaro’s rallies towards the Supreme Court to the January 6 protests at the United States Capitol, citing the similarity between the Bolsonaro’s and Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric in the days leading up to each event. Bolsonaro’s platform of halting the censorship of free speech and freeing so-called political prisoners mirrors the rhetoric of populist leaders such as Mario Salvini of Italy’s Five Star League and the former Trump presidency, the Intercept continues. The Bolsonaro administration’s strategy seems to hinge on learning from the perceived mistakes of populist gold-standard Donald Trump. Bolsonaro has successfully coalesced his voter base, including truckers and other vital sectors of the economy, into ardent supporters who act on his word. A truck driver’s strike successfully rose the price of livestock feed to critical levels on Bolsonaro’s order, before eventually standing down, reports Reuters.

Bolsonaro continues to cast opposition protesters as pawns of left-leaning and establishment political parties, vying for a regime change and the re-instatement of former president Da Silva. Inciting ever more enraptured cheers by his supporters, his increasingly haranguing speeches are being monitored closely by opposition leaders. The New York Times reports that these opposition leaders fear his provocation of doubt about Brazilian electoral integrity could create a tenuous situation if Bolsonaro contests a loss in the 2022 elections as illegitimate.

Calls for impeachment are still on the table, however. The Associated Press reports that over 130 requests for impeachment have been filed since Bolsonaro assumed the office. However, the likely opposition strategy hinges on a push for winning the 2022 elections, instead of risking an unsuccessful impeachment attempt.

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