Following an explosive set of allegations, the probe has in recent days gone from a meditative exploration of Brazil’s failure to stop the coronavirus to a mounting threat to the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. Protests are growing in the streets. Bolsonaro is facing a criminal investigation. Some have questioned not only whether he can win next year’s presidential election — but whether he’ll still be president by the time it arrives.
At the center of the political drama is a classic corruption scandal. There are allegations of kickbacks, financial irregularities and an overarching question: What did the president know, and what did he do about it?
The Brazilian government, after stalling several vaccine purchases to haggle and fret over costs, made a harried deal this year to buy an unapproved Indian vaccine at a suspiciously expensive price. Documents submitted to congressional investigators showed Brazil paid more than 10 times the price that was originally quoted by Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech for its vaccine, Covaxin. The deal was suspended last week.
The contrast between how government officials approached the Covaxin deal with how slowly they acquired other vaccines sparked corruption concerns inside the health ministry — concerns that Bolsonaro is accused of ignoring after he was allegedly informed.
On Friday, the Brazilian supreme court took the extraordinary step of authorizing a criminal investigation into Bolsonaro. Congressional investigators say there’s no evidence to suggest Bolsonaro informed relevant authorities of the suspected malfeasance, which in Brazil could constitute a crime of dereliction by a public servant.
“This isn’t a suspicion,” Omar Aziz, a federal senator and leader of the inquiry, told the Brazilian newspaper Globo. “This is a fact. [Bolsonaro] hasn’t disproven this. He didn’t send anything to the police. … For any public servant, this would be a dereliction.”
Bolsonaro, who still retains enough political support to fend off calls for his impeachment, has tried several tactics to distance himself from the scandal. He has denied any misconduct — both in the purchase of Covaxin and in his own behavior. “I’m incorruptible.” Then he claimed ignorance. “I didn’t even know how the Covaxin deal was going.” Finally, he has worked to undermine the probe itself: “an embarrassment.”
The accelerating momentum of the probe has brought the right-wing nationalist into the most vulnerable chapter of his presidency and injected an extraordinary degree of political uncertainty into a deeply polarized country reeling from record unemployment, a widening hunger crisis and the coronavirus deaths of more than a half-million people.
In recent weeks, large protests — some in favor of Bolsonaro, others opposing him — have traded off. Dozens of lawmakers last week filed what they call a “super-request” for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, combining more than 100 impeachment requests already filed against him. The president’s approval rating has cratered into the 20s. Some political analysts think it could go even lower.
“The problem has begun,” said Matias Spektor, an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo. “If this spins out of control, this could be big, big trouble for Bolsonaro.”
From the beginning of his presidential bid, Bolsonaro had positioned himself as political outsider — the only one unmarred by the frequent corruption scandals that have disillusioned millions of Brazilians, frayed social trust and contributed to diminishing faith in democracy. Bolsonaro made combating corruption central to his campaign. Then he named as his justice minister: Sergio Moro, the judge who had presided over the sprawling Latin American corruption probe known as Lava Jato. He even declared last year that his government had been scrubbed free of malfeasance.
The belief that Bolsonaro wasn’t corrupt has been central to his political survival. Even as the virus ravaged Brazil, and an increasing number of Brazilians started to blame him for doing little to stop it, he retained his core group of supporters. At least he was honest, many said.
“You can call him dumb, a bad administrator, but you cannot call him a thief,” Olavo de Carvalho, a prominent right-wing political philosopher whose base overlaps with Bolsonaro, said last year.
Allegations he looked the other way on alleged corruption could undercut one of the few areas of strength he has left, political observers said, and could erode his popularity among his base.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Creomar de Souza, a political analyst in Brasília and the founder of the political consultant firm Dharma Politics. “If all of this is confirmed, he will have a major problem, because he would lose the streets. And if Bolsonaro, someone already in a weakened political position, loses the streets, he will be even more hobbled.”
Bruno Brandão, the executive director of Transparency International in Brazil, said several past scandals during the Bolsonaro presidency did little to chip away at his support among anti-corruption hawks. But this one could be different.
“The dirtiness of corruption in the middle of a humanitarian tragedy is something more shocking and much closer to people’s real suffering,” he said. “Maybe indignation will finally overtake indifference.”