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Cocaine, leaks and opposition: Brazil’s Bolsonaro challenged by scandal, defeats

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrives at Kansai airport in Izumisano, Japan, on Thursday.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrives at Kansai airport in Izumisano, Japan, on Thursday. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

SAO PAULO — Another week in Brazil, another scandal consuming the young presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.

This time, it was the cocaine. An officer of the Brazilian Air Force, traveling on a government plane to the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, was arrested and charged with drug trafficking in Spain on Wednesday after police discovered nearly 80 pounds of cocaine during a layover in Seville.

Last week, it was Sérgio Moro, Bolsonaro’s justice minister, fending off calls to resign after alleged leaks suggested that he had collaborated with federal prosecutors when he was a judge to put former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in prison. Moro says he did nothing wrong.

When Bolsonaro campaigned for office last year, he mixed promises to crack down on rampant violent crime, clean up corruption, and open more regions to development with appeals to homophobia and open admiration for the former military dictatorship. After he won, concern abounded in Brazil and beyond that he would transform Latin America’s largest country into a nation of autocracy and environmental degradation.

But rather than consolidating power, in his first six months the right-wing leader has at times appeared overwhelmed by it, exposing the executive inexperience of a man who quickly catapulted from the fringes of Brazilian political life to its center.

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Almost from the start, his administration has been hobbled by infighting, self-inflicted wounds and an inability to break the country’s political gridlock. The judicial and legislative branches have checked his power. His son Flavio, a senator, has been caught up in a corruption investigation (he has denied any wrongdoing). His political support is cratering. And even efforts that everyone agrees need to get done — including shoring up the country’s social security system — have eluded him.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has a habit of making controversial claims. Recently, he said there’s “no doubt” Nazism was a leftist movement. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Now, as he bounces from one scandal to the next, analysts and even some supporters are questioning whether he has the political acumen necessary to carry out the broad mandate he won in a landslide in October.

“It’s a messy government,” said Bruno Carazza, a professor at the Instituto Brasileiro de Mercado de Capitais in Belo Horizonte. “When he was elected, there was this widespread fear here about his intentions. . . . But he is losing support due to the scandals and due to the inefficient government.”

Bolsonaro frequently touts his administration. “Together, we are changing Brazil!” he tweeted this month, posting a picture of himself giving a thumbs-up in front of a Brazilian flag. He promised an “immediate investigation and severe punishment for the person responsible” for the cocaine found on the plane in Seville.

But after winning nearly 56 percent of the presidential vote in October, his support has plummeted. Polls now show that more Brazilians disapprove of his performance than approve.

“He’s pretty isolated,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And his team is ineffective. They have brilliant economists and other cabinet officials, but no good politicians. When you have 30-plus political parties, you need to wrangle something. And I don’t think he has any astute political wrangler on his team.”

O’Neil said Bolsonaro’s struggles may not be indicative of his own apparent weaknesses, but rather Brazil’s strengths. When he was elected, some asked whether the country’s institutions were strong enough to constrain a leader with authoritarian tendencies. But then the supreme court allowed the corruption investigation to proceed against his son, and strengthened legal protections for the LGBT people he frequently criticizes. And this month, the Senate rejected a decree Bolsonaro signed that loosened gun restrictions.

“Is Brazil’s democracy strong enough that nobody can transform it?” O’Neil asked. “That’s what democracy looks like. It’s ugly and messy and incremental.”

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Bolsonaro’s core supporters remain fervent. Thousands clogged the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in displays of support last month, and more such events are planned for this weekend.

“He is realizing his actions in accordance and expectation of the people,” said Maginot M. de Freitas Jr., founder of União Direita, which organizes demonstrations for the president. “For those who follow Bolsonaro, it’s visible how much he’s trying to bring the best to Brazil, and how much he has to fight for that to be able to happen.”

Some analysts caution against confusing Bolsonaro’s lack of legislative victories with the amount of power he wields. Despite few concrete successes, he has nonetheless taken steps to loosen regulations and advance development, built closer ties with the Trump administration and seen the homicide rate fall steeply. A poll released Thursday by the Confederação Nacional da Indústria found that he has the most public support on his handling of public security.

“It would be incorrect to portray Bolsonaro as a weak president who will fail to implement his agenda,” said Matias Spektor, an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Sao Paulo. His public statements and behavior, Spektor said, have broadened what is considered appropriate dialogue, priming voters to support positions and initiatives that they wouldn’t have considered a short time ago.

“Autocracy is not only a result of legislative change,” he said. “It’s also to do with the cultural milieu and environment. And Brazil is now a place that is very different from what it was two years ago. It remains to be seen what the future will be.”

That future will to a large degree be dictated by the economy, analysts agree. The top issues that Brazilians voted on in 2018 were corruption and the economy, polls show, and Brazil is again flirting with recession. During the first quarter of this year, Latin America’s largest economy shrank for the first time since 2016, and the central bank this week reduced growth projections for gross domestic product by more than half, from 2 percent to 0.8 percent.

If economic malaise persists into the coming decade, Bolsonaro’s support could tumble more, further endangering his agenda. Approval of his handling of the economy plunged from 86 percent in January to 14 percent in May, according to a recent poll by Análise Política.

“It’s the economy, stupid,” Spektor said. “People vote with their pocketbooks, and a lot of it will depend on that.”

Marina Lopes contributed to this report.

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