Brazil: Recent Political Developments – Pressure Continues To Build Against Bolsonaro


Brazil: Recent Political Developments – Pressure Continues To Build Against Bolsonaro

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Legal and political pressure is building on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing increasing calls for his impeachment by the Congress or indictment by the courts. Several formal petitions and procedures have already been initiated. Although the president can still count on the active support of his core constituency (accounting for around 30% of Brazilians), and it seems that many of the larger political parties in the Congress remain reluctant to instigate impeachment proceedings, the proportion of Brazilians who disapprove of his presidency has risen steadily and is now over 50% and the formal requests for his impeachment are multiplying.

The resignation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro last month, in part at least on the basis that the president intervened in the management of the Federal Police in order to protect his children from legal and judicial investigations, has been a particularly damaging development for the president. After dismissing the director-general of the Federal Police, Bolsonaro then attempted to appoint a close family friend as director-general, a measure which the Supreme Federal Tribunal has provisionally suspended. Moro’s allegations have resulted in the opening of a judicial investigation against the president. The magistrate with primary responsibility for the case, Celso de Mello, must also determine the validity of a request that the Chamber of Deputies begin an impeachment proceeding against the president.

The magistrate has also ordered the release of a video of a Cabinet meeting in which Bolsonaro describes his reasons and objectives for intervening in the functions and management of the Federal Police. The BBC reported that:

“The released footage also shows environment minister Ricardo Salles calling on the government to push through further deregulation of environmental policy while people are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic. “We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about Covid, and push through and change all the rules and simplify norms,” Salles says in the video.

Deforestation hit an 11-year high last year and has increased 55% in the first four months of the year, compared with a year ago, with environmental groups blaming Bolsonaro’s policies…”

One of the central grounds for petitions for impeachment proceedings in the National Congress is Bolsonaro’s reckless statements and actions in response to the Coronavirus. Two Health Ministers have resigned or been dismissed in quick succession, and it appears that a core nucleus of ministers – all of whom previously held positions in the highest echelons of the armed forces – have assumed control over coordinating measures to counter the spread of the virus and treat those affected.. (For more details CLICK HERE)

As the number of casualties from the virus climbs and the bitter political disputes between current and former colleagues and allies of the Bolsonaro administration show no sign of diminishing, key groups and factions within the Establishment – the traditional and more recently empowered political parties, the mass media, rich and powerful financial, industrial and agribusiness conglomerates and dynasties, bureaucrats, legal and judicial institutions and personalities, ‘foreign investors’, and last but not least the leadership of the military and police forces – are revising their political calculations daily, if not by the hour. Should they support Bolsonaro, contain or neutralize him and limit the damage he can do but not remove him from office, or seek his removal from office once and for all, in which case the Vice President, former general Hamilton Mourão, would assume the presidency.

There have been several public declarations by influential Establishment figures calling respectively for Bolsonaro to rectify the course of his administration or face removal from the presidency, or calling for the immediate commencement of impeachment proceedings.

Given Brazil’s growing reputation as a ‘pariah State’, two weeks ago a group of ‘eminent former Statesman’ issued a public statement calling on the Brazilian government to return to national policies and international relations based on reason, rationality and compliance with the fundamental requirements of the Brazilian Constitution and international law. The signatories are Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of the Republic and former Minister of Foreign Affairs; Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, Celso Amorim, Celso Lafer, Francisco Rezek and José Serra, former Ministers of Foreign Affairs; Rubens Ricupero former minister of finance, the environment, and former Brazilian ambassador to Washington; and Hussein Kalout, former special secretary for strategic affairs for the Presidency.

The public statement calls for the reconstruction of Brazilian foreign policy in the wake of the devastation being caused by the Coronavirus and the actions and declarations of the Bolsonaro government:

“To salvage Brazil’s foreign policy we must return to compliance with constitutional principles, rationality, pragmatism, a sense of balance, moderation, and constructive realism. In this reconstruction, it is imperative that the Judicial Power, guardian of the Constitution, and the National Congress, representative of the will of the people, fulfill their roles in ensuring the constitutionality of diplomatic actions.

To respond to the wishes of our people and the real needs of Brazil, foreign policy must have broad support in public opinion and participation in its elaboration by all sectors of society. It also requires the commitment of our diplomatic corps: to a State policy and not to factional ploys which are aimed at exacerbating and exploiting the prejudices of a reactionary minority. We offer our decisive support and solidarity to our diplomats who have been humiliated and constrained by positions that clash with the best traditions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…” (“Brasil. Coronavirus: La reconstrucción de la política exterior brasileña”, republished  in Spanish in Resumen Latinoamericano, 8 May 2020).

Over the last couple of days a large number of groups and prominent individuals have added their voice to the demands for an impeachment. Among the calls is a manifesto signed by former ministers of State and other members of civil society organized by the Arns Commission, a group that debates the guidelines related to human rights released in 2019. In the letter, published on Monday 18 May, the former ministers affirm:

“Jair Bolsonaro has lost all the conditions for the legitimate exercise of the Presidency of the Republic, due to his incapacity, authoritarian vocation and the threat he represents to democracy. When restlessness, insecurity, and misinformation are sown and, above all, he puts the lives of Brazilians at risk, his dismissal is necessary…”

The document is signed by José Carlos Dias, President of the Arns Commission for the Defence of Human Rights and former Minister of Justice (Fernando Henrique Cardosa government), Claudia Costin, former Minister of Administration and Reform (FHC government), José Gregori, former Minister of Justice (FHC government), Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, former Minister of Finance (José Sarney government), Minister of Administration and State Reform and Minister of Science and Technology (FHC government), Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, former minister of the Secretary of State of Human Rights (FHC government), and Paulo Vannuchi, former Minister of Human Rights (Lula government).

The request for Bolsonaro’s impeachment accompanies at least 26 other requests filed with the National Congress calling for the dismissal of the president. Among the arguments are the most recent allegations of interference with the Federal Police, the closing of Congress, and contempt for the isolation measures to contain the spread of covid-19.

On Thursday the 21st of May more than 400 civil society organizations delivered a collective request for impeachment against President Jair Bolsonaro to the president of the Chamber of Deputies. The alleged grounds for impeachment cited include speeches against the Federal Supreme Court (STF) and the call for employers to attack governors imposing quarantine measures, actions that pose a grave risk to public health, and support for a paramilitary group established in Praça dos Três Poderes, in Brasilia.

Rodrigo Maia – the president of the Chamber of Deputies, must decide whether to initiate the impeachment proceeding in the Congress. If he does decide to open impeachment proceedings, a commission formed by the Chamber of Deputies must then decide whether there are sufficient grounds to proceed with the action. In this case the accused has 20 days to defend himself. If the action is continued, the Deputies must approve the request by qualified majority: two thirds of the Chamber.

If the accusation is for a common crime, the final decision will fall on the Federal Supreme Court (STF). If it is a crime involves misconduct, the final decision is up to the Senate. During this phase, the President is removed from office for 180 days and the Vice President assumes the president’s functions on a provisional basis. If acquitted, he automatically returns to office; if found guilty, he is dismissed immediately

So far, however, Rodrigo Maia has resisted the requests. In a parallel proceeding, the Minister of the Supreme Court, Celso de Mello, has already notified Rodrigo Maia directing him to respond to one of the requests for trial presented. In response, Maia declared that Bolsonaro’s deposition would be an “extreme measure” that would paralyse other congressional functions and activities:

“The accusation is an extreme solution: the first judge of elected officials in a democracy must always be the popular vote. When evaluating the complaints against the head of the Executive Branch, the Presidency of the Chamber of Deputies must carefully weigh the legal and political-institutional aspects involved.”

Most of the largest parties in the Congress appear undecided and possibly reluctant to support the move at this stage, including the two traditional centre-right parties (Brazilian Social Democratic Party – PDSB, Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement – PDMB), as well as other centrist parties which have increased their representation  such as the Progressives and the Liberal party. If these parties decide not to support impeachment, or even strike a deal to guarantee support in the Congress, the proceeding is very unlikely to succeed.

Meanwhile, Bolsanaro’s supporters have defended his governance and in turn accused his critics of engineering panic, sensationalism and manipulating the situation with respect to the Coronavirus by making false statements for political purposes. Some, including member of the Chamber of Deputies of the National Congress, Bia Kicis (of the Social Liberal Party), have called for the military to intervene if Bolsanaro is removed from the presidency. Kicis declared before the chamber: “These usurpations must be stopped so that intervention (by the Armed Forces) does not become the last remaining constitutional remedy” to the efforts to initiate impeachment proceedings or a judicial investigation against Bolsonaro.

Article 142 of the Federal Constitution stipulates that the Navy, Army and Air Force of the Armed Forces are permanent national institutions, “under the supreme authority of the President, and intended to defend the nation, guarantee the constitutional branches of government and, on the initiative of any of these branches, law and order.” It seems an open question what could happen in the event of contradictory orders from the respective branches.