BRASILIA (Reuters) – Facing a criminal investigation that could oust him from office, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is courting political power brokers he once decried as corrupt in a bid to survive a crisis worsened by his handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
The dramatic resignation last month of Bolsonaro’s star justice minister, who accused the far-right leader of seeking to meddle in police enquiries, prompted an investigation authorized by the Supreme Court, which may test the president’s threadbare coalition.
Bolsonaro’s persistent attempts to play down the coronavirus epidemic in Brazil – which now has the worst outbreak of any developing nation – have hurt his popularity with voters and turned former political allies against him.
This week, Brazil’s top prosecutor is questioning ministers about Bolsonaro’s shake-up of the federal police. With two of Bolsonaro’s sons facing criminal and congressional probes, critics accuse him of seeking to protect his family by putting allies in charge of federal police in Brasilia and his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro has called the accusations untrue and said his family is being persecuted.
If the Supreme Court and two thirds of the lower house of Congress see merit to the possible charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, Bolsonaro would be suspended from office and stand trial before the top court.
With that probe looming and calls for impeachment growing louder among opponents, Bolsonaro has begun handing out government positions to a cluster of center-right parties dubbed the “Centrao,” or “Big Center,” hoping to erect a firewall against any push to remove him, two Centrao lawmakers and around a dozen aides told Reuters this week.
However, those parties appear divided internally, making it harder for Bolsonaro to stitch together a coalition on the fly. And in his attempt, he has jettisoned a core campaign promise to put an end to political dealmaking.
Even if he succeeds, new allies could still abandon the president en masse, as they did with former President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil’s last impeachment proceedings four years ago, political analysts said.
Bolsonaro’s predicament shows how the pandemic wrecking Brazil’s economy has also left its politics in disarray, forcing the president to rely on right-wing activists in the streets, military officers in his cabinet, and former foes in Congress.
“Bolsonaro has been really weakened,” said Marcelo Ramos of the Liberal Party (PL), one of the biggest in the centrist bloc. “He has turned to the Centrao to shield himself from any impeachment procedures or parliamentary inquiries that may come.”
As chairman of a congressional pension reform committee, Ramos helped deliver Bolsonaro’s main legislative win last year, an overhaul of Brazil’s retirement system. He said his party has been offered government jobs with control over substantial budgets in exchange for its support, but he said he was against such a move because he wanted to maintain his independence.
Ramos said the government was shopping around appointments in the Ministry of Health, the national health foundation Funasa, educational development fund FNDE, and the Bank of the Northeast, a regional state lender.
Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
PROMISES OF CLEANUP
Brazil’s political system is highly fragmented, with 22 parties holding seats in Congress. To govern, presidents have often built coalitions through constant horse trading, which has created fertile ground for corruption.
For decades, centrist parties aligned themselves with the government of the day in return for patronage jobs and pork barrel funds. Their support was key in blocking charges of corruption and obstruction of justice against former President Michel Temer in 2017.
Yet Bolsonaro – who denied taking part in such schemes during his three decades as a lawmaker – declared a clean break with those transactional politics when he was elected in 2018.
Indeed, his pledge to end the pay-to-play politics that he blamed on leftist former presidents, including Rousseff, was a key factor in sweeping him to office on a wave of anti-graft fervor.
Rousseff was removed from office in 2016 for mishandling the budget as her party was hammered with charges of bribery and money laundering in the sweeping Car Wash scandal.
As Brazil’s economy plunged into a deep 2015-16 recession and the public soured on Rousseff, several Centrao parties abandoned her government just before the vote to impeach her.
Bolsonaro should keep that betrayal in mind as he reaches out to the same parties, said Creomar de Souza, head of the Dharma Politics consultancy in Brasilia.
“There is no certainty the president’s new allies will be loyal enough to hold his hand through impeachment proceedings if things get serious,” the analyst said. “What price will he have to pay and how will he explain that to his supporters?”
To lure the Centrao into the government, Bolsonaro has no choice but to engage in the kind of political practices that he campaigned against less than two years ago, de Souza said.
Lawmaker Fabio Trad, a former ally in the centrist Social Democratic Party (PSD), has criticized Bolsonaro’s efforts to win over the centrist parties.
“Bolsonaro was elected to clean up the system, and to our surprise, he is now dealing with parties whose leaders have been caught in corruption investigations,” he said.
On Wednesday a lawmaker from the Avante party, which is part of the Centrao, was named to head the government’s drought-fighting department. Party insiders said the appointment was arranged by Arthur Lira, a Centrao power broker facing trial in the Car Wash investigation for his alleged role in a kickback scheme.
Lira, who has denied committing any crime and is seeking to become the next speaker of the lower house of Congress, declined to comment.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello; Editing by Brad Haynes and Rosalba O’Brien)