by Fábio Grotz
A continuous state of war driven by the government is what drives the speech and activities of actors engaged in the redemptive mission to “transform and purify” Brazil. The electorate, however (with exception of the faithful nucleus of supporters of the current president), seems increasingly to not believe in this revolution that intends to lead the country to “glory and salvation”. The enthusiasm that usually marks the beginning of any government has significantly weakened since January, according to a series of public opinion polls. Datafolha, one of the main public opinion polling institutes, showed in April that JMB has the worst popularity ratings for the first three months of the first-term president since the first direct post-redemocratization election of 1989. According to the survey, 30 percent of the population considers the government bad or very bad, a score that is very close to those who evaluate it as good/very good (32 percent) or average (33 percent). A survey by Ibope has also measured the support meltdown: between January and March, government approval fell from 49 percent who assessed it as good/very good to 31 percent. Meanwhile, confidence in the president fell from 55 percent to 49 percent.
By any measure, the mood concerning Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) predecessor governments was considerably rosier. At the beginning of 2003, Lula was approved by 43 percent of the population, being poorly evaluated by only 10 percent. Dilma Rousseff enjoyed even greater prestige, with 47 percent approval and only 7 percent disapproval in early 2011. Compared to the governments of the 1990s, JMB also loses to Fernando Collor, who was considered good/very good by 36 percent of the population and bad/very bad by 19 percent. In 1995, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was rejected by 16 percent of Brazilians, while 39 percent considered his government to be good/very good.
When analyzed piece by piece, Datafolha’s data tells us the government is most poorly evaluated by Brazil’s low-income population and by women. Among people earning up to 2 minimum wages per month, only 26 percent rated management as good/very good, and this was before the unpopular announcement that the real minimum wage policy begun in the 1990s would be discontinued.
By contrast, as the income goes up, JMB administration improves in terms of its assessment. 43 percent of those who earn between 5 and 10 monthly minimum wages and 47 percent among those with an income of more than 10 minimum wages approved of the new president. This has been interpreted by Angela Alonso as a sign that Brazil’s economic elites still identify with the ultraliberal plans pursued by the government. In this sense, it is significant that the results of a survey conducted by XP/IPESPE consultancy at the end of May among financial market agents showed a continuous decline in their evaluation of the government, with the percentage of those reporting it good and very good falling from 86 percent in January to 28 percent in April and to 14 percent in May. Meanwhile, bad and very bad evaluations rose from 1 percent in January to 43 percent in May.
As far as sex/gender is concerned, approval rates are higher among men, with 38 percent considering the government to be good or very good, 33 percent average and 26 percent very poor. Among women, 33 percent disapprove the administration, 34 percent consider it to be average and 28 percent consider it optimal. With regards to race and religion, according to the Ibope survey, the JMB government saw its popularity fall among black and brown Brazilians from 45 percent in January to 30 percent in March, while those who appraised it as poor rose from 11 percent to 24 percent. Among whites, the positive rating remains high, although it has plummeted from 55 to 42 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, 24 percent of whites see government bad as opposed to 10 percent in January.
Among the Catholic electorate, the percentage of those who consider the government optimal has shrunk from 49 percent in January to 33 percent in March, while those who rate it as bad have jumped from 26 to 36 percent. Among people who declare themselves Evangelicals, JMB’s popularity continues to stand firm, with a 41 percent rating of good/very good. This has dropped 14 points since January however and, consistent with this fall, 18 percent of this group evaluates the government negatively today as opposed to only 6 percent in January. In the case of other religions, positive evaluations fell from 36 to 29 percent and negative evaluations rose from 20 to 35 percent.
Datafolha also evaluated the population’s perception of the government’s priority proposals: the pension reform, the anticrime package elaborated by Minister of Justice and Public Security Sérgio Moro, the decree that extends access to the possession of firearms, and the population’s view of the legislation currently in force regarding abortion. In relation to pension reform, the country is divided. A small majority rejects the project (51 percent), 41 percent favor it, 2 percent say they are indifferent and 7 percent did not respond, according to another Datafolha poll.
Divergence from government policies is also seen when evaluating Minister Sergio Moro’s crime-fighting project. Moro’s image, like that of JMB, has gained legendary status among the sectors that support the government. The population generally rejects his proposals against corruption, organized crime, and violent crimes, however, as Datafolha points out. Above all, the great majority (72 percent) of society thinks that there would be no greater public security if the population, in general, were allowed to arm itself, a matter that is decidedly a priority for JMB, who has already signed two decrees on the subject.
Disapproval of gun ownership (with laws regarding it being loosened by the president in March) is widespread, with 64 percent of the population rejecting it. The same repudiation was identified by a survey conducted by Ibope and released in March regarding making weapon carry laws more flexible: 73 percent of Brazilians are against loosening the current rules. Against this background, the government issued a new decree in early May loosening the laws regarding carrying of weapons (that is, the right to go armed in public spaces, including airplanes), a change that violates international rules of aviation safety. Both the Public Prosecutor and the Congress have spoken out against the measure.
Despite the gap between popular views and the government’s goals and measures, the loosening of firearms laws as a solution to the problem of public safety remains very popular among the original social base of bolsonarism. Research regarding the anticrime package shows that widening the right to possess a legal weapon has greater support among men (47 percent), white people (percent), those with a university education (percent), and those whose monthly income is higher than 10 minimum wages (40 percent).
On the other hand, 81 percent, or a substantial majority of people, believe that the police should not be free to shoot suspects, contrary to what several government voices currently preach. 79 percent say that police officers who kill on duty must be investigated. Datafolha also showed that 82 percent of the population refute the idea that someone in an emotionally altered state should not be punished if they shoot another person. This is, in fact, the most criticized proposal of Moro’s package. It has come under heavy fire by the feminist movement that, several decades ago, successfully disputed the legal thesis that those who murder women could be acquitted when the crime was committed in a state of intense emotion (such as jealousy).
In December 2018, Datafolha also measured the perception of the population on the right to abortion, as defined according to existing laws (permitted in cases of rape, if the woman’s life is at risk, and in anencephalic pregnancy). This issue is a cornerstone of the government’s priority, expressed several times by Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights Damares Alves in Brazil and abroad, in approving a constitutional amendment to protect the right to life from conception. Research results indicate that even after the brutal offensive against abortion during the electoral process, 56 percent of the population believes that abortion should be allowed under these circumstances, while 41 percent reject the practice regardless of motivations and circumstances.[i]
Shortly after these popularity polls results were published, the newly appointed Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, announced 30 percent cuts in the budget of three federal universities while vituperating against the “nudity” and “shambles” supposedly on display in them. He later extended these cuts to all federal universities. The measure, which had widespread international repercussions, also provoked an immediate political reaction from Brazilian society (see here and here). Two weeks later, mass protests took over the country’s streets to contest and repudiate this attack on higher education. New mobilizations also took place on May 30. In other words, dissatisfaction with the government’s policies is already taking to the streets. No less important, the government has been haunted by the ghost of an investigation into the connections of one of JMB’s sons with the criminal militias that control vast areas of Rio de Janeiro. All this seems to be causing JMB’s support to gradually return to August 2018 levels, before his popularity really began to grow.
It is also important to emphasize that the government does not have a solid and organized parliamentary base, as the PSL, JMB’s party, only took shape during the electoral process. This means that the government has had fierce clashes in Congress with the amorphous and adaptable sector of the Brazilian political system that survived the 2018 electoral tsunami (the so-called Centrão). The constant congressional arm-wrestling is slowing down the JMB-Guedes regime’s top priority, pension reform and leaving the market nervous (which possibly explains the results of the XP/IPESPE survey). To respond the street demonstrations in defense of public education and overcome impasses in Congress, bolsonarists (including the president himself, through his Twitter account) called for marches defending the government and its proposals on May 26. These demonstrations were not colossal, nor did they reach the scale of protests against cuts in education. However, they were a demonstration that JMB still has a margin of support that is not negligible.
The numbers compiled here, when taken in context with the opposition and resistance that are beginning to take shape in society, suggest that the route ahead is not exactly easy for the newly installed government. It is also necessary to take into account the on-going economic paralysis or even recession that shows no signs of improvement. As Lena Lavinas observes in an interview to SPW, there is no guarantee that pension reform, if approved, will ensure immediate growth rates.
It is, therefore, necessary to ask whether the government is losing popularity and even political support. Is the permanent chaos and warfare method causing it to lose traction and generate irreversible fractures? Can the economic crisis push governance to a dead end? It would be reckless to answer such questions because to carry out interpretations and projections in the current conjuncture is like shooting at a moving target.
Meanwhile, nothing suggests that bellicosity and chaos in governing will be abandoned because, as analyzed by Marcos Nobre and Vladimir Safatle, permanent warfare and cacophony are the basis for sustaining the government and maintaining its popularity with the 30 – 40 percent of the faithful electorate. While these people do not constitute a majority, they demonstrate a canine fidelity in defending the government, as was seen in the March 26 marches.
On the other hand, however, JMB’s impulsiveness that is really, truly uncontrollable, will continue to be a an obstacle for the stabilization of the political dynamics. In the week in which I was finishing this essay the President, whose family accumulates incredible amounts of traffic fines in profusion, personally introduced a bill in the Congress to increase the point limit needed to revoke a driver’s license from 20 to 40. The text also eliminates fines for not carrying children in baby seats in automobiles. This would be converted into a warning. Although these measures have been widely criticized by traffic safety experts, the President and those who surround him have paid such criticism little heed.
In this scene of shambles and unpredictability, one must remember that while the JMB government does not have a solid party base to support itself, it is secured (even protected) by the military, which occupies eight ministries and a hundred high-level posts. In this sense, attention should be drawn to another aspect analyzed by Datafolha on the occasion of JMB’s first 100 days “celebration”: society’s support of the Armed Forces. The results show that, in the midst of cacophony and bellicosity, these institutions enjoy enormous prestige, with 45 percent of the population trusting in the military, which represents eight points above the 37 percent measured in June 2018.
The bulk of data shared above no doubt suggests that the government is losing popular and political support. However, it does not allow us to affirm that the current governing method of chaos and permanent war will cool down or that the hardcore of Bolsonarismo will dissolve. What does this data predict? It would be reckless to try to answer in this scenario, as mentioned above; this would be the equivalent to trying to hit a moving target.
As if to prove that prognosis is very risky in today’s Brazil when the last adjustments were being made to this report, a new tsunami rolled in to add to the shambles. On Sunday evening, June 9th, The Intercept released the content of private talks conducted by members of Operation Car Wash (Lava-Jato in Portuguese), showing the complicity and a shared design between the strategies of Sérgio Moro – the judge who ruled over part of the inquiries and sentenced President Lula to jail, before becoming Justice Minister under the JMB government – and members of the Public Ministry. The repercussion of these revelations is unfolding in the most diverse directions with truly unpredictable impacts (read here).
Furthermore, right after the leaking, JMB, in less than 72 hours, fired the reformed general who headed the Secretary of Government, another general in charge of the National Post Office and the president of the National Social and Economic Development Bank. The president also declared that citizens should be armed to prevent a coup d’état . On the other hand, the Supreme Court has already ruled the JMB decree suspending the functioning of participatory commissions and councils unconstitutional and, before that, various state level federal judges have also questioned the constitutionality of funding cuts imposed to Federal Universities. On June 18th, the Senate stroke down the two presidential decrees that enlarged the right to posses and carry arms.
Such conditions do not allow facile predictions to be made on what may come next.
Translation: Taddheus Blanchette
Image: Natchez, 1985, by Jean-Michel Basquiat
[i] In order to verify the impact of the electoral process on social perceptions, Datafolha’s conducted research in August 2018, when the decriminalization of abortion was discussed in a Public Hearing of the Supreme Court. At that time, 14 percent of the people polled were “favorable to legal abortion in any situation”, a percentage that fell to 6 percent in December.