Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
Leaders ultimately rise or fall on swords of honesty and integrity. When campaigning for high office, populist leaders promise perfection, prosperity, right dealings and the cleansing of immoral temples. But in office, populists often revert to their real character as greedy and self-serving authoritarians. So it is today in Brazil, Latin America’s most populous, most important and most troubled country (after Venezuela).
President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 because he promised to rid Brazil of rampant corruption. As proof of his good intentions, he immediately appointed Judge Sérgio Moro, the country’s most revered antagonist of corruption, as minister of justice.
Mr. Moro and prosecuting teams uncovered the massive Lava Jato graft scandal of 2014 and 2015, and jailed many of the politicians and corporate executives who had padded their payrolls and fleeced taxpayers. He also sentenced beloved former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to nine years in prison, a punishment upheld on appeal. That sentence prevented Lula (as the former president is known) from regaining the presidency against Mr. Bolsonaro.
The minister of justice entrusted his formidable judicial reputation to professed good intentions, believing that Mr. Bolsonaro genuinely intended to end peculation and sleaze in a reformed Brazil. But, as in so many other ways, Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidential behaviour has been self-indulgent, erratic, impulsive and irascible. His approval ratings have plummeted to about 33 per cent.
Being impeached by Brazil’s Congress is now a very likely option, and desired even by the conservative press and commentators. Two former presidents, including Dilma Rousseff in 2016, were pushed out by Congress.
When the novel coronavirus reached Brazil in March, President Bolsonaro derided it as a “measly cold.” He has expressed almost no compassion for the more than 7,000 Brazilians who have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, or for the more than 100,000 Brazilians who are known to have tested positive in the continuing pestilence.
The president has also steadfastly resisted calls for strict quarantine measures, opposing lockdowns ordered by the governors of most of the nation’s states and his own minister of health. In answer to journalists questioning him about presidential leadership during the pandemic, Mr. Bolsonaro responded callously: “So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do? I can’t work miracles.” Mr. Moro was appalled.
Mr. Bolsonaro replaced the minister of health, who had insisted on a strict physical-distancing regime. That action, along with environmentally disastrous decisions that opened up the Amazon to mining and deforestation, corroded the president’s legitimacy, especially amid rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus cases – the most in South America – and the near total collapse of the country’s economy.
If those blunders were not enough, Mr. Bolsonaro next tried to replace the nation’s federal police chief, an ally and supporter of Mr. Moro, with a family friend capable of going easy on the president’s two sons, both of whom are suspected of corrupt dealings. “The prerogative is mine,” the president declared.
Mr. Moro promptly resigned, denouncing the president for leading Brazil back into the mire of corruption and protecting his sons from being properly investigated. Mr. Moro critiqued the president’s action in a long public statement and then testified for eight hours before a Congressional investigating committee.
Lawmakers in Brasília, the nation’s capital, have since submitted 29 impeachment petitions against Mr. Bolsonaro. But this may not mean his immediate trial by Congress and ouster, even though that body now includes few supporters of the president. He abandoned the party that backed him when he was elected, so a case for impeachment could be easily made and a vote arranged.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso tweeted scathingly: “The president is digging his pit. Resign before being resigned.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, however, legislators are reluctant to plunge Brazil back into the dark waters of impeachment. Dilma Rousseff’s dismissal led to several years of recession. Moreover, Vice-President Hamilton Mourão is a military man, and most Brazilians have very sour memories of the years from 1964 to 1985, when generals ruled the country.
Only Mr. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, would-be autocrat and someone who yearns publicly for resumed military rule, would favour such an outcome. Seven members of his cabinet are former officers. He is now dependent for survival on ex-generals and a cadre of career politicians who have profited from his rule and want to keep riding his corrupt gravy train. If Mr. Mourão replaced Mr. Bolsonaro, that might start slippage back toward the draconian, non-democratic days that only Mr. Bolsonaro’s evangelical backers seem to crave.
Brazilians who elected Mr. Bolsonaro and rejoiced when Mr. Moro was appointed now know that populist leadership has led them astray. The promised land is still distant, awaiting the kind of true leadership in the public interest that can only be delivered in Brazil, as elsewhere, by people of integrity and honest vision.
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