Brazil infighting intensifies as Bolsonaros target vice-president

After the first barrage, the offensive lasted two days. The target was a top military man in the government, but this was not a military operation.

Last week, the sons of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, waged a social media war against vice-president Hamilton Mourão, a retired general. It marked a new stage in an escalating conflict within an administration that has been dominated by infighting since its inauguration in January.

The warring has renewed fears of policy paralysis as the various power centres in Brasília increasingly appear unable to work together.

“The friendly fire on the vice-president is concerning because it targets one of the moderate figures within the administration,” said Thomaz Favaro, director for Brazil at Control Risks. “Mourão has played an important role in advocating for a more pragmatic foreign policy, particularly with regards to China and the Middle East.”

Matias Spektor, a professor of politics at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, put it more ominously: “Brazil is in a downward spiral. Recovery seems less likely by the day.”

Unlike the more radical members of the administration, Mr Mourão favours warmer relations with China and opposes moving the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

A former army general who served in Angola and Venezuela, he was elected on the same ticket as Mr Bolsonaro in October and cannot be fired.

Despite initial fears about the role of the military in government, Mr Mourão — alongside a number of other generals in the cabinet — has come to be seen as a voice of moderation in a populist administration prone to controversy.

But his popularity and coolheadedness appear to have earned him enmity from a number of the president’s closest associates, including his wild-talking sons and rightwing ideologue Olavo de Carvalho.

For months, Mr Carvalho, a US-based writer and former astrologist, has attacked the vice-president, mostly recently calling him an “illiterate brat” and a “teenager totally unqualified for any serious intellectual debate”.

The attacks recently entered a new phase with the intervention of Carlos Bolsonaro, the president’s second son and a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, who launched a barrage of tweets criticising Mr Mourão.

He claimed the vice-president was aligning with those “who detested the president”. Another of the president’s sons, Eduardo Bolsonaro,a congressman who is close to Steve Bannon, the former adviser to US president Donald Trump, told local media the former general had made “successive declarations . . . contrary to the president”.

The criticisms triggered a surge in political attacks against Mr Mourão, including a call for his impeachment by a leading figure in the nation’s powerful evangelical bloc.

Until now, the general has attempted to stay above the fray. In an interview with the Financial Times last month, he said the criticisms were “opinions, and opinions are like buttocks, everyone has their own”.

The president has said he will maintain his “marriage” with the vice-president until the next election in 2022, but that Mr Mourão was like a “shadow that sometimes does not move according to the sun”.

The continuing acrimony reflects the breakdown of a “marriage of convenience” established for the elections last year, said Prof Spektor.

“The military thought they could ‘normalise’ the Bolsonaros. Now they are finding out that they can’t. The president and his children will try to keep social media on fire to energise the base even if that comes at the cost of stability and civility,” he added.

On Thursday, Mr Bolsonaro fuelled further outrage by saying Brazil shouldn’t become a “gay tourism paradise”.

“If you want to come here and have sex with a woman, go for [it. But] Brazil can’t be a country of the gay world, of gay tourism,” he reportedly said.

The controversies appear to be weighing on the approval rating of the president, who is a former army captain.

An Ibope survey released last week found the number of people who think the president is doing a “good” job dropped from 49 per cent in January to 35 per cent this month, while those who think he is doing a “bad” job increased from 11 per cent in January to 27 per cent this month.

The findings come amid a lack of progress in tackling the severe issues facing Brazil, including a stagnant economy and high unemployment.

One bright spot for the president is that he maintains the support of corporate Brazil, which remains “cautiously optimistic”that his economic team can implement far-reaching reforms to kick-start the economy.

Front and centre is a vital pension reform package, which last Tuesday passed its first legislative hurdle in Congress.

In a country with a history of vice-presidents rising to the presidency, some see Mr Mourão as a leader in waiting.

A senior general in the government played down the latest controversy, saying the issue was simply one of political egos.

“Vanity is the devil’s favourite sin, and politicians are full of that,” he said. “It is part of their trade, especially in Brazil.” 

Additional reporting by Carolina Unzelte




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