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Explained: Why a court inquiry could spell trouble for Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro

Sérgio Moro has accused Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro of pushing for the replacement of the federal police chief for obtaining access to ongoing criminal investigations.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: May 7, 2020 9:13:00 pm
Explained: Why a court enquiry could spell trouble for Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro gets out of his car to speak to supporters as he leaves the presidential residence Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (AP Photo: Eraldo Peres)

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday received unpleasant news as the country’s Supreme Court allowed investigators to question three cabinet ministers about accusations that the leader had attempted to interfere with police investigations.

The allegations were made by the country’s recently ousted justice minister and popular anti-corruption icon Sérgio Moro. The probe was approved by the top court last week.

Pandemic woes and rumblings within the cabinet

President Bolsonaro, known for his extreme views, has been facing flak for his handling of the coronavirus crisis in Brazil, which is currently among the worst affected countries in South America. He has repeatedly undermined the severity of the pandemic, and has attacked state governors who have implemented lockdowns.

According to a report in the Financial Review, since the beginning of April, the number of Brazilians who want Bolsonaro to resign has risen by 9 percentage points to 46 per cent. The president is now increasingly reliant on his key conservative support base, about a third of all voters, to remain in power.

Besides this, Bolsonaro has also been bickering with prominent cabinet colleagues.

In mid-April, Bolsonaro fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had asked Brazilians to follow the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines about the coronavirus, and had been compared with US President Donald Trump’s top health advisor Dr Anthony Fauci. Mandetta was shunted out of the cabinet after he reportedly disagreed with Bolsonaro over lockdown measures.

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While Mandetta’s departure invited scorn from the president’s usual critics, the next fight that Bolsonaro engaged in — unrelated to the pandemic — has ended up causing him more considerable political damage.

Explained: Why a court enquiry could spell trouble for Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Sérgio Moro. (AP Photo)

The clash with Sérgio Moro

After Mandetta, Bolsonaro sparred with Sérgio Moro — his high profile justice minister, who enjoys significant public approval in his own right as an anti-corruption crusader.

Moro, a former judge, is revered as a national hero in Brazil for his uncompromising role during Operation Car Wash, a large scale investigation into the sensational Odebrecht scandal of 2014 that rocked several countries in Latin America.

The scandal caused a major upheaval in Brazil, with leftist leader and president from 2003 to 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, being sent to jail for 12 years and 11 months in 2018. Another former president, Michel Temer, too was briefly incarcerated.

Lula was a favourite to win in the 2018 presidential election, and his incarceration paved the way for hard-right Bolsonaro to grab power. When Bolsonaro became president, Moro joined his cabinet as justice minister, bolstering the former’s support base.

Then in April this year, Moro shocked Brazilians when he resigned from the cabinet, accusing Bolsonaro of pushing for the replacement of the federal police chief for obtaining access to ongoing criminal investigations, especially in Rio de Janeiro, where the president has his political base.

According to a Reuters report, Moro quoted the president as saying, “Moro, you get 27 police chiefs, and I get just one, in Rio de Janeiro.”

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Two of Bolsonaro’s sons, both politicians, are facing police investigations, the report said. The eldest, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, is under probe in Rio de Janeiro for alleged money laundering and embezzlement. The other, Carlos Bolsonaro, has been accused of carrying out “fake news” schemes.

President Bolsonaro has denied the allegations against his family, and has termed the investigations as being politically motivated. As the investigation proceeds, experts say that Bolsonaro could face more challenging times.

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