Brazil’s Bolsonaro could soon be toppled, analysts say, as coronavirus cases surge

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Not wearing face mask, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro greets his supporters at Praça dos Três Poderes, in front of the Planalto Palace on Sunday, May 24, 2020.

Andre Borges | NurPhoto | NurPhoto

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro could be the first world leader to be toppled by the coronavirus pandemic, analysts have told CNBC, as the right-wing premier faces intensifying political pressure for his handling of the public health crisis.

South America’s largest country has emerged as the world’s number two global hotspot for Covid-19, with more cases reported nationwide over the last week than any other seven-day period since the outbreak began.

To date, more than 391,000 people have contracted the coronavirus in Brazil, with 24,512 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Carissa Etienne, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, said on Tuesday that more than 2.4 million coronavirus cases and over 143,000 deaths had made the Americas the new epicenter of the pandemic.

She said the PAHO was “particularly concerned” about a recent surge in the number of new Covid-19 cases in Brazil, warning the broader region that: “Now is the time to stay strong, remain vigilant and aggressively implement proven public health measures.”

However, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, an ideological ally of President Donald Trump, has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, dismissing it as a “little flu” and condemning state governors for imposing confinement measures that are causing job losses.

“Having failed to unite Brazilians in the face of pandemic, Bolsonaro and his government could be the first to be toppled by it,” Robert Muggah, director of the Igarapé Institute, a think tank based in Rio de Janeiro, told CNBC via video call.

Muggah said there were at least three ways Bolsonaro could be ousted before the country’s next presidential election in 2022, citing impeachment proceedings (including an allegation he poses a threat to public health), conviction by the Supreme Court for common crimes, or ejection by the national electoral tribunal for alleged misconduct during the 2018 campaign.

“It is tempting to say that he is making outrageous statements to deflect attention from his criminal behavior. But that would be over-estimating the man,” Muggah continued. “Crises such as this one demand focused, competent leadership. Bolsonaro is incapable of this, and the longer he remains in power, the more Brazilians will die,” he added.

A government spokesperson did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

What is going on in Brazil?

Health experts have suggested the lack of testing in Brazil could be masking the true extent of the coronavirus epidemic.

A study by the University of Sao Paolo Medical School estimates that the number of Covid-19 infections could be around 15 times higher than the official figure.

If those predictions are accurate, it would mean that as of May 26, the actual total of coronavirus cases in Brazil stood at over 5 million.

To be sure, that’s more than three times higher than the U.S., the country with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide.

Samu Emergency Services from Santo Andre, in the Brazilian SP state, work in the rescue of the Covid-19 patient, May 5th. Brazil has reached 16.850 deaths by the new coronavirus this Monday, May 19th, and more than 255.000 have been infected.

Gustavo Basso | NurPhoto | Getty Images

“At this point, I would be surprised if we get through all of this without some major institutional clash,” Gustavo Ribeiro, political scientist and founder of politics site The Brazilian Report, told CNBC via telephone.

Ribeiro said opposition lawmakers were currently sitting on as many as 35 different impeachment requests against Bolsonaro, with the bulk of them submitted during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, he continued, an imminent move to oust the president was unlikely, given it would effectively bring the government to a halt at a time when the country needs to be able to respond to a health emergency.

“It’s hard to say that an impeachment will happen because there is one key missing element here: We don’t have people on the streets protesting against Bolsonaro because the very people who hate Bolsonaro are the people who are home,” Riberio said.

“But I think once everything has settled down, it will become untenable,” he added.

Odds are in Bolsonaro’s favor

Earlier this month, Health Minister Nelson Teich abruptly handed in his resignation after less than four weeks in the job. The decision came after he resisted Bolsonaro’s calls for the wider use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus.

The drug, which has not been proven to effectively treat or prevent Covid-19, is the same one Trump has said he has taken in an effort to ward off the virus.

Public health officials have warned it is unsafe to do so and regulators say it can cause heart problems.

A supporter of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective mask with a sign attends a protest against quarantine measures amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 24, 2020.

Amanda Perobelli | Reuters

Jimena Blanco, head of Americas research at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC via telephone the odds were in Bolsonaro’s favor right now.

Speaking from Buenos Aires in Argentina, Blanco said if Brazil’s president was to be removed from office, the key developments to do so would need to happen over the next three months.

A change in government “needs to be a swift one rather than a protracted one,” Blanco said, explaining that the nature of the pandemic means the country “does not have the benefit of time.”

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