It won’t go down with the Treaty of Versailles, Nixon-to-China, or other historic triumphs of diplomacy. But when Jair Bolsonaro walked across the street from the Palácio do Planalto for a surprise visit to Congress last week, his intentions were clear. The official cause was an homage to Carlos Alberto de Nóbrega, a popular comedian. Yet Brazil’s president was there to try to repair relationships badly frayed by his constant attacks on Twitter and elsewhere on what he has long called a corrupt, “communist” political establishment.
“Our two branches together have everything it takes to change Brazil,” Bolsonaro declared. Asked by reporters what prompted the visit, the president smiled and said: “There are moments where you have to go honor your colleagues. And life goes on.”
The visit came a day after Bolsonaro unexpectedly met with the heads of Congress and the Supreme Court, attempting to forge a “pact of understanding” in which all three branches would support a range of measures from pension reform to a reduction in bureaucracy. The initiative, which Chief Justice José Antonio Dias Toffoli first floated last year, seeks to put an end to the so-called guerra de poderes, the institutional power struggle that has paralyzed Brazil since 2016. Bolsonaro also pointedly distanced himself from the more radical elements of a pro-government demonstration on May 26, including those advocating for Congress to be shut down. “That’s more Maduro’s thing,” he said, referencing the Venezuelan dictator. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro and his sons have been relatively subdued on social media and IRL, compared at least to their flamethrowing of previous months. Among those who appreciate the truce is Rodrigo Maia, the chief of Congress’ House of Deputies, a frequent target of the Bolsonaro boys – and the key to getting any legislation passed this year. “(The president) has built in the last few weeks… the dialogue that is necessary for things to go forward,” Maia told Estado de S.Paulo in an interview published Monday.
It’s all evidence that Bolsonaro is – inconsistently, tenuously – trying out a less confrontational approach to governing in the hope of saving his presidency and Brazil’s economy, both of which have been flashing bright red DANGER signs in recent weeks. With Bolsonaro’s reform agenda stuck in Congress, the euphoria that gripped Brazil’s business community following the 2018 election has vanished. Data published last week showed GDP shrank 0.2% in the first quarter, raising the specter of a “double-dip” recession ahead. Bolsonaro’s popularity ratings continue to fall, to 34% in a recent poll. Two of Brazil’s last four elected presidents were impeached after they lost control of both the economy and Congress; just five months into Bolsonaro’s government, the i-word is now out in the open once again. Many of Bolsonaro’s advisers, particularly those from the comparatively moderate “military wing” of his Cabinet, have begged the president for months to temper his rhetoric and try to work with Brasília’s old guard; some believe Bolsonaro has finally understood how much trouble he’s in, and that their message is getting through.
The apparent shift comes with about a hundred asterisks, and potentially a very short shelf life. No one expects Bolsonaro to fundamentally change; the goal is that he ratchet the noise down from 9 to, say, 7. Even this may be doomed. People’s behaviors don’t often change over time; there’s a reason it’s said that 95% of diets ultimately fail. Bolsonaro is, and always has been, an anti-establishment bomb-thrower with a deep disdain for institutions. Brazilians knew this when they elected him; for many, it was the core of his appeal. No one would be surprised if, in a few weeks or months, we find ourselves talking about a Bolsonaro drive to purge the Supreme Court, bypass Congress or otherwise try to blow up Brasília.
But if ever there were a time to try a softer approach, it’s now. Even legislators from Bolsonaro’s own party have urged him to “stop making drama” in a system where Congress has more power than in many other Latin American nations. Without congressional backing, several executive orders Bolsonaro issued are due to expire in coming weeks, potentially causing further administrative and economic chaos. Meanwhile, the downsides of listening to the most radical figures on the Brazilian right have been exposed for everyone to see. In an interview with Veja published Friday, Bolsonaro himself expressed frustration with the Virginia-based philosopher Olavo de Carvalho for urging him to pick an education minister who immediately proved to be incompetent, and was fired in April. Carvalho, probably the most influential figure during Bolsonaro’s first three months in government, has in recent weeks mocked the former head of the Army for being in a wheelchair and appeared to entertain theories the Earth is flat. “Everybody knows Olavo is out of control,” one person close to the government told me. “His voice has lost some importance.” More pragmatic approaches to foreign policy issues like China and Venezuela, where olavistas previously reigned supreme, support this theory.
Indeed, some are betting the worst has passed. Over the past two weeks, the Brazilian stock exchange rose 7% – defying a global sell-off – as investors hoped signs of detente in Brasília might lead to pension reform, the key to Brazil’s future solvency, to pass sooner than they expected. The Eurasia Group in mid-May raised its odds of the reform passing this year to 80% from 70%. It’s worth repeating that Brazilian financial markets have consistently been wrong about Bolsonaro; 86% of investors and money managers approved of his government in one January poll, a number that has fallen to just 14% today. But it’s also clear what the bulls see: A Congress that is philosophically aligned with Bolsonaro’s pro-business agenda, at least on paper, and a leftist opposition that is still divided and disorganized. Homicides have fallen sharply in most Brazilian cities, addressing another Bolsonaro campaign promise (although it’s unclear who or what deserves credit). If the president could get out of his own way, and build a strong enough political consensus, the economy could finally recover and a degree of governability could return following what has basically been a lost decade for Brazil.
Will the relative truce last? There are too many obstacles to count. A growing probe into a scandal involving Bolsonaro’s son Flávio could soon corner the first family, leading them to retake their battle stations. Negotiations for the so-called institutional pact could quickly fall apart; members of Congress could overplay their hand and make unrealistic demands for pork and other political favors. The stakes will only continue to mount in a country with 13.4 million unemployed, deteriorating social indicators and a growing student protest movement – a somber outlook that Bolsonaro alluded to in the Veja interview. “I’ve gone nights without sleeping, I’ve cried like hell too,” the president admitted. “It’s the stress, you know?” Whether he has even longer nights in coming months will be largely up to him.