Bolsonaro’s war with Brazil’s institutions

On Thursday, Jair Bolsonaro crossed the Square of Three Powers on foot to visit Dias Toffoli, the Chief Justice of Brazilian Supreme Court. The President, accompanied by a bunch of top businessmen — all wearing dark suits and white masks — walked into the court for a “courtesy meeting” with Justice Toffoli. But the judge was taken aback when Mr. Bolsonaro began to complain about how the policy of physical distancing due to the coronavirus was “pushing the companies into Intensive Care Units”. The meeting was shown live on social media — without the judge’s knowledge.Walking back towards the Square, which sits at the junction of the Presidential office, the Supreme Court and Congress in Brasilia, Mr. Bolsonaro continued to bat for “opening the economy” as it was “hurting businesses and jobs”. “The economy is life. We can’t keep it in the ICU,” said Mr. Bolsonaro. As the President left the court, the country’s judicial circles went into a tizzy. “The President just ambushed the Chief Justice. He tried to pass the blame for the economic mess on to the judiciary,” said a magistrate, who does not want to be named. “The executive takes care of the economy, not the judiciary.”Mr. Bolsonaro has reasons to corner the Supreme Court, which is supervising three cases that can open the way for his impeachment and spell doom for his three sons, who are under investigation for serious crimes. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the President has made it a weekend ritual to call out his supporters on the street to break the physical distancing norms and make threats against the Supreme Court. On Sunday, as hundreds of his supporters blocked the roads in Brasilia with their cars, Mr. Bolsonaro appeared in front of the unruly crowd, demanding that the Supreme Court and Congress be shut down. “I don’t want to negotiate with anyone. The military is with me,” he said to his delirious supporters — known as Bolsonaristas.Bitter fight The virus is not showing any signs of slowing down in Brazil. It is surging and threatens to flatten the country’s institutions as the President is locked in a bitter fight with two other branches of the government. Rodrigo Maia, the Speaker of the House of Representatives who has been urging the federal government to back the quarantine measures and provide financial relief to the people, has condemned Mr. Bolsonaro for sending a “wrong signal” to society. “I understand the concerns of businesses but we can’t open them under pressure and end up having more deaths. It is almost criminal,” Mr. Maia said, after Mr. Bolsonaro’s meeting with Justice Toffoli sent ripples across the national capital.A nascent democracy, Brazil suffered a huge setback in 1964 when a U.S.-backed military coup toppled Joao Goulart’s government to “save the country” from communism.For the next 21 years, the Army ruled the country with brute force, tearing apart its Constitution and crushing the democratic institutions. When democracy returned in the late 1980s, the Army went back to the barracks but did not leave the scene completely. With the election of Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who openly eulogises the 1964 coup and praises Army officers who tortured political activists, the military came back into the business as the President packed his government with former and serving military officials.Now, as the Brazilian leader faces the biggest test of his 16-month old presidency, all eyes are on the military leadership, which has refrained from criticising Mr. Bolsonaro. Last week, the Supreme Court opened a probe after former Justice Minister Sergio Moro accused the President of “interfering in the work of the Federal Police”. The court has called three former Generals, who now hold top Ministries in the government, as witnesses. Reports in the local media suggest that the Generals are “offended” by the court for dragging them into the case. “This could be the beginning of the end of the Bolsonaro presidency. That’s why he is putting pressure on the Supreme Court in all possible ways,” says the magistrate. As if taking their cue from their leader, a clutch of Bolsonaristas have set up a camp near the Square of Three Powers and called on his supporters to “invade Congress and the Supreme Court” on Sunday. “At least 300 trucks, with former military men and civilians, will come here to put an end to this stupid show by that damn House and the Supreme Court who have destroyed our nation,” said a leader of the group in social media posts this week.(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)

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