Jair Bolsonaro has been plunged into arguably the most treacherous moment of his presidency, as the Brazilian leader faces a snowballing scandal over allegedly corrupt Covid vaccine deals and mounting public rage over his handling of an epidemic that has killed more than half a million people.
Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to return to the streets on Saturday to demand Bolsonaro’s removal from office – the third such mass demonstration in just over a month. On Wednesday a curious coalition of left- and rightwing opponents submitted a fresh petition for Bolsonaro’s impeachment after the Brazilian media published incendiary claims about supposedly dodgy dealings to acquire coronavirus vaccines.
“Now is the time to bring down Bolsonaro,” said Guilherme Boulos, a prominent leftist who signed the impeachment request and is among the organizers of this weekend’s rallies which, unusually, some rightwingers have said they will join.
Claims of sleaze involving members of Bolsonaro’s administration and Covid vaccine negotiations surfaced last Friday during a sensational hearing of the congressional inquiry investigating the government’s reaction to one of the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks.
Luis Miranda, a rightwing lawmaker whose brother works in the health ministry, claimed they had personally alerted Bolsonaro to concerns over a 1.6bn-real (£232m) deal to import India’s Covaxin shot.
Miranda alleged Bolsonaro had promised to action the federal police over the apparent irregularities. But police have reportedly denied being contacted and three senators have accused Bolsonaro of the crime of malfeasance. Miranda told the Covid inquiry Brazil’s president had indicated the Covaxin deal was a “scheme” involving Bolsonaro’s chief whip Ricardo Barros.
“This isn’t just a spot of chicken theft. This is corruption on a grand scale,” said Maria Cristina Fernandes, a political writer for the financial newspaper Valor Econômico.
The plot thickened on Tuesday when the Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported claims that a health ministry logistics chief had sought a multi-million dollar bribe for the procurement of 400m AstraZeneca vaccines from a company called Davati Medical Supply. The official, who reportedly demanded $1 per dose, was subsequently fired.
“Brazilian society will certainly not forgive this. There’s nothing more serious than condemning people to death because of bribery and corruption,” said Alessandro Molon, the opposition leader in the lower house of congress.
“This isn’t just immoral and criminal. Above all it’s inhuman,” Molon said of the scandals, which have intensified public anger over Bolsonaro’s anti-scientific Covid response and failure to secure sufficient vaccines last year.
Folha de São Paulo columnist Bruno Boghossian said the affair had the potential to cause major political damage to Brazil’s far-right leader. Bolsonaro had survived previous crises thanks to his loyal support base and the backing of the “centrão”, a powerful bloc of self-serving, ideology-lite centre-right parties to which Ricardo Barros belongs. But given the profoundly traumatic impact Covid has had on South America’s largest country, it is unclear he will manage to dodge blame this time. “This is the most significant moment of political erosion Bolsonaro has faced,” Boghossian said.
Bolsonaro has sought to distance himself from a scandal that threatens to fatally undermine his already threadbare claim to be an anti-corruption crusader. “I’ve no way of knowing what goes on in the ministries,” he claimed on Monday. “Facts are the best vaccine,” tweeted Bolsonaro’s communications minister, Fábio Faria, denying his boss had committed any illegality.
But left and rightwing rivals claim the scandals give the lie to Bolsonaro’s bid to pose as a South American swamp drainer. “It reveals that Bolsonaro’s anti-corruption rhetoric – the rhetoric he used to win the 2018 election – was a complete swindle,” said Boulos. “This is a government of genocidal crooks.”
Thomas Traumann, a political commentator and former communications minister, predicted the scandals would turbocharge Saturday’s demos: “‘You didn’t get a vaccine because the government was seeking bribes’ is something that’s very easy for people to understand.”
“This is no longer a topic of conversation among the Brazilian intelligentsia who already hated Bolsonaro – it has become a concern for ordinary people,” added Traumann, noting how whimsical WhatsApp stickers were now circulating depicting the Covid inquiry’s Bolsonaro-bashing rapporteur as a popular hero.
Many observers doubt, however, that Brazil’s vaccine-gate will cause Bolsonaro’s administration to crumble immediately. The influential president of Brazil’s lower house, Arthur Lira, would need to approve any impeachment process and has repeatedly indicated he will not. Polls show support for Bolsonaro is collapsing but remains considerable.
“This is an extremely significant crisis: 500,000 people have died and the congressional inquiry has stamped responsibility for these deaths all over Bolsonaro’s forehead,” Traumann said. “But Trump survived impeachment and how many died under him?”