RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Thousands gathered in cities across Brazil on Sunday to show support for President Jair Bolsonaro, who faces an uncooperative Congress, street protests, a family corruption scandal and falling approval ratings five months into his term.
The stumbling start for the far-right leader who rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Brazil’s political class to an election victory led his backers to call for the demonstrations, which represented a mixed bag of demands and protests.
Bolsonaro’s base supporters sang the national anthem and waved Brazilian flags while chanting the names of his Cabinet members. Many said Brazil’s institutions are not letting Bolsonaro govern. Some called for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court.
“We need to clean out Congress,” said Neymar de Menezes, a construction contractor. “Unfortunately all the deputies there are compromised and all about deal making. Bolsonaro is fighting them by himself.”
Bolsonaro, who earlier in his political career said he would close Congress if he were ever president, told reporters Friday he didn’t support calls to close institutions.
“That would not be good for Brazil,” he said. “That’s more Maduro than Jair Bolsonaro,” he added, referring to Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolás Maduro.
Bolsonaro aired grievances in recent weeks about the difficulties he is having running the country. At an event in Rio de Janeiro last week he said Brazil is a great country, “but our problem is the political class.” The week before he shared a text from an unknown author on WhatsApp that said Brazil is “ungovernable.”
At one pro-Bolsonaro demonstration, many held up signs with a laundry list of demands in bullet points, including approving a pension overhaul and an anti-crime bill and removing Supreme Court justices and establishment, centrist politicians who they say are in Bolsonaro’s way.
“Bolsonaro wants to break the system, but the system wants to break him and we won’t let that happen,” said Elen dos Santos, a law student. “The establishment politicians aren’t letting him govern because they want favors in return.”
The call for demonstrations created a rift with some of Brazil’s conservatives, including the head of Bolsonaro’s party, who said protests “don’t make sense.”
Janaína Paschoal, a federal lawmaker whose name was floated as a potential vice president, tweeted: “For the love of God, stop with the calls for protests, these people need a reality check.” She said Bolsonaro’s biggest risk is himself, his sons and some of his staff members.
Bolsonaro did not participate in the rallies. Speaking at a church service in Rio de Janeiro, he said demonstrators were on the streets to “deliver a message to those who insist on keeping the old politics who aren’t allowing the people to be free.”
The idea for demonstrations in favor of Bolsonaro gained steam after tens of thousands of people across Brazil turned out last week to protest the government’s budget cuts in education. Bolsonaro dismissed the student-led protests, calling their participants “imbeciles” and “useful idiots.”
That was the first mass street movement against Bolsonaro, a former army captain who took office Jan. 1 and has seen his popularity steadily slip. Roughly as many people now disapprove of his government as approve of it. Pollster XP Investimentos said its poll found 36% of Brazilians think Bolsonaro’s government is bad or terrible and 34% say it is good or great. The firm surveyed 1,000 people May 21-22, and the poll had an error margin above three percentage points.
“Bolsonaro got off to a very bad start, especially in the first month,” said Sergio Praça, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation University, referring to a corruption scandal involving his family.
Just weeks into his presidency, questions mounted over a report from financial regulators that flagged irregular payments in 2016 and 2017 between his son, Flavio, then a state legislator and now a senator, and his driver. Prosecutors suspect the payments are part of a common scheme in lower levels of Brazilian government in which politicians hire ghost employees who kick back portions of their salaries into the elected official’s bank account.
Bolsonaro and his son ran on anti-corruption platforms — a large reason why many voters chose him over the leftist candidate from the scandal-ridden Worker’s Party, which had won recent elections.
Brazil’s economy is sluggish and its currency has weakened. Bolsonaro is struggling to make alliances in Brazil’s infamously deal-making Congress, which is preventing him from passing his agenda, including pension reform. Brazil’s pension system, which allows swaths of people to retire in their early 50s, is the single largest factor contributing to the government’s deficit.
And, just as during his campaign and time in Congress, Bolsonaro is making headlines for controversial comments. In March during Carnival, he tweeted a pornographic video saying it was a warning to the nation of how decadent the celebration has become.
“The beginning of his government has been marked with uncertainty and confusion,” Praça said.
As the president’s supporters rallied, about 1,000 human rights activists and residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums staged a beachfront protest against police violence.
Bolsonaro and Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Wilson Witzel support shoot-to-kill policing tactics in neighborhoods where drug gangs operate.
Some of the participants in the Ipanema Beach protest said they had lost family members to police violence.
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