Bolsonaro starts potential annus horribilis with health scare

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  • Jair Bolsonaro
    38th president of Brazil
  • Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
    Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
    Brazilian politician, 35th president of Brazil

It was already shaping up to be a tough year for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, with his popularity at an all-time low nine months from elections, the economy in recession and Covid-19 surging.

Then the far-right leader had his New Year beach vacation come crashing to an end with an emergency flight to the hospital for a partially blocked intestine.

Bolsonaro, 66, was discharged Wednesday, after the blockage came free without the surgery he initially said might be needed.

But the health scare underlined the fragile state he appears to be in as he starts the final year of his term, and the countdown to elections that polls currently place him on track to lose badly to leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The coronavirus Bolsonaro dismissed as a "little flu" has claimed nearly 620,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States, and cases are soaring again.

The economy he vowed to revive is meanwhile in recession, weighed down by inflation that has gone from 3.75 percent when he took office on January 1, 2019 to a painful 10.74 percent today.

Three years in, the man dubbed the "Tropical Trump" can claim few accomplishments, beyond keeping his hardline base riled up with constant attacks on the "communist" left, "gender ideology," Congress and the Supreme Court, not to mention face masks, vaccines and other science-based measures against Covid-19.

"I don't know what's going to rescue Jair Bolsonaro," said Latin America expert Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

"It's hard to imagine what could happen on the economic front that would change enough voters' minds to allow him to be reelected," he told AFP.

"Brazilians are just so fatigued and angry."

- Ideology over issues -

Bolsonaro's hospital stay was the latest fallout from the dramatic moment that marked his rise: his near-fatal stabbing in September 2018 during the election campaign that brought him to power.

He survived and went on to win the presidency that October, fueling supporters' die-hard faith in the man they call "Mito" -- "The Myth."

But his aura of invincibility has faded in the three noisy, polarizing years since.

Swept to office by a broad swathe of voters fed up with economic collapse, corruption and crime, Bolsonaro ended up focusing on "moral restoration" instead of those issues, said political analyst Oliver Stuenkel of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

"He failed on the economy, and on combating corruption," he said.

Bolsonaro appears to be betting on a huge new social program called Auxilio Brasil to win him lower-income voters.

The government estimates up to 20 million people will get payments of at least 400 reais ($70) a month this year, up nearly 20 percent on average from a previous program launched under Lula.

But it is not a sure bet.

"It doesn't seem like it's going to be enough to buy working-class support," Winter said.

"A large portion of the increase is going to be eaten away by inflation."

Bolsonaro, meanwhile, faces more than 140 impeachment requests, and a Senate investigative commission has recommended he face criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, for his controversial pandemic response.

- 'Very good health' -

But nine months is a long time in politics, and no one is ruling Bolsonaro out yet.

The president projected a down-to-business image as he bounced back from his latest health crisis.

"I'm going to continue as normal," he said.

Dr Diego Adao Fanti Silva, a digestive tract surgeon at Unifesp University Hospital in Sao Paulo, said patients with Bolsonaro's condition typically fare fine after the blockage is resolved.

"Once the crisis has passed, the patient's life goes back to basically normal," he told AFP.

Bolsonaro's lead surgeon, Antonio Luiz Macedo, said the president was in "very good health."

However, he also told newspaper O Globo that "the risk of a new obstruction is considerable" if Bolsonaro does not follow the restricted diet doctors prescribed -- something the president joked would be "difficult."

- 'Prison, death or victory' -

Bolsonaro may look vulnerable, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as weak.

"He has clearly succeeded in building a radicalized and very committed and loyal followership," said Stuenkel.

Fear is running deep in Brazil that if Bolsonaro loses the October vote, he could try to emulate his political idol, former president Donald Trump, and the January 6, 2021 invasion of the US capitol.

Bolsonaro has said "only God" can remove him from office, and that his reelection bid can only have three outcomes: "prison, death or victory."

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