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Amid early struggles, Bolsonaro’s supporters call for demos

After five months in office, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is battling an uncooperative Congress, street protests, a family corruption scandal and falling approval ratings.

The stumbling start for the far-right leader who rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Brazil’s political class to victory has led his backers to organize demonstrations in support of him in cities across the country on Sunday. But the vaguely worded calls, representing a mixed bag of demands and protests, are being questioned by some in Bolsonaro’s political party and in right-wing movements. Bolsonaro himself has said he will not participate.

The idea for demonstrations in favor of Bolsonaro gained steam after tens of thousands of people across Brazil last week protested budget cuts to public education imposed by his government.

It was the first mass street movement against the former army captain who took office on Jan. 1 and has seen his popularity steadily slipping. Five months into his term, more people now disapprove of his government than approve of it.

Pollster XP Investimentos said its poll showed 36% of Brazilians think Bolsonaro’s government is bad or terrible and 34% say it’s good or great. The firm surveyed 1,000 people on May 21-22 with a margin for error of 3.2 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.

Praça said things have not been looking up since then. 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 a desperately needed pension reform. Brazil’s pension system, which allows swaths of the population to retire in their early 50s, is the single largest factor contributing to the country’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.

Amid the early setbacks, Bolsonaro’s online army of die-hard supporters has called for demonstrations Sunday in support of their president.

But their message has become a confusing mix of calls for conservative policies and criticism of Brazil’s institutions, which they say are corrupt obstacles to Bolsonaro’s agenda. Some supporters say the demonstrations are to support pension reform, others against the mass of centrist parties in Brazil’s Congress that focus on deal-making.

The Brazilian Military Club in Rio put out a call for members to take to the streets to “support the federal government in implementing necessary reforms for governability.”

More radical groups have said the protest is to demand the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. Bolsonaro, who earlier in his political career said he would close Congress if he were ever president, told reporters he didn’t support calls to close institutions.

“That would not be good for Brazil,” Bolsonaro said Friday. “That’s more Maduro than Jair Bolsonaro,” he added, referring to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

The mixed messages have created a rift among Brazil’s conservatives. The president of Bolsonaro’s party said the protests “don’t make sense.”

“For the love of God, stop with the calls for protests, these people need a reality check,” tweeted Janaína Paschoal, a federal deputy whose name was floated as a potential vice president. She said Bolsonaro’s biggest risk was himself, his sons and some of his staff members.

“Wake up! On the 26th, if the streets are empty, Bolsonaro will realize he has to stop with the drama and do his job,” she said.

Praça, the political scientist, said it’s a risky strategy by Bolsonaro’s supporters.

“He doesn’t have much to gain and if (the demonstration) is small, it would show the weakness of the government,” he said.

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