Feeling the pressure, Brazil's Bolsonaro rallies his troops

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has seen happier days: his poll numbers have plunged, his nemesis Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is looming large and the Senate is investigating his chaotic handling of Covid-19.

What to do?

First: Hop on his trusty blue motorcycle and lead a huge rally of fellow far-right bikers, as he did last Sunday.

Second: Ride in on horseback to fire up a demo of conservative farmers, as he reportedly plans to do Saturday.

That rally's organizers have called for conservative "soldiers" to protest the "craziness" of pandemic stay-at-home measures and Brazil's Supreme Court, which allowed local authorities to impose such policies over Bolsonaro's objections.

Third: So-called "Christian Family Freedom Marches" are also planned in some 100 cities this weekend, evoking a similar movement in support of a 1964 coup that installed a 21-year military dictatorship in Brazil -- for which Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is openly nostalgic.

Facing threats on multiple fronts, the man dubbed the "Tropical Trump" has whipped out a familiar script: energize his base with large, polarizing rallies that tend to offend critics as intensely as they rile up die-hard fans.

The question is whether that works as a political strategy, heading into a tough re-election campaign next year.

"He's going through a difficult time. So he's playing to his base," said Debora Messenberg, a sociologist at the University of Brasilia.

"Bolsonaro, like all far-right politicians, needs to keep his core supporters on a war footing. Far-right leaders live for war," she told AFP.

- Pandemic probe -

Bolsonaro looks particularly vulnerable on the pandemic.

The Senate opened an inquiry last month into the government's management of Covid-19, which has claimed 430,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.

Bolsonaro blasted the inquiry Thursday as a "crime," with "good people being investigated by scoundrels."

Broadcast live, the hearings are shining a spotlight on the administration's pandemic policies, which include attacking lockdowns, touting the ineffective drug chloroquine and refusing offers of now badly needed vaccines.

"It's like a parade of people reminding Brazilians why the death toll is so high," said Brian Winter, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

"It hurts him for the 2022 race, because it will remind everybody of the disastrous management and denialism that he engaged in."

Then there is the return of ex-president Lula, who regained the right to run for office when the Supreme Court annulled his corruption convictions in March.

That has set up a potential election showdown in October 2022 between Bolsonaro, 66, and the still-popular 75-year-old leftist (2003-2010).

The latest poll, released Wednesday by respected firm Datafolha, gives Lula 55 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Bolsonaro in a hypothetical runoff.

Worse for the far-right incumbent: his approval rating, long thought to be unshakeable at 30 percent minimum, hit an all-time low of 24 percent.

- Following Trump's lead? -

That is all the more reason for Bolsonaro to rally his base, whose fervor appears to be ebbing somewhat.

"The base still supports him, but they're a bit upset and de-energized for a variety of reasons," said Winter.

Those include the recent firing of ultra-conservative foreign minister Ernesto Araujo and Bolsonaro's pragmatic new alliance with the "Centrao," a powerful group of pork-hungry parties hated by voters keen to "drain the swamp" in Brasilia.

But problematically for Bolsonaro, re-energizing his base also risks further alienating the middle class and business sector, which largely voted for him in 2018 but are increasingly disenchanted.

If all else fails, Bolsonaro appears prepared to take a page from the Donald Trump playbook.

Like the former US president, his political role-model, Bolsonaro has been criticizing the integrity of the upcoming election, attacking Brazil's electronic voting system without evidence.

"He's already made it clear he's going to contest the elections if he loses," said Andre Rehbein Sathler, of news site Congresso em Foco.

"He's clearly following Trump's script."

Bolsonaro is regularly accused of threatening Brazil's democratic institutions.

He often boasts of support from "his army," and hardline backers at every rally urge the military to stage an intervention to give him the power to rule by decree.