The incompetent firefighter

Amazon debacle shows Jair Bolsonaro don't thrive under pressure Demonstration against Amazon deforestation in Rio de Janeiro.

When dealing with a textbook “worst-case scenario” over the last ten days, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro did almost everything wrong.

Let’s set the scene. While some issues are divisive and constitute razor-thin majorities that politicians in the minority can manipulate and mobilize in order to profit electorally, protecting the Amazon rainforest is not one of these issues. 

</p> <p>Ninety-eight percent of Brazilians agree that <a href="">preserving the Amazon is important</a> and that the federal government should do more about it than it currently does. Therefore, when the dry season comes and the forest burns, politicians only have one choice: they must send a clear message that they are committed to environmental preservation and that they are working hard to stop the fires.</p> <p>To make the issue even more challenging, the circumstances demanded a forceful and effective action from a government that is turning its lights off at 6 pm to lower the electricity bills of public buildings. Finding a way to respond to the demand of fighting the disaster amid economic hardship demanded a bit of creativity from the president.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro did none of that. His reaction did not send any clear message. Instead, he first denied the crisis, then minimized it. When the smoke from burnt trees and animals helped turn day into night in São Paulo, the president lied and suggested the fires were the work of NGOs, looking hurt Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s image. When this was exposed as false, and the Federal Prosecution Office identified a group of farmers in the south of Pará who banded together to set the forest on fire in a demonstration of their support to the president, then, and only then, did Mr. Bolsonaro acknowledge that protecting the forest was paramount.</p> <p>The president also failed to give the impression he was working hard to fight the crisis. By the time the Brazilian government had put together a crisis management cabinet to work on the issue, Madonna had already tweeted about the destruction of the Amazon and European governments had pulled their support for environmental protection initiatives in Brazil. When Mr. Bolsonaro eventually addressed the nation in a televised prime-time speech, his promises were vague and easily forgettable.</p> <p>Finally, unless the reader considers <a href="">insulting the wife of a European leader</a> a creative response, Jair Bolsonaro’s government failed at its third task. To make things worse, he both acknowledged that the government lacked the resources to make a forceful response, but subsequently rejected a USD 20 million donation from European countries. He later claimed he could accept the aid, providing <a href="">French President Macron</a> apologized to him.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Amazon crisis management creating crisis</h2> <p>There are potentially many consequences—including boycotts of Brazilian agricultural products and the worsening of the country’s image as an international pariah—but it is also worth concentrating on the domestic effects. There are few more damaging exercises to any government&#8217;s popularity than a shock of incompetence, which the Bolsonaro government has displayed in recent weeks.&nbsp;</p> <p>Reactions to crises shape public perception of administrations in powerful and long-lasting ways. If the government reacts poorly, many perceive it to be incompetent, then harming the administration&#8217;s chances of re-election. If a government reacts poorly to its first major crisis, the effects are even larger.&nbsp;</p> <p>Lastly, partisanship does not mitigate perceptions of government incompetence to the same degree that it shapes how one perceives policy differences among candidates. To the contrary, competency seems to drive the establishment and consolidation of partisanship. Readers interested in learning more about the politics of competency should read the homonymous<a href=""> book</a> from which I drew these lessons.</p> <p>Consequently, if Mr. Bolsonaro’s management of the Amazon crisis is perceived as poorly as it effectively was, we might have witnessed one of the most consequential moments of his administration so far: when many of the voters who voted for him without knowing whether he would be a good president found out that, in fact, he won&#8217;t.

Read the full story NOW!

Fernando Bizzarro

Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Harvard's Department of Government. His research is focused on the nature, the causes, and the consequences of political institutions, particularly on political parties, regimes, and their impacts on human and economic development.