Sexuality Policy Watch

Three Cards and a Joker: Bolsonaro and the Marielle Case

By Isabela Kalil

The Context

On October 29, 2019, Jornal Nacional (the main Brazilian television newspaper, broadcast by Rede Globo) reported that the name of Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, appeared in the investigation into the murder of Councilwoman Marielle Franco (PSOL). Marielle was assassinated in a drive-by execution in the city of Rio de Janeiro in March 2018 while in the company of her driver, Anderson Gomes.

As of now, the Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor’s Office has accused two former military police officers of being the councilwoman’s murderers: Ronnie Lessa and Élcio Queiroz. Lessa was Bolsonaro’s neighbor, living in the same residential condominium at the time of the execution. So far, the masterminds behind the execution have not been identified.

According to a TV Globo report, the new development, in this case, is that an eye witness claims that Élcio Queiroz was present at the condominium hours before the crime and that his entry into the complex had been cleared by President Bolsonaro himself. The day after the release of this report, the Rio de Janeiro Public Prosecutor’s Office contradicted the witness, putting into question the testimony of the witness, a doorman of the Bolsonaro and Lessa condominium.

This event took place while the president was on a trip abroad, visiting Saudi Arabia, during a scenario in which several Latin American countries, especially Chile, have been experiencing a series of protests and popular uprisings against their rulers. In addition, the Bolsonaro faces reduced approval ratings and has recently become the subject of international newspapers after a series of environmental disasters, including uncontrolled burning in the Amazon region and negligence in dealing with oil spills off the Brazilian coast.

Communication Strategies

I share here some notes regarding the public repercussion of the report published by the Jornal Nacional on October 29, in which the name of President Jair Bolsonaro is mentioned in the investigations of the murder of Councilwoman Marielle Franco. This data is part of my research into Jair Bolsonaro’s voter base and the subsequent (dis)engagement of these voters, focusing on the communication strategies used by the president and his supporters.

Regarding the most immediate public repercussion in the hours following the news release, the hashtag #BolsonaroAssassin was highlighted on Twitter in response to #BolsonaroEstamosContigo’s support messages. On the day following the publication of the Jornal Nacional’s report, Rio de Janeiro’s Public Prosecutor’s Office itself denied the reliability of witness who gave up the president’s name in the investigation. This occurred after the president requested direct intervention in the case by his Minister of Justice, Sergio Moro.

Following the reactions of the president’s support base, we can identify three main narratives that have been mobilized regarding the case. When looking at the communication strategies of Bolsonaro and his supporters, it is possible to interpret a pattern in the uses and spread of these narratives.
For this reason, employ an analogy of a deck of cards in order to help us to better think about the mobilization of these narratives, which I see as “cards” drawn from a limited range of possibilities. I argue that Bolsonaro and his closest supporters operate by repeating different versions of the same narratives, which they “play” in public debates depending on the context in question.
We should think of these cards as narratives that are “released” and sometimes “withdrawn” from the public debate. This most often occurs when Bolsonaro says something and then publicly contradicts himself. Variations of this same pattern occur in situations in which the president regrets, apologizes about, or retreats from any of his actions or positions. The same is true regarding the government team when someone says something which is denied by the president or vice versa.

Another pattern occurs when, for example, one of Bolsonaro’s children speaks on behalf of the president while using his personal profile on social networks. In this sense, it is not very relevant to ask who actually uses the president’s personal profile on Twitter. Most important in this case is the possibility that any action taken on social media can be “undone” by stating that it was not the president’s responsibility or desire. Additionally, this strategy often takes into account the possible reactions of Bolsonaro’s supporters and critics.

Regarding the specific episode in question, involving the repercussion of the Jornal Nacional report dealing with the investigation of the death of Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes, the analysis of a sample of tweets shared under the hashtag #BolsonaroEstamosContigo on October 29 and 30 2019 reveals the presence of three main narratives:

1) References to the persecution Bolsonaro is supposedly suffering from his political opponents, especially Rede Globo;

2) References to the stabbing attack Bolsonaro suffered during his presidential campaign;

3) References to the assassination of Celso Daniel, the Mayor of São André.

Each of these “cards” relates to the reinforcement of certain standards and specific responses of public opinion.

  1. The Lion’s Letter Surrounded by Hyenas – The Pattern of Immobility

This was the most widely used communication strategy and it is one of the oldest employed by the Bolsonaro government. Since the beginning of the process of the decline among his voters’ support, which has become more visible since April, Bolsonaro has maintained a narrative that he has been a victim of forces that prevent him from governing. Here are some examples: In July, when dealing with the contingency of spending on education, Bolsonaro first spoke of the risk of his impeachment. During the pension reform crisis, he blamed the “old politics” and even Congress for the delay in voting. During a crisis of his own making, the president even declared war on his own political party, the PSL.

The most emblematic episode of this pattern, however, was the posting on his personal Twitter account of a video in which the president appears depicted as a lion surrounded by hyenas who represent those he sees as his political opponents. The message was that Bolsonaro was the victim of a conspiracy that includes his own party, Brazil’s social movements, other political parties, the mainstream and independent press, the OAB (Brazilian Bar Association), and even the Supreme Court.

In the video, Bolsonaro himself said he was warned by the governor of Rio de Janeiro about the direction the investigation into Marielle’s case was taking. Therefore, Bolsonaro knew that new information might be released to the press when the video was published. The “lion” video was deleted a few hours later and Bolsonaro even publicly apologized for it. But its message was widely spread on social networks. It even aired nationwide during prime-time TV on the same news program that Globo employed to report upon the investigations into Marielle’s death. In this case, this card was withdrawn from the table after it had had its effect on both the president’s political supporters and the “enemies” mentioned in the video in question.

This pattern reinforces the idea of Bolsonaro’s immobility in the face of the challenges, adversities, and political opponents he faces. This same immobility meme was widely employed during his presidential campaign, remembering that Bolsonaro was hospitalized and therefore immobilized for much of it. His immobility thus justified his absence from the televised presidential debates. After the election, the pattern of immobility justified the non-fulfillment of Bolsonaro’s campaign promises or the disatisfaction of his voters.

The video also puts the president’s supporters at the center of the scene. This occurs when a younger lion labeled “Conservative Patriot” steps in to save the older lion (Bolsonaro) from the hyenas. The purpose of this video is thus twofold as it seeks to rallies Bolsonaro’s constituency to his defense while,  at the same time, it indicates which enemies should be attacked. It is a way of pointing out opponents who should be the targets of virtual attacks and it guides possible protests and mobilizations of the right.

2. The New Man Card – The Pattern of Rebirth

Another narrative that has gained prominence once again is the meme that recalls the stabbing involving Adelio Bispo, responsible for Bolsonaro’s attempted murder during the 2018 presidential campaign. In this sense, Bolsonaro is portrayed as not only be the victim of a political conspiracy but as someone whose life is at risk. The way the stabbing was treated in the election campaign was a decisive factor in winning the vote of women and other more reluctant voters, as I have pointed out elsewhere. The way the stabbing episode was handled in the campaign had the effect of “humanizing” Bolsonaro among voters who were unconvinced by his more virile posings, in that it exploited the candidate’s weaker condition.

The stabbing episode was exploited as a turning point in Bolsonaro’s conduct during the campaign. His survival of the attack was portrayed as a kind of revival and a justification for the candidate’s taking a softer tone at the end of his campaign. A year after the event, Bolsonaro celebrated the date as his “second birthday”, claiming to have become been born again or a new man after the attack. Not coincidentally, this narrative was evoked by Minister Damaris, acting in direct dialogue with groups of women scholars. This narrative is also charged with religious meaning since Bolsonaro situates himself as having survived due to a miracle, attributed by the president to God.

3. But What About the PT? – The Mirror Pattern

The case of the murder of Petista Mayor Celso Daniel had already surfaced a few days prior to the Jornal Nacional report, due to the publication of a cover story in the latest issue of Veja magazine. According to the report, Marcos Valerio reportedly quoted former President Lula as one of the killers of then-Mayor of Santo André, Celso Daniel. In an interview with other media channels, the investigating delegate denied that Marcos Valério made any statement to this effect.

The suspicion that Lula was the mastermind of this crime was widely mobilized by Bolsonaro’s supporters, however, and this was one of the first answers when Bolsonaro’s name was cited in the Marielle case. This pattern has been repeated in several situations in which Bolsonaro finds himself under suspicion and immediately accuses Lula of acting in a similarl fashion. Thus, the image of both the Workers’ Party (PT) and Lula himself act as a sort of a mirror to counter Bolsonaro’s accusations.

Back to Marielle and Anderson

On the day following the publication of the Jornal Nacional’s report, Rio de Janeiro’s Public Prosecutor himself stated that the witness against Bolsonaro was lying. The president took this as proof of his thesis that he is being unfairly persecuted. With this, Bolsonaro can finally cast suspicion on any accusation against himself in the press. Within the voter base that remains true to Bolsonaro, such suspicions and accusations of his involvement in Marielle’s death may function, symbolically, as a kind of “second stab”, which keeps his base of support united in a situation in which Bolsonaro is cast as the victim of forces that immobilize him or try to immobilize him.

However, even the suspicion of the president’s involvement in Marielle’s execution is very serious, not to mention the fact that Bolsonaro ordered the direct intervention of Justice Minister Sergio Moro, in the event that the President could become a party under investigation. Also serious are the accusations that Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel was interfering with the case and manipulating the investigations so as to undermine Bolsonaro, his potential political rival.

The fact is that in a scenario of growing loss of support and disputes with his former supporters, Bolsonaro is no longer clear about the scope of his base. Actions such as the live broadcast of a video in the middle of the night during his overseas trip are also a way of measuring his current political reach. Bolsonaro no longer knows exactly the range or depth of his base of support. He needs to test it and on-the-air live desperation (with a bit of orchestration and a touch of real despair) is one way of measuring that support.

When Bolsonaro states that he is reducing “the democratic space of the left,” he plays his cards to test how far he can advance in accelerating the shrinkage of democratic space per se, given that there is no distinction between from right and left in these terms. Finally,  in the face of all the political issues at stake, let us not lose sight of the hoorifying executions of Marielle and Anderson and the necessary search for justice for them.

SPW would like to thank Thaddeus Blanchette for the translation of this article.

Photo: Sofia Santana

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