Bolsonaro turns to centre-right senator amid drop in popularity

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing mounting pressure to account for COVID crisis and corruption allegations.

During the past weeks Brazilians have protested in large numbers against President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose popularity has plummeted amid the country’s continuing COVID-19 crisis and recent corruption allegations, has named a senator from the largest bloc in Congress as his new chief of staff.

Senator Ciro Nogueira, a leader of the centre-right Progressives Party (PP), tweeted on Tuesday that he accepted the job and is expected to be sworn in this week as Bolsonaro’s closest minister, replacing a retired general.

“I have just accepted the honourable invitation from President Jair Bolsonaro to take over the Civil House,” Nogueira said on Twitter during a meeting with the president in Brasilia.

He will be the first heavyweight politician to enter Bolsonaro’s inner cabinet as the embattled president seeks allies to shield himself from calls in Congress for his impeachment and a Senate investigation of alleged irregularities in the government’s purchase of COVID-19 vaccines.

Nogueira belongs to the same party as House Speaker Arthur Lira, who has refused to take up any of the dozens of impeachment requests filed against Bolsonaro.

Brazilian Senator Ciro Nogueira gestures after meeting with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on July 27 [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

“The appointment solidifies the presence of this key party in the government and gives Bolsonaro some peace of mind,” Lucas de Aragao, a partner at Brasilia consultancy Arko Advice, told the Reuters news agency.

During the past weeks, Brazilians have protested in large numbers against Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic; COVID-19 has killed more than 550,500 people in the South American nation, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

For the first time since the crisis began, a poll earlier this month showed that a majority of Brazilians supported a legislative effort to impeach Bolsonaro.

A COVID-19 sceptic who has routinely downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, the far-right leader has shunned calls to impose nationwide public health measures, insisting that such restrictions would hurt the economy.

“They’re protesting about many things: the government’s downplaying of the pandemic, the president’s spurning of health safety measures, the slow rollout of vaccines,” Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew reported from a large demonstration in Rio de Janeiro on July 24.

Thousands of protesters rallied across Brazil that day to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment.

A Brazilian Senate commission in April launched an investigation into Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, while questions also recently surfaced about alleged irregularities in his government’s coronavirus vaccine procurement process, as well as accusations of past corruption.

Bolsonaro has denied the allegations, but his popularity has dropped.

Recent opinion polls also show Bolsonaro being defeated handily by former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in presidential elections scheduled for next year, if the vote were held today.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies