Brazil has been one of the hardest-hit countries this year by the global coronavirus pandemic with a death toll of 176,628 (December 2020) and more fatalities per capita than nearly any other country. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president since January 2019, has been lax in his government’s response to the pandemic, sacrificing numerous lives that an early response would have saved. His government’s actions, or rather lack thereof, can be implicated in the country’s high death and case counts. With the severity of the economic, health, and social impact of the coronavirus in Brazil, one might expect Bolsonaro’s popularity to drop precipitously. Bolsonaro’s popularity has only soared. In this post, I will argue that the coronavirus emergency cash transfer program has been the key driver of Bolsonaro’s popularity through the program’s disruption of existing clientelistic structures. Through the coronavouchers program, Bolsonaro has built his own centralized, regularized, and predictable system of transferring material wealth to voters that bypasses existing clientelistic structures and have led to his popularity.
Brazil’s Poor Economic Outlook and Bolsonaro’s Popularity
Brazil has experienced a drop in real GDP by 9.7% YoY in Q2 of 2020; its unemployment rate hit an all-time high of 14.6% in September 2020. Despite these metrics, Bolsonaro’s popularity has increased from 29% in Dec 2019 to 32% in June 2020 and to 41% in Nov 2020. With Brazil’s weak economic and health outlook, it is surprising to witness his popularity soar.
In April, Bolsonaro proposed and implemented the coronavouchers emergency check program which gives 66 million people $110 every month (they were halved to $55 in September). They reach nearly a third of the population. These checks have been so effective at protecting families during the pandemic that people living in extreme poverty dropped to 3.3%, and the percent of families earning less than $5.50 dropped to 21.7%, both metrics down four percentage points from June 2019.
How Clientelism Helps Explain Bolsonaro’s Recent Rise in Popularity
Poor Brazilians who were once loyal to Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party are starting to rally around Bolsonaro, a far-right leader. Numerous working class Brazilians who had been life-long Worker’s Party voters now expressed their new support for Bolsonaro, saying “Bolsonaro cares and now has my vote in 2022.” Among Brazil’s lowest earners, Bolsonaro’s popularity rose from 22% in December 2019 to 35% in September 2020. We can use our understanding of clientelistic behavior to grasp why these policies might be so popular. Clientelism is a network of relationships based on the (often quid-pro-quo) exchange of goods and services for political support. Susan Stokes argues “the poor value a given material reward more highly [than the wealthy] and hence are more responsive to machine largess.” From a recipient’s point of view, cash transfers are the best example of material reward even if it is not coming from a local political machine.
Further, in 2000, Kitschelt writes that, “clientelist exchanges always trumps that of indirect programmatic linkages promising uncertain and distant rewards to voters.” However, 21st century welfare programs and the new coronavouchers represent a more direct programmatic linkage; the rewards are neither distant nor uncertain. In 2013, the “going rate” for votes “is about 200 reais ($63) a family, paid shortly [by a local broker to a poor family] before election day in the form of bus tickets, medicine or cash.” Analysts concluded, “the sum is just enough to be attractive, but nowhere near sufficient to make a difference to people’s lives.” Both Lula’s anti-poverty Bolsa Familia and Bolsonaro’s coronavouchers dole out cash at much higher amounts and at a much higher frequency than their clientelistic counterparts. Coronavouchers and Bolsa Familia arrive monthly, whereas clientelistic brokers only come to poor voters biennially for municipal elections or quadrennially for lower house, upper house, and presidential elections. Therefore, these monthly programs are more impactful to citizens because they provide significant material benefit and become more influential in shaping electoral outcomes.
Bolsa Familia and Lula’s Rise in Popularity
A similar example of a large social welfare program that boosted a leader’s popularity is Lula’s Bolsa Familia. Starting in 2003, the Bolsa Familia (family purse) conditional cash transfer program raised 36 million people out of poverty. The program provides $30/month to mothers who earn less than $53/month, reaching 11 million families and over 46 million people each year. Lula’s approval rating was at an international record of 87% when he left office in 2011. The electoral impact of the Bolsa Familia program is clear, especially amongst Brazil’s poorest; one voter from a village in the poor state of Maranhão said “before Bolsa Familia started, I would never have voted for the Workers’ Party, but Lula made a big difference to our lives with these payments and Dilma [Lula’s Workers’ Party presidential successor elected in 2011] has continued them. I think they have been great presidents.” Statements like these demonstrate a newfound support for politicians linked closely to the material benefits gained from those politicians holding office.
Furthermore, studies have shown that welfare programs weaken clientelistic networks by building “centralized welfare policies that deliver goods directly to the poor, bypassing traditional clientelist structures”. Bolsonaro has started to disrupt existing clientelistic networks to reach the poorest part of Brazil’s electorate. Delivering goods directly to the poor and raising their economic condition marks a shift in welfare policies. Because these policies are centralized, it is clear who the source of income is, and who voters can attribute their material and sustained improvements in wellbeing to.
Coronavouchers Helped Avert Economic Crisis
Since Brazil’s economic outlook is still weak, had the coronavouchers program not been implemented, the predicted 8-15 million people who will likely fall into poverty once the program stops would have fallen sooner into poverty. With such a large population in poverty in a vastly unequal country, citizens would have expected government support or blamed the country’s leaders for their economic challenges. This likely would have led to Bolsonaro’s popularity to continue its previous decline.
An alternative possible explanation of Bolsonaro’s rise in popularity is that Bolsonaro is leading through a crisis, and leaders’ popularity typically rises in these periods. However, had the coronavouchers not been distributed, the economic crisis would have been far worse. Brazil spent 7% of GDP on its coronavirus stimulus, and the economy is expected to contract by 5%. Whereas Mexico and Argentina spent 3% and 4%, respectively and are expected to each contract by 10%. With a promise of economic growth in his campaign, such severe economic recession would have pushed him past the threshold of favorability even when combating a crisis.
Conclusion: Bolsonaro’s Plans for Social Welfare
disrupting traditional clientelistic networks through the coronavouchers cash
transfer program, Bolsonaro has seen his popularity rise amongst Brazil’s
poorest. In 2018, Bolsonaro ran on a platform of anti-corruption, being tough
on crime, fiscal conservatism, and cutting back on social benefits, even
calling beneficiaries of Brazil’s popular Bolsa Familia program “ignorant wretches.” His government
systematically removed people from Bolsa Familia and slowed monthly new
acceptances from 275,000 to 2,500; the number of registrants fell by one million. In a quick reversal of policy, Bolsonaro
pushed for Brazil to spend $9.3 billion per month to support Brazil’s poorest.
We can understand how the coronavouchers have become a key driver in
Bolsonaro’s popularity by teasing apart the mechanisms of clientelism and how
Bolsonaro has now built direct structures to ensure centralized, predictable,
and large material benefits to voters.
 Stokes, Susan, Thad Dunning, Valeria Brusco and Marcelo Nazareno. 2013. Voters, Brokers and Clientelism. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 6.
 Kitschelt, Herbert. 2000. “Linkages Between Citizens and Politicians In Democratic Polities.” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 33 No. 6/7, (August/September): 845-879. http://investigadores.cide.edu/aparicio/clientelism/kitschelt2000.pdf