Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has asked Senator Ciro Nogueira to serve as his chief of staff in the face of falling popularity and growing outrage over his handling of the world’s second-deadliest COVID-19 outbreak.
Nogueira, the leader of the center-right Progressives Party (PP), tweeted on Tuesday that he had accepted the position and would be sworn in as Bolsonaro’s closest minister this week, replacing a retired general.
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 irregularities in the government’s purchase of COVID-19 vaccines.
Nogueira belongs to the same PP party as House Speaker Arthur Lira, who has refused to take up any of the dozens of impeachment requests filed against Bolsonaro.
“The appointment solidifies the presence of this key party in the government and gives Bolsonaro some peace of mind,” said Lucas de Aragao, a partner at Brasilia consultancy Arko Advice.
Bolsonaro has yet to decide which party he will join to seek re-election next year and the PP will likely become the main component of any coalition he will try to build, Aragao said.
According to recent polls, Bolsonaro’s popularity has plummeted as a result of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in which he has downplayed the severity of the situation despite the deaths of 550,000 Brazilians. If the election were held today, polls show he would be easily defeated by former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
To make matters worse, the Senate investigation has implicated Ricardo Barros, the government’s chief whip in the lower house of Congress and a member of the PP party, in a scandal involving a purchase contract for 20 million doses of the Covaxin vaccine manufactured by India’s Bharat Biotech.
A health ministry whistle-blower accused the president of ignoring warnings about the 1.6 billion-real ($316 million) deal. Bolsonaro and Barros have denied all wrongdoing, and the government has since canceled the contract.
Nogueira is a member of the “centrao,” or big centre, coalition that Bolsonaro has embraced in order to stay in power, despite the fact that dozens of their lawmakers are under investigation for graft.
Critics say Bolsonaro has joined the ranks of the corrupt politicians he promised to bring down when he ran for office in 2018.
In an interview on Monday, Bolsonaro stated that if he did not deal with lawmakers under investigation, he would lose the support of “almost half of Congress.”
“For now, this is what I have to work with,” he told Radio Arapua.