When Sérgio Moro resigned as justice minister on Friday, accusing Jair Bolsonaro of meddling in a police investigation, the former star judge shifted everyone’s attention away from coronavirus — by triggering the gravest political crisis of the Brazilian president’s administration so far.
With support for the firebrand populist president already falling because of his handling of the pandemic and speculation rife that other ministers might also quit, the country’s attorney-general has now opened an investigation into Mr Moro’s claims of political interference. Mr Bolsonaro has said the claims are unfounded.
With Dilma Rousseff’s removal from power still fresh in public memory, the crisis raises the prospect of a second impeachment of a president in Latin America’s largest democracy in five years.
“The accusations made by Moro are very serious,” said Joice Hasselmann, a lawmaker who broke with Mr Bolsonaro last year and wants Mr Moro to be elected president in 2022. “They reinforce the requests for Bolsonaro’s impeachment — and we can expect an avalanche of other requests now.”
“This is the single most important crisis the Bolsonaro administration has ever faced,” said Thomaz Favaro of consultancy Control Risks in São Paulo.
Mr Moro said he was standing down because the president had attempted to hamper police investigations, which some claim implicate his sons, by sacking the chief of the federal police.
Mr Bolsonaro’s family have faced questions over alleged links to Rio de Janeiro’s underworld, which they deny, as well as the suspected targeting of Mr Bolsonaro’s political foes with digital “fake news”, which they also deny.
“This is mostly about the sons, about the fact that these investigations are really moving close to something Bolsonaro doesn’t want to see involving the sons,” said Mario Marconini, managing partner at consultancy Teneo.
It is unclear when the attorney-general’s report on Mr Moro’s allegations — a possible legal basis for any impeachment process — will be completed. For Mr Bolsonaro to be impeached, a majority of members of the Congress and the Senate would need to vote in favour of his removal. He has been losing support in Congress, but is trying to win it back, congressional insiders say. The speaker of the lower house, who must instigate the process, may wait to see if Mr Bolsonaro is further weakened before he acts, they add.
“Bolsonaro is giving us enough reasons to ask for his impeachment. But he knows at this moment we are focused on fighting the virus. If we start impeachment at this moment, the whole country will be paralysed and thousands of lives will be lost,” said opposition lawmaker Tabata Amaral, as the number of coronavirus fatalities in Brazil surpassed 4,000 on Saturday.
Even without a long drawn out impeachment process, the justice minister’s departure threatens to shatter what confidence remains in the president, analysts say. Mr Bolsonaro recently fired another popular cabinet member, health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who accused him of flouting health guidelines aimed at taming the spread of Covid-19.
“Everything Bolsonaro touches is tarnished,” said Ilona Szabó at the Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based security think-tank.
But the departure of Mr Moro is of a different order. Polls show him to be Brazil’s most trusted politician. He gained accolades in the southern city of Curitiba as the crusading anti-graft judge in Brazil’s Lava Jato, or “Car Wash” probe. He secured his biggest scalp when he sent leftist two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to jail.
On Friday, Mr Bolsonaro said Mr Moro’s accusations against him were unfounded and said he has never sought to shield family members from the police investigations against them. He also accused Mr Moro of demanding a seat on the Supreme Court in exchange for letting the president fire the police chief, a claim the former magistrate denied.
There is speculation that popular economy minister, Paulo Guedes could also resign. Mr Guedes’s free-market reforms have been sidelined in favour of a new fiscal stimulus plan to fight the economic hardship caused by coronavirus.
A financier close to the Bolsonaro family said there is “zero reason” for the University of Chicago-educated Mr Guedes to leave. But some analysts foresee his departure, a further blow to the president, as inevitable.
“The president is digging his own grave. Let him resign before being removed, saving us from the coronavirus and a long process of impeachment,” said former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
As fatalities from coronavirus rise, the question facing Mr Bolsonaro is how he can shore up support both with centrists in Congress and disenchanted voters. “Bolsonaro has been losing supporters by the day, this is starkly similar to what happened to Rousseff,” said Mr Favaro of Control Risks. “She also tried to build bridges with the centrists — and failed.”
There is historical precedent for Brazilian leaders to be felled during times of epidemic. The “Spanish Flu” of 1919 killed president-elect Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves. Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 following a cholera outbreak. Dilma Rousseff followed suit in 2016 as her popularity plunged in the midst of a Zika epidemic.
In his resignation speech on Friday, Mr Moro made clear the difficult decision he had faced. “I’ve tried to avoid a political crisis in the midst of the pandemic, which is where the focus should be, but it is my duty to protect the rule of law,” Mr Moro said to roaring applause.
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice in São Paulo