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Hamilton Mourão: Loyal deputy to Brazil’s Bolsonaro or dangerous rival?

Evaristo Sa / AFP | Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) and his Vice-President Hamilton Mourao attend a ceremony marking the first 100 days of their government at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on April 11, 2019.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s first months in office were marked by infighting within his administration. He now finds himself competing with his own vice president, Hamilton Mourão, a hardliner-turned-moderate who is pushing his own agenda.

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When Jair Bolsonaro was still a far-right presidential candidate in mid-2018, he picked army officer Hamilton Mourão as his running mate.  His son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, explained tothe media the reason behind the choice: “[Our] vice president must be a true hardliner,he told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

"Who would dare push for Bolsonaro’s impeachment if his vice president is Mourão?” he asked in an email to Bloomberg.

But since Bolsonaro came into office in January, tension has been mounting between the two men, with the president viewing Brazil’s second-in-command as a man looking to take his place.

Not only has Mourão toned down his more extreme views, he has made it clear that he has his own agenda entirely. While Bolsonaro focuses on meeting with his own cabinet members and political allies, Mourão prefers to talk to business figures, civil society members, diplomats, media outlets and opposition leaders.

“The vice president has proven to be a very constructive, well-informed and moderate person,the German ambassador to Brazil, Georg Witschel, told El Pais after meeting Mourão. Other diplomats described him as having “the good sense that is sometimes lacking in Bolsonaros rhetoric”.

An opinion poll in early April showed Brazilians have a better image of Mourão than of Bolsonaro. According to Datafolha, only 18% consider the vice president’s performance bad or horrible”. At the same time, Bolsonaro’s popularity has plummeted with 30% of Brazilians considering him a “bad or horrible” president. It is the worst rating for a new president in the country’s history.

And Brazil’s top men seem to be well aware of this growing competition. They havecriticised each other multiple times publicly in moves that have worsened their relationships and divided the already-troubled government.

On Saturday, Bolsonaro posted a video on his YouTube channel of his mentor, Olavo de Carvalho, criticising the country’s military. The US-based writer called the president “a martyr” for “being able to get by with those sons of bitches who gravitate around him” adding that the army “did a shitty job” during Brazil’s dictatorship (1964-1985). The video was deleted on Sunday.

The move was widely seen as targeting Mourão, an army officer who has repeatedly undermined Bolsonaro’s public statements.

As Bolsonaro visited Israel and promised to follow in US footsteps by moving the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem, Mourão met with the Palestinian ambassador to Brazil and tried to reassure him that it was unlikely to happen.

When Bolsonaro accused China of unfair trade practices, Mourão told Folha de São Paulo that Brazil “cannot afford to undermine its bonds with China”, adding that he planned to visit the country in May.

Bolsonaro encouraged attacks on Mourão

In a leaked message published by the O Globo newspaper, Bolsonaro encouraged his allies to target the vice president, particularlyon social media, in a move calculated to undermine Mourão without causing further turmoil within the government, which is largely composed of army officers and evangelical figures.

Marco Feliciano, one of the leaders of Bolsonaro’s party in the Congress, sent an official impeachment demand for Mourão on April 17 accusing the vice president of conspiring against the president. The move has very slim chances of success, but Feliciano considered it as delivering a “warning”, Feliciano told the magazine Epoca.

But while Bolsonaro and his closest allies are increasingly dissatisfied with the vice president, Mourão occupies the only position in government that cannot be dismissed by the president: He was Bolsonaro’s running mate and therefore was elected democratically.

After less than two months in office, Mourão denied there was any antagonism with Bolsonaro, telling El Pais in February that the two “complete each other”. Although the vice president is increasingly seen as a moderate alternative to Bolsonaro, Mourão was considered even more of a hardliner during the campaign.

Last September, General Mourão supported the idea of the presidency asking the army to intervene in case Brazil plunged into political “anarchy”. He also called Africans “trickstersand said homes with children raised by single mothers and grandmothers were "misfit factories" producing drug traffickers.

When it was suggested earlier this year that he had become a “moderating” influence on the president, Mourão denied it. “We were elected to govern for the whole of Brazil,he told the Washington Post. We do politics by dialogue. I don’t think this is moderation. This is just good politics.”

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