With longtime leftist out of the picture, Brazil lurches right

Brash, hard-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is cleaning up in Brazil. How bad could that be for Brazilians and for the world?

By: /
October 25, 2018
Brazil
A doll with the image of Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), is pictured during a demonstration in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 21, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The second round of Brazil’s presidential elections will take place on October 28 but the die has been cast: barring a miracle — or a cataclysmic disaster, depending on what side of the political spectrum one falls — Jair Messias Bolsonaro will almost certainly become president of the world’s eighth largest economy and fifth largest country by population.

The man, a former army captain with an unremarkable 27-year political career, sounds like an awkward Donald Trump with an even more explicitly sexist and racist bent. He promises an all-out war against crime in a country where the police already kill thousands every year, denounces human rights as a scheme to protect criminals, and openly longs for the quiet and stability that torture and repression ensured under Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. His economic program is ill-defined, but he has spoken about privatization, deregulation and tax reform, and his main economic adviser is reminiscient of the Chicago-trained economists known for bringing neoliberal policies to the region in the 80s. 

Bolsonaro campaigned in the first round with little funding and a minuscule allotment of government-funded TV time because his party, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), had negligible representation in Congress and he could find precious few allies among other parties. He was forcefully denounced by all his opponents, the mainstream media and the country’s academics and intellectuals, and was unable to campaign after being stabbed during a rally.

Still, in the first round of voting on October 7, he finished first, and in a crowded field received 46 percent of all valid votes 17 percent more than Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, against whom he will run in this weekend’s second round. The latest polls give Bolsonaro close to 60 percent of the votes in the latter. Most centrist and right-wing parties are now supporting him or refusing to take a strong stand in favour of his adversary, and he enjoys majority support in most regions of the country and in all major demographics, except in the poor Northeast, where the left still appears to maintain significant support.

Well-meaning people the world over have noticed and many are panicking. The New York Times deplored “Brazil’s Sad Choice.” Le Monde published a manifesto of intellectuals asking Brazilians to oppose Bolsonaro’s election. In the run-up to the first round, the Economist devoted its cover, main editorial and lead story to the “menace” he represents for Brazil and Latin America, and Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro and an OpenCanada contributor, wondered in The New York Times if Brazil’s democracy could be saved.

Should the world, Latin America and especially Brazil really be scared by this latest incarnation of right-wing populism? To answer this question, one needs to understand why Brazilians are voting for Bolsonaro, and how much power he will have.

"One should probably read much of the support for Bolsonaro as a protest vote."

It is obviously very early for a post-mortem, but one should probably read much of the support for Bolsonaro as a protest vote. Many Brazilians have plenty of excellent reasons to be mad, and precious few to support a candidate — Haddad — clearly identified with the party that has governed the country for most of the last 16 years. Very little is left of a euphoric decade of growth underlied by China’s massive demand for the resources that Brazil exports. This extraordinary moment coincided with a unique demographic sweet spot in Brazil’s history, during which the ratio of working age population to dependents (children and retirees) was at its apex. It was an exceptional juncture, a golden opportunity. And the opportunity was missed. One could point to sectoral reforms, in health and education for instance, that could have long-lasting impacts, but much of the massive rent available for long-term structural investments was wasted in poorly-designed subsidies to the private sector, a massive expansion of public sector employment and pharaonic projects — most spectacularly, both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, held just two years apart.

Today, barely recuperating from three years of recession and stagnation, the country finds itself with poor growth prospects, high unemployment, a massive fiscal deficit, and a social security system that threatens to go bankrupt before much of the population can benefit from it. Add to the mix recurrent public health crises (remember Zika?), a chronic public security disaster (more than 60,000 homicides last year) that did not even let off at the height of the economic boom, and a constant flow of corruption scandals engulfing almost all political parties and reaching all the way up to two of the country’s last presidents, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva and Michel Temer.

Amid crises, enter Bolsonaro

Weird, vulgar and boasting extreme views, Bolsonaro was a marginal figure in the Brazilian Congress. Like many of his fellow politicians, he has been under criminal investigation, but for racism and incitation for rape, not for corruption. In a most perverse way, he was thus not even in on the corruption schemes that involved many of his colleagues, and he has cleverly used that fact to present himself, with some justice, as an outsider. Haddad, a former mayor of São Paulo, could have made the same claim, but from the start, and very publicly during the first round, he fully identified with former president Lula, who is in prison for corruption. Through that lens, the choice was stark, between the outsider, Bolsonaro, and Haddad, hand-picked by the person who for many embodies the scandal.

The strong rejection of incumbents to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies in the first round also points to a protest vote and to a deep discontent with the political establishment: 85 percent of the senators elected and 52 percent of deputies will be new. Above all, however, the election was a settling of accounts between Brazilian elites and Lula, a man they long despised and were happy to see confined to prison and denied a chance to defend himself. Without Lula as its candidate, the PT proved to be doomed. Had Lula run, many, especially among the poor, would have forgiven the corruption that is largely taken for granted in Brazilian politics. Lula would certainly have made it to the second round and his chances would be much better than those of Haddad, who can’t capitalize on Lula’s personalist appeal, but has to shoulder the revulsion he inspires on the right and in much of the centre.

So President Bolsonaro it will likely be, but, if so, what will that mean, exactly?

Political scientists are notoriously bad at predicting the future, but a number of factors suggest that Brazil is unlikely to take a radical turn, even with Bolsonaro at its helm. More likely, the country will keep muddling through, down a mediocre path of slow and skewed modernization, with modest and inequitable growth, continuing social violence and environmental destruction, limited economic liberalization, deepening fiscal paralysis and continuous political bickering.

"Bolsonaro will govern from the hard right, in sum, but he won’t have a free hand."

Brazil’s 1988 Constitution already made the country’s presidents largely hostage to a highly framented Congress, a weakness amplified by subsequent constitutional amendments. The power presidents have must be wrestled through the constant construction and reconstruction of coalitions with the plethora of parties that populate the two chambers of its Congress.

Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL, has four of the 81 seats in the Senate. It may end up with the largest deputation in the Chamber, but once deputies from parties with too few votes move to larger ones, it will still have at most 75 seats out of 513, and need to weave together coalitions of seven or more parties to pass any measure. Bolsonaro will find broad support for blunt anti-crime measures, regressive environmental policies, conservative social policies and perhaps some privatization. But he hasn’t demonstrated much ability or fondness for coalition-building and will quickly find out that, far from controlling them, he will be the instrument of these lobbies at least as much as they will be his.

The Brazilian judiciary has lost prestige in the eyes many Brazilians, but none of its independence and institutional power. The Lava Jato scandal may have hurt the PT the most, but as the party in power while hundreds of millions were being diverted, this should be expected. Politicians from all parties, and some of the country’s most prominent business people, however, are also in prison. And while they are currently despised by much of the left, a majority of current members of the Supreme Court were named by PT presidents and are unlikely to look kindly at attempts to limit their power or to challenge what remains a democratic and progressive constitution. 

Weathering a military leader

Much has been made of Bolsonaro’s military past, of his glorification of the military regime and of its methods, of his commitment to bring generals into the cabinet and of his promise to use violence to put an end to the violence that plagues the country. Some retired military officers have expressed support and one of them stands as his running mate, but Bolsonaro is more at ease with the violent SWAT-type police units of Rio and São Paulo than with most of the well-educated and polished members of Brazil’s higher military ranks. The Brazilian military as an institution is certainly not welcoming the attention. It has been steadily constitutionalist since going back to the barracks (largely on its own, it must be added), devoid of a political project — unlike during the dictatorship decades ago. It is also underfunded and worried about getting trapped in urban policing quagmires. Public security, moreover, is a jealously guarded state prerogative, which the federal government rarely challenges, except by invitation, and the federal coffers are in the red, mostly tied up with pensions, including military ones.

Bolsonaro will govern from the hard right, in sum, but he won’t have a free hand. He will have to bargain with a fractious Congress and deal with a strong judiciary, 27 state governments and quite a feisty media. Things could certainly go awry: major national crises, like the truckers’ strike that paralyzed the country last spring, or a new global financial crisis that some see looming, could open the door to bluntly repressive interventions, but it is difficult to fathom a Venezuela-like collapse. Brazil’s institutions, however unable to realize the country’s potential, look robust enough after three decades of consolidation to weather these shocks.

As to ripple effects in the region, or beyond, they are unlikely. Brazil remains the most insulated economy of the continent, its convulsions have little bearing on its neighbours and it is largely oblivious of them. Supportive winks could well come from Washington and Moscow, but the elites with whom Bolsonaro will be forced to come to terms with would not countenance a radical shift in the country’s reserved international posture.

Brazilians themselves, in other words, will alone pay the price of their choice. Sadly, the poor among them will pay more, beginning, most likely, with the young black men who die by the tens of thousands in the countries’ metropolis and who will now be hunted down by the police — as they already are — with the blessing of the president. Women seeking abortions, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, human rights and environmental activists can also expect a rough patch. But the dictatorship feared by the global commentariat looks unlikely to materialize.