October 2018 shall always be remembered as a watershed moment in Brazilian politics.
A major upheaval in the political landscape took place as far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro claimed presidency, defeating his competitor Fernando Haddad by a significant margin.
Characterised by high polarisation and declining faith in political institutions amongst the electorate, Bolsonaro’s victory spells a new era of hope and change after the left’s stranglehold on power for the past four elections. Branding himself as a strong-man leader hell bent on eradicating crime and corruption, Bolsonaro has managed to amass considerable political support for himself.
But questions remain to be asked. Is Bolsonaro the beacon of hope that Brazil needs? If so, what are some of the problems he needs to fix?
The trust of the electorate in political institutions has been largely marred by several corruption scandals – mostly stemming from the Workers’ Party (PT).
In 2005, the government of former president Lula had its image compromised by the Mensalão Scandal, which entailed clandestine payments made by the PT to extract support from its congressional allies. A total of 18 congressmen were consequently indicted, including José Dirceu who served as chief of staff to the president. The situation was further exacerbated with the onset of the Petrobras and Odebrecht scandals, as well as Dilma Rousseff’s corruption scandal that led to her impeachment in 2016.
Bolsonaro thus faces the difficult task of restoring the faith of the electorate in Brazil’s politicians, but most importantly the onerous job of curbing Brazil’s propensity for corruption.
Already he has gotten off to a good start, with the appointment of top anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro as justice minister. While the success of Operation Car Wash (which was headed by Moro) may serve as a strong deterrent to Brazil’s politicians in the short run, it is essential that Bolsonaro’s administration follows up with the creation of new institutions and mechanisms to address the problem of corruption fully.
The road is however paved with many obstacles, not least being financial constraints. Emerging from a fresh recession, Brazil’s economic standing is highly questionable, with a budget deficit of approximately eight per cent of its two trillion dollars GDP and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 80 per cent. The creation of anti-corruption institutions corruption undoubtedly adds to public expenses, perhaps even requiring the unpopular option of steeper taxation to finance it.
Secondly, both time and political will are potential hindrances to the process of legislative deliberation. With a divided Congress, Bolsonaro’s efforts to push for legislations quickly will be met with resistance, and no one can ever be sure of the outcome of lengthy congressional debates to determine spending priorities.
Political polarisation and the electorate’s waning faith in the idea of democracy are also key areas in need of addressing.
Distrust and divide
So how does the divide amongst the electorate look like? On one side are supporters of Bolsonaro who have grown weary of the PT. Under the leadership of the PT, crime and violence have become more prevalent, with a record 63,880 murders last year alone.
On the other lies the Lula loyalists who support Haddad’s intention of carrying on Lula’s socialist policies aimed at helping the poor. For a long time, Lula’s advocacy of government-run social programmes have helped to articulate the interests of the lower and middle class.
“For me and students like me who got in through social programmes giving access to university, the eight years of Lula’s government were the best in the history of the country,” says political science undergraduate Artur Sampaio in an interview with AFP.
The political outlook is even more grim when looking at the declining support in democratic institutions.
According to a study done by Chilean-based polling group Latinobarometro, only 13% of Brazilians are satisfied with democracy. It also does not help that increasing support for Bolsonaro, who has often displayed support for military dictatorships, is further diverting away support for democratic institutions. .
Speaking to Yahoo News, Reginaldo Prandi, a sociology professor at the University of Sao Paulo and also the co-founder of Datafolha, says: “The crisis creates dissatisfaction, hardships for many families and then there is this fantasy that a military dictatorship would be able to put the economy on track.”
Perhaps Bolsonaro’s electoral promise to tackle the salient issue of rampant crime could narrow the political divide – but only if his policies produce substantive results. One of Brazil’s main criminal threats stem from the prison gang known as the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), which Bolsonaro’s administration faces the challenging obstacle of subduing. Having pledged to relax gun laws, allow policing bodies to employ force against suspected criminals, and to impose tougher penalties on convicts, some are worried that his policies could possibly backfire and aid the PCC instead.
Writing for InSight Crime, Mike LaSusa believes that the toughening of criminal penalties will contribute to the country’s already swollen prison population – a major source of gang recruitment. The relaxation of gun laws may expand the blackmarket for firearms, which also happens to be a source of revenue for the PCC. There are also concerns that giving policing bodies freer reign to employ force may encourage criminal groups to retaliate violently, which may further diminish trust in security forces and hinder day-to-day policing.
Certainly, Bolsonaro’s iron fist approach towards crime may well serve to unite a fractured Brazil, but his administration’s ability to effectively reevaluate its policies and achieve desired outcomes remains to be seen.
The change that Brazil needs?
Dubbed the Trump of the Tropics, Bolsonaro’s hardline stance against crime and corruption, and his disdain for political correctness have earned him comparisons with strongman leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Some commentators have even gone as far as branding Bolsonaro a “little tropical Hitler wannabe”.
To be sure, some Bolsonaro’s electoral promises do closely resemble those of the Trump administration. With an emphasis on law and order, Bolsonaro intends to make Brazil “great” again – like how it was in its heyday under a military dictatorship – by combating corruption through a military-oriented approach towards governance, relaxing gun laws, and empowering police to take action against suspects.
His commitment towards market-friendly policies, privatisation of state-owned enterprises, and promises for reduced state intervention in the economy have also earned him the support of business people at a time of economic pessimism.
Certainly, these striking similarities have not been missed by Trump. On the day of Bolsonaro’s victory, the U.S. President tweeted “Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who won his race by a substantial margin. We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congrats!”
With employment and wage growth figures soaring two years into Trump’s presidency, Bolsonaro supporters will be hopeful that the “Trump of the Tropics” can emulate his namesake’s act. Indeed, a Trumpian approach to proceedings may well be the solution to Brazil’s crime and economic woes. But there is also much cause for caution; Trump’s unorthodox style has since driven political polarisation to new highs, something Bolsonaro can ill afford.
Too early of a conclusion?
With Bolsonaro’s policy positions lying on the far-right of the political spectrum, it is probable that disgruntlement from the Lula loyalist camp could translate into revolt and political instability. Unless the political polarisation in Brazil is mitigated, the path to law and order might be an elusive idea.
Speaking to Reuters, Monica de Bolle, director of Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins University, expressed concerns about how a deeply split country could make progress.
She said: “Many thought that by the time we got close to the election, some middle ground would be found, and that is not what we are seeing.”
This political polarisation could spell further deadlocks when it comes to the process of decision-making in parliament. Bolsonaro may have won the election, but he lacks the backing of Congress. While his Social Liberal Party (PSL) may have made significant progress with an increase from one to 52 seats in the lower house, Haddad’s PT remains the dominant party with 56 seats. This is before accounting for other political parties in Congress, all of which makes it increasingly difficult for Bolsonaro to make swift decisions in pushing through policies that reflect his electoral rhetoric.
On top of this, Bolsonaro has hardly been the paragon of virtue when it comes to social issues. His homophobic, misogynist, and anti-environment proclivities have earned him the ire of rights groups, especially those of environmentalists. Even Senator Bernie Sanders has raised concerns, calling Bolsonaro “a far-right authoritarian who has praised the former military dictatorship and referred to black activists as animals”.
Supporters however will be unfazed. With Bolsonaro only taking office in January, it is still too early to start grading the report card. As of now, all signs suggest Bolsonaro may be the messiah Brazil needs in terms of economy and safety, but his polarising nature may just fracture an already divided country.