Bolsonaro Leads Brazil Into A Turbulent Future

By Felipe Leal Albuquerque 

13 November 2018 

President-Elect Jair Bolsonaro promises to bring grand changes to Brazil. (Image credit: Janine Moraes)


Nearly two weeks after winning more than 55 percent of the vote, Jair Bolsonaro, the first extreme-right politician elected to the presidency in Brazil, vows to promote sweeping changes. Supported by around 57 million voters, the histrionic former Army captain showcased himself as an outsider while combining virulent and nationalistic discourses. Even before taking office, he manoeuvred with the current Michel Temer’s administration (2016-2018) to advance economic reforms and to promote conservative views in the name of ‘family values.’ His path will necessarily be turbulent.

Driving factors

How did an ultra-conservative, unnoticed congressman who defended the dictatorship come to be president of South America’s largest country? His election is a by-product of five main factors.

First, Brazil’s economy is painfully recovering from its worst recession, which is directly related to the economic errors made during the presidency of Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) and her centre-left Worker’s Party (PT). Brazil’s GDP fell 3.5 percent in 2015 and 3.6 percent in 2016, creating social unrest and damaging PT’s image, later ending in Rousseff’s impeachment. The next year saw a sluggish economic recovery of one percent, which was not able to compensate for the 12.5 million unemployed, many of them now falling back under the poverty line.

Second, violence is endemic. The daily death toll tops Syria, with nearly 64 thousand murders and 60 thousand cases of rape recorded in 2017. In the same period, Brazil’s police killed around 14 people every day, and 385 policemen died. As far as Brazil promotes itself as a “cordial” country, it is plagued by rampant violence, especially against poor, young, black men and minorities, not to mention gender-motivated violence.

Third, the country is engulfed in spiralling corruption, which led to the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), government officials, leaders of political parties and businessmen alike. Temer and congressmen in power might come next.

Fourth, progressive agendas related to LBGT+ rights, reproductive rights and affirmative action in higher education were associated with left and centre-left parties. These advancements encountered fierce opposition, namely amongst religious groups. In 2010, around 64 percent of the country’s population was declared Catholic and 27 percent evangelical. Currently, being elected in Brazil is impossible without the support of the highly engaged evangelical communities, which now control parliamentarian seats and media outlets. In the recent election, two other candidates besides Bolsonaro declared support for evangelical beliefs.

Fifth, traditional political parties such as the PT and the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB), which disputed Brazil’s presidency since 1994, could not reinvent campaigning strategies, compose competitive campaigns and properly make use of social media. The PT did not reckon past mistakes and was over reliant on Lula’s ability to transfer votes to Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro’s main adversary. Plagued by internal rivalries and boycotting a possible centre-left coalition, the party ended up second, but still maintained prevalence over Brazil’s Northeast region and elected the largest number of seats in the lower house of the National Congress. The PSDB was also tainted by corruption scandals and disputes between older and younger party members, not being able to cultivate its position as the ‘anti-PT’ and achieving only 4.7 percent of the votes.

Together, economic recession, corruption scandals, mounting violence, the so-called ‘threats’ to family values, and the crisis of traditional parties formed the conditions explaining the Bolsonaro phenomenon. Adding to that, he was critically injured after being stabbed, which led him to avoid televised debates, thereby preventing other candidates from challenging his views directly. Rightly interpreting and fuelling popular dissatisfaction against the PT, and what he and his supporters classified as an array of ‘communists’ ranging from musician Roger Waters to political scientist Francis Fukuyama and the Pope, Bolsonaro capitalised upon the feelings of an impatient and angry population. Portraying himself as an anti-establishment candidate, he upheld patriotic slogans tempered with violent discourses, promising to jail or exile rivals.

‘Strongman diplomacy’

Bolsonaro’s election comes in a moment when strongmen are concentrating power. Together with that, multilateralism and the landmarks of the ‘liberal’ global order are treated as a scapegoat, much for their distributional costs, rising inequality and ‘decaying’ values. It is not by accident that his government pledges to emphasise bilateral relations, to move away from the Paris Agreement and to by-pass the rules and norms stemming from the United Nations, which he called a gathering of communists.

Much of that reasoning has to do with reverting PT’s foreign policy, which, Bolsonaro argues, gave undesired attention to South-South cooperation and used public funds to finance countries like Venezuela and Cuba. Indeed, in the first speech after being elected he promised to ‘liberate’ the ministry of External Affairs from an ‘ideological’ orientation. Achieving so, in his views, involves prioritising relations with countries such as the United States, Italy, and Israel, to which he promised relocating Brazil’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to review the status of a Palestinian diplomatic legacy in Brasília. His Trump-like move is short-sighted and has already caused the suspension, by the Egyptian government, of an official visit of Brazil’s current minister of external relations. It is also expected to spark criticism from poultry importing Arab markets with which Brazil has trade surpluses.

Regarding Brazil’s immediate region, Paulo Guedes affirmed that Mercosur and Argentina ‘will not be a priority.’ In his view, the economic bloc is too restrictive, harming Brazil’s chances of expanding extra-regional trade ties. Moreover, moribund Unasur is seen as a forum under the influence of Venezuela, with whom relations are already unstable. In contrary, Bolsonaro expects to promote relations with Chile.

Dialogue with China, Brazil’s biggest trading partner, is messy. In March, Bolsonaro visited Taiwan. During the campaign, he declared that the Chinese are “buying Brazil”, which led two Chinese newspapers, China Daily and Global Times, to harshly question Bolsonaro’s intentions and to affirm that his actions can cost Brazil a ‘great deal.’ Later on, he met with Chinese representatives to say that bilateral trade should increase during his government.

Not even in power, president-elect Bolsonaro is already harming Brazil’s democracy and the country’s image abroad. The question now is how much change he will be able to imprint.

Can he govern?

Bolsonaro is expected to face a paralysing fiscal scenario, a divided but vocal opposition, and one of the most fragmented lower houses in the world. Of a total of 35 political parties, 30 have at least one chair at the lower house and 21 at the senate, greatly complicating governability. His until then insignificant Social Liberal Party (PSL), however, grew from eight seats to 52, ranking second. It is expected to surpass the PT, as a ‘performance clause’ to control fragmentation was established, allowing shifts in party membership without punishment. Furthermore, Brazil’s political compass moved towards the right, which made moderate political parties – namely the PSDB and Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) – lose influence. Bolsonaro is expected to receive support from the BBB (bullets, beef, bible) caucus. That configuration can grant him enough backing even to approve constitutional amendments.

Up to now, his administration will be based on four axes, embodied by key appointees: (i) the military, represented by Vice-President General Hamilton Mourão and minister of Defence General Augusto Heleno; (ii) the Congress, guided by his future chief of staff, Congressman Onyx Lorenzoni, who is expected to accommodate demands from the BBB caucus; (iii) free market enthusiasts directed by his “super minister” and top financial advisor Paulo Guedes; and (iv) the judiciary and his second minister with unbridled powers, Judge Sergio Moro who helped to jail Lula and who is expected to tackle any wrongdoings in Bolsonaro’s political base.

In the best but unlikely scenario, Bolsonaro would be able to adjust the preferences of these different groupings, combining market reforms and anti-corruption rhetoric with a conservative, religious-like, family agenda. The crusade against some media outlets would continue and criticisms would be labelled fake news. Adding to that, he would relax gun laws, lower age of criminal responsibility and approve measures against indigenous territories and the environmental sector. He would proceed with reforms in the educational sector, favouring distance learning, and push changes in the pension system. In this situation, Bolsonaro would face street protests from the opposition. If deadlock exists and measures are postponed, he would infuriate some of his own voters and instability would mount.

A second and more likely scenario occurs with Bolsonaro not being able to handle his support base. His coalition is fragile and composed by groups with clashing interests. Two consequences can derive from that. First, congressmen counter Bolsonaro, impeding his ability to govern, as happened with Rousseff. Second, Bolsonaro attempts to circumvent Congress by heavily relying on his presidential decree authority and focusing on a minimalistic agenda that might appease his supporters.

In either case, he is likely to continue upholding radical, authoritarian-like discourses, calling voters to show public support and pressuring the media, the judiciary, and the political system. In a highly polarised political landscape with continued fears surrounding a sluggish economy, these discourses could spur increased violence, perhaps so much so that the military would be required to act.

Felipe Leal Albuquerque is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. You can follow him on Twitter @leal and on

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