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What does Bolsonaro mean for Brazil?

Analysing the presidency so far and determining what’s next for Brazil under Bolsonaro’s rule

An image of Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, speaking at his inauguration ceremony in January 2019.

The New Presidency

Since 1st January 2019, Brazil has seen an unprecedented turn of events in its history. With the arrival of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the country is experiencing, for the first time since the end of the military dictatorial period that lasted from 1964 to 1985, its first right-wing government democratically elected. The rise of Bolsonaro to power, his perspectives, and the challenges imposed by both the national establishment and the growing interactions of the country with the international scenery are presented in this paper.

Jair Messias Bolsonaro, 64, is a retired Captain of the Brazilian Army and a career politician, and with his rise to power, much controversy and misinformation flooded the national and international media. Many of these concerns are due to the fact that Brazil carries in its recent history a 21-year military dictatorship (from 1st April 1964 to 15 March 1985), and certainly, the arrival of a president with such proximity to the military helped to increase uncertainty and fear for a considerable part of the population. Part of the fear is related to his strong support for national conservatism during his 27-year term as a congressman. Bolsonaro is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action, drug liberalisation, and secularism.

Bolsonaro’s victory is the result of a long process, which has contributed to the erosion of PT’s (Workers Party) 13-year rule, abridged abruptly by Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment amid an unprecedented economic crisis and corruption scandals involving its entire political base and support.

The real change in public opinion started to be seen during the demonstrations of 2013 across Brazil. In these protests, the growth of the right took place with the revelations of the anti-corruption operation, Lava Jato, and culminated in the demonstrations in favour of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2015 and 2016.

The discrediting of the political system and the public security crisis, fuelled by the increase in unemployment, led to demonstrations throughout the country in defence of public order, against corruption and also against the left. The ideal conditions were thus formed for the emergence of an outsider, not committed to traditional political parties, and capable of capitalising on social discontent regarding security and economic austerity policies.

Brazil’s new leader arrives dismantling the logic of coalition presidentialism, where the President of the Republic forms his ministries with members of the parties that leverage him during the elections in a similar way to what happens in a parliamentary system.

On the other hand, the parties offer the votes necessary for the president to approve the governmental agenda in the National Congress. Among the Ministers announced by the new president, none of them is politically bound – with the exception of Onyx Lorenzoni, Minister of the Civil House.

While on the one hand the spread of a more homogeneous support group by the Federal Public Administration can bring more cohesion to the performance, on the other hand it must imply in difficulties of connection out of government, in the world of realpolitik, especially to the other parties and the Legislative, as well with public policy as in the case of the academy, social movements and other civil society organisations.

The political support of the president surely is also very dependent on the resumption of economic activity, however, it is very likely that the president will gradually change these contours towards a less sectarian and personalist and more aggregate government. After all, the new president of Brazil, despite the harsh criticism he has been receiving and the Fake News phenomenon, is faithful to democracy and to the National Constitution.

Reforms, Investment and External Relations

In the first 100 days of the new Brazilian president’s government, much of his campaign promises began to be fulfilled and with them major changes in the structure of government. One of these was the dismantling of 21,000 government jobs, including several that were commissioned, which will generate a savings of US $ 200 million for the country’s coffers. It reduced the number of ministries from 29 to 22 and sanctioned, through new provisional measures, anti-fraud laws, extinguished the Auxiliary Confinement Aid, abolished the Compulsory Syndicate Contribution, and endorsed the Anti-Crime Package designed by Judge Sérgio Moro, well known for his role in Operation Lava Jato and the sentence and arrest of former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

The Anti-Crime package of Sergio Moro, the current Minister of Justice, deals with the necessary effort in the fight against corruption, concomitantly with deregulation and greater transparency in administration; combating organised crime, reinforcing the firm articulation between security forces, intelligence, public prosecutor and judiciary (with specialised courts and task forces); strong repression of crime, by means of territorial control actions and the ostensible presence of the security forces.

In the social arena, the direction taken is for a reassessment of human rights, which as the president points out, are fundamental for law-abiding citizens, but often a hindrance to police forces in fighting crime and trafficking in Brazil. The Government seems to be compromised with regards to the protection of civil rights for the protection of citizens, protection of their property, their domicile, and legal implementation of the right to self-defence and of third parties, as seen in recent possession fire. There is also a great concern about the need for an “ideological cleaning” in Brazilian schools and university centres, which have been transformed into centres of indoctrination of Communist values.

In terms of infrastructure improvements, the government started the year with the auction of 12 airports, the privatisation of 4 seaports and the construction of the gigantic North-South railway line, totalling an investment of US $12 billion. The government is also exploring new solutions to the problems in the North-Northeast region of the country, which has led to Israel helping the country in techno-scientific terms such as the development of water desalination techniques available in this region of Brazil, and also in tactical activities such as search and rescue and humanitarian aid, as in the recent rupture of the Brumadinho mining dam where the Israeli Army sent troops to help search for survivors.

Recently the crisis in Venezuela has put Brazil in a difficult position. As a natural regional mediator, Brazil found itself in an uncomfortable position after China and Russia spoke out against the United States’ involvement in the country’s crisis. While the United States has a more interventionist attitude, along with the Brazilian government, Brazil is forced to consider its relations with China, its largest trading partner, in how it will deal with the situation.


Click here to download a report on the Venezuelan Crisis in 2019

In relation to the environment, Bolsonaro discusses several problems of the productive sector, especially in regard to environmental licensing. He points to the rampant proliferation of organisations involved in preserving the environment and the way in which these institutes and national official bodies themselves carry a load of barriers that stand in the way of economic and social development. The government now understands that in the name of environmental preservation, unnecessary abuses are committed through bureaucracies and incomprehensible delays that often make projects unfeasible due to delay, financial losses and loss of competitiveness, with harmful consequences for the country’s economy and production.

The new president of Brazil knows the importance of environmental preservation but argues that he will not let hypocrisy continue to override the reasonable. Bolsonaro recently confirmed to executives gathered at the World Economic Forum that Brazil would stay in the Paris Agreement. Non-governmental organisations have been targeted by the president since the election, and all covenants and partnerships between the local government and environmental nongovernmental organisations have been suspended for 90 days in order to investigate all disbursements made by funds from the ministry, such as the Climate Fund, the National Environment Fund and the Amazon Fund, which are beneficiaries of third sector organisations.

What’s Next?

The government has everything to carry out a new cycle of state reform. The last major cycle occurred with the privatisation of 1995-2000, the Fiscal Responsibility Law, the administrative reform and the Law of Social Organisations during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration. The perspective of a new cycle of modernisation of the country exists and is great, but it is necessary that the projects are made feasible in the political realm. In addition to the Social Security reform, the tendency is to facilitate the business environment by reducing the state’s presence on several fronts and making labour regulations even more flexible.

In relation to the National Congress and the issue of corruption, the president is betting on forming legislative coalitions, without party agreements that involve participation in the government. They are possible, but they can be more politically expensive and less predictable. To date, the new government has been turning the parties into secondary actors. The influence of the evangelical and agribusiness groups on the appointment and veto of ministers is unprecedented. The government has demonstrated its willingness for presidential and ministerial unilateralism, the use of interim measures and decrees to change government policies and executive structures, and this appears to be something that will continue through this year. The bet is that the government can mobilize Congress based on prestige, public pressure, with the help of some smaller concessions, linked to amendments to the budget and positions in the second ranking layers of administrative jobs. There will be further reduction in the pattern of political patronage.

As stated before, there is a doubt whether this new relationship profile with Congress will be effective. It is necessary to know if this relationship will help in the difficult and unpopular votes that the government is facing, starting with Social Security reform. Certainly, the agendas involving the fight against corruption, such as the end of the privileged forum, new rules of transparency and compliance, arrest in the second instance, among others, will have strong appeal in public opinion and support in government. The appointment of Sergio Moro to the Minister of Justice in his government guarantees the existence of a strong anti-corruption agenda. The minister agreed to participate in the government for exactly that reason. There is an agenda, developed by Operation Lava Jato, which will now have institutional developments.

In fact, the moral dimension is also on the agenda of the supporters of the new government. The appeal to morality is present among evangelicals and advocates of the non-party school project that led Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. But it is worth remembering that any measures that could affect rights will eventually be taken to the Supreme Court. With regard to public security, the commitment to reviewing the disarmament status to make weapons more flexible, as well as the hardening of laws, as previously mentioned, seems to have taken place, since there has been a 25% reduction in crime in the country in the first 3 months of government, according to the Nucleus of Studies of Violence of USP and the Brazilian Forum of Public Security. However, everything needs to be better matched between states. These are the ones responsible for public security policy in a federative republic like Brazil.

With a potentially conflicting agenda, the Bolsonaro government must set priorities. There is always the danger of trying to do everything at the same time and end up doing nothing. Prioritising issues with greater potential for consensus and discouraging conflict will be a good start. However, clearly the moods still remain as during the elections and there is still a very angry confrontation against the previous government and what remained of it in the current government.

The new leaders of the country need to remember that although they have been elected by a portion of society they represent all, including those who did not vote for them. The opposition, on the other hand, needs to be purposeful and point out different ways of being represented. The debate must move to the field of ideas both in the streets and in the National Congress.

In short, despite some optimism at the outset, so many changes in such a short period of time can provide great surprises. Brazil wanted to change and reform is now occurring at great speed. If you’d like to keep up to date with the fast-changing landscape of Brazil, we provide a real-time threat intelligence platform that monitors political trends and patterns as well as notifies you of signifcant changes or developments across the country.

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