What to Expect From a Bolsonaro Presidency in Brazil

The controversial new president may struggle to implement some of his flagship campaign promises.

Expert comment Published 29 October 2018 Updated 3 July 2019 2 minute READ
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro celebrate his election win in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Getty Images.

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro celebrate his election win in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Getty Images.

Brazil, the world’s eighth-largest economy and Latin America’s biggest democracy, has shifted sharply to the right following the presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro, a controversial conservative legislator.

The election is hardly a surprise following Bolsonaro’s strong showing in the first round on 7 October, but viewed over the longer term it is a huge shock. A year ago, it seemed the 63-year-old former army captain was just a maverick outsider who would quickly lose popularity as the wheels of the election campaign clicked into gear. Two questions loom large therefore. Why did Bolsonaro win? And what can be expected of his administration?

Popular fears about rising crime and disappointment stemming from the deep recession of 2014–16, and the sluggishness of the subsequent recovery, help explain Bolsonaro’s rise. In particular his promises to give police and soldiers more legal protection as they tackle the criminal gangs largely responsible for uptick in murder rates (homicides edged up from 26.6 to 27.4 per 100,000 between 2005 and 2010 and reached a high of 30.8 in 2017) have struck a popular chord among voters.

Bolsonaro has a history of sexist, racist and homophobic comments, and has repeatedly defended the use of torture by previous military governments. These comments have drawn serious concerns in Brazil and abroad that his presidency will be marked by a return to illiberal norms and practices. But his views of gender and sexuality in particular have chimed with the social conservatism of many Brazilians, particularly those who are members of the growing number of evangelical churches.

Above all, Brazilians have rejected the established centrist and left-wing political parties that have governed the country since the return to democracy in 1985. All three of Brazil’s biggest parties – the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB), the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) and the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) – have been badly hit by their association with the sweeping police and judicial investigations into corruption – most notably Lava Jato – that have shook Brazil over the last four years.

In the elections the MDB and PSDB lost just under half their legislators. MDB and PSDB governors will now run only six of Brazil’s 27 states, compared to 12 in 2014. The candidates put forward by both parties failed to secure even third place in the first round of the presidential contest.

The left-wing PT lost ground to a slightly lesser extent, largely because it remains popular in the northeast of Brazil, the poorest and least developed part of the country, where the social reforms of PT governments (2003–16) have had their greatest impact.

Even so, elsewhere in the country the party was overwhelmingly rejected, with otherwise moderate voters more prepared to live with Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism than risk another left-wing administration. Mismanagement by PT governments contributed to the scale of recession in 2015 and 2016 and the PT’s defence of the disastrous Maduro administration in neighbouring Venezuela also helped undermine the party’s image among better-educated voters.

It is harder, however, to anticipate the likely course of the incoming Bolsonaro administration that assumes office in January. New legislation permitting wider gun ownership and lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 16 – a measure that would potentially allow more effective action against younger gang members – is widely expected.

But practical difficulties could inhibit a more systematic campaign against organized crime. Policing is a state rather than a federal matter and the governorships of four particularly violent northeast states remain in the hands of the PT.

The army could be more widely deployed, but recent experience offers little encouragement. Soldiers have been on the streets in Rio de Janeiro this year and between 2006 and 2012 were deployed extensively by the Mexican government inside that country without lasting success.

As for the economy, Bolsonaro has in the past been associated with the statist and protectionist policies introduced by earlier military governments, but is widely expected to embrace a liberal economic agenda, advocated by his economic adviser and likely economy ‘super-minister’, Paulo Guedes, a banker and Chicago school economist. In his victory speech on 28 October, Bolsonaro pledged that he would move quickly to reduce the government’s fiscal deficit – set to exceed 7 per cent of GDP this year – by restoring primary surpluses (before debt payments are taken into account).

The new administration will be under some pressure to contain spending on a public sector system whose scale has contributed to the extent of fiscal difficulties. Previous efforts to reform the system have stumbled against opposition from relatively well-off vested interests that benefit from it disproportionately.

The sale of state assets is one possible avenue for raising additional revenues. Although divestment of the state’s majority interest in Petrobras, the oil company, or Eletrobras, an energy concern, seem unlikely (and were ruled out by Bolsonaro during the campaign), the state owns more than 100 other smaller state enterprises.

Finally, another policy also seems fraught with difficulty. Bolsonaro has made it clear that he will move to improve relations with the United States, not least because the conservative alliance that has brought him to power shares many of the characteristics of that which helped Donald Trump reach the White House in 2016.

However, Brazil is not well-placed to join the US commercial offensive against China. Over the last decade and a half China has become Brazil’s largest trade partner (accounting in 2017 for 21.8 per cent of exports and 18.1 per cent of imports) as well as an important source of investment capital.