It’s abundantly clear that President-elect Bolsonaro’s worldview is not that of an enlightened – far less, a pleasant – man. His comments about women and the LGBT community have drawn appropriate condemnation. His pronouncements regarding the virtues of military rule have rightly unsettled many on a continent still struggling with the memories of Pinochet, Stroessner and, in recent years, Fujimori.
Bolsonaro is, however, Brazil’s next President.
In order to assess his likely policy impact, a dispassionate sense of perspective – and an understanding of modern Brazil – is required.
To start with, Bolsonaro’s election victory this weekend is not so much a victory for his personal brand but rather it is a strike against the country’s political class; a total and utter repudiation of an establishment that failed to get to grips with corruption, street crime and a dire economy.
Expectations of change are high, despite his promises of how he intends to effect that change being based more on soundbites than detailed proposals.
Bien pensant commentators have expressed concern about the impact Bolsonaro may have upon what they variously term Brazil’s “fragile” or “developing” democracy. However well-meaning, expressing such concerns hints at a lack of understanding about a Brazilian constitutional order which has, through the behaviour of politicians, been deeply volatile yet not structurally unstable.
Indeed, since 1985, the country has seen the impeachment from office of two presidents (Fernando Collor de Mello and Dilma Rousseff) from office and the inauguration of a Vice-President-elect after the untimely death of the man waiting to be sworn in the top job. In each of these cases, Congress continued to function, the work of the Supreme Court continued unimpeded and the Presidential executive exercised powers only within its constitutional remit.
Despite some of his more controversial remarks, Bolsonaro has repeatedly pledged that he will govern in-line with the constitution and does not propose to reform it. In contrast, his vanquished leftist rival Fernando Haddad proposed to institute a Venezuela-style Constituent Assembly which would likely have resulted in greater presidential control over judicial appointments.
Additionally, even if Bolsonaro wished to adopt a more authoritarian approach, he will have to contend with a Congress in which his Social Liberal Party is very much in a minority with only a tenth of the seats in the House and four the Senate. Forming a cabinet that can rely upon a parliamentary majority will rely upon cutting torturous deals with a range of centre to centre-right parties, each with their own distinct (and diluting) policy demands.
Much of Bolsonaro’s appeal to the Brazilian public has been based upon his uncompromising approach towards law and order. Getting to grips with street crime and drug gangs must, of course, be a key priority for the incoming administration but addressing the weak economy and its associated socio-economic challenges is arguably more important.
While his administration is largely responsible for many of the problems facing Brazil today, the last Brazilian leader to offer an economic plan of any particular salience was the incarcerated former President Lula during his 2002 presidential campaign.
He correctly identified the need to boost Brazilian exports and took tentative – albeit unsuccessful steps – towards realising a commodities-based free trade agreement with China. He also entered into some well-judged confrontations via the World Trade Organisation with the US and EU on farming subsidies.
Bolsonaro must show the same spirit – but achieve practical results that result in real jobs and investment. This won’t be easy.
Given his past record of extremist statements, Bolsonaro’s election has been viewed by many North American and European countries with a mixture of profound concern and mild amusement. This is, of course, balanced by the need to engage with the world’s fifth largest country by population size and eighth ranked by economy size.
Bolsonaro has already admitted that his own grasp of economics is not strong and that he will be delegating much of this agenda to his incoming Finance Minister, the Chicago school economist Paulo Guedes. In this respect, his presidency ought to bring great cheer to those Brazilians desperate for internal economic reforms and international investors eyeing up opportunities to invest in the country.
Guedes’s top priorities, he has said, will be reform of the country’s bankrupt pension system and a dogged pursuit of new trade deals to boost external trade. Privatisation of state assets, too, will be on the table with key prizes such as the famously corrupt state-owned oil firm Petrobras being up for grabs.
In a nod to many of the arguments used by those who advocated Britain’s departure from the European Union’s restrictive trade structures, he has criticised the narrow focus of South America’s Mercosur trade bloc and pledged to seek additional bilateral trading relationships. On a practical level, this is likely to see a push by Brasilia for close alignment with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement designed to replace the existing NAFTA framework. A strong post-Brexit opportunity exists for the UK, too – particularly in the field of agriculture and high-tech manufactured goods.
In addition to trade, Bolsonaro’s election will herald a new approach towards Brazilian foreign policy in both South America and the wider world.
Over the past fifty years, Brazil’s general foreign policy doctrine has been to cultivate good relations with all; adopting a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach towards its dealings with foreign governments. The reality of this doctrine has meant the rolling out of the red carpet for the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nicolás Maduro, to the acute embarrassment of many in the country.
While it would be wrong to view Bolsonaro as an unreconstructed “neo-con”, he has long been opposed towards the hard-left administration in Venezuela and he has instead stated his preference for closer ties with his rightist counterparts Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Iván Duque Márquez in Colombia. The practical result of this axis will likely be a renaissance of US political and economic influence across the continent; something which would bring significant security benefits to its 420 million people.
The challenges for Jair Bolsonaro and, by default, the Brazilian people, are great. Despite spending twenty-seven years in Congress, the President-elect is a neophyte when it comes to the apparatus of government. As with most candidates written off as “populists” or “anti-establishment”, his critical challenge will be translating rhetoric into reality. The jury’s out.
Daniel Hamilton is Managing Director at FTI Consulting and a dual British and Brazilian citizen.