Elephants in the Room

The Sad Decline of Brazil’s Political Establishment

Voters are manifesting their profound unhappiness with the status quo. Jair Bolsonaro is the result.

Far-right Brazilian presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro on Oct 11. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)
Far-right Brazilian presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro on Oct 11. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 28, Brazilians go to the polls for second-round presidential vote, to decide whether the anti-establishment wave impacting elections and plebiscites around the world should also crash on Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy and regional powerhouse. In first-round presidential elections on Oct. 7, a Brazilian congressman and former army captain campaigning on a law-and-order platform decimated expectations by falling just short of a majority, which would have handed him the presidency outright without need for a runoff.

The fiery right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro—whom some commentators have called the “Trump of the Tropics”—has roiled Brazil’s politics with caustic, inflammatory, and at times hateful statements while denouncing corrupt politics as usual and feckless law enforcement policies that have allowed street criminals almost free rein in too many Brazilian cities.

Nearly 50 million voters—46 percent of the electorate—almost delivered a first-round victory to Bolsonaro, a feat no Brazilian presidential candidate has achieved in the last 20 years. Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party finished a distant second at 29 percent and qualified for the runoff. The Workers’ Party leader, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was disqualified from running due to his imprisonment on corruption charges. Virtually no one expects Haddad to overcome Bolsonaro’s huge lead in the interim.

Candidates riding Bolsonaro’s coattails did equally well in the election. His small Social Liberal Party gained 44 seats, from eight to 52, to become the second-largest party in the 513-member lower house, meaning he will have plenty of allies throughout the government if elected.

As one Brazilian academic told the Washington Post, “Brazil is now surfing the wave of global conservatism, an anti-globalist movement all across the world.”

While more anti-establishment than traditionally conservative, the Bolsonaro phenomenon is a clear part of a global pattern that began with Brexit and saw a surprising defeat of a peace agreement in Colombia, the rise of nationalist movements in Europe, and the election of outsider candidates in the United States, the Philippines, and Mexico, where voters are expressing a rejection of traditional politics and what they perceive as detached elitism.

Brazil’s transition from a country that typically elected moderate and mainstream leaders since the establishment of democracy in 1985 to one that welcomes a candidate who professes nostalgia for military rule is a story of the sad decline of the existing political establishment. Only a few years ago, Brazil was announcing its arrival on the world stage as a country of consequence after rising to economic heights off the global commodity boom and hosting both the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

But two events dashed the country’s economic prospects and popular confidence in its political system. First, Chinese demand for primary products such as soybeans ebbed, exposing unaddressed systemic dysfunctions in the economy, and second, a massive corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras and resulting in the looting of billions of dollars from the public treasury was revealed, which tainted nearly the entire political class.

More than 200 Brazilian politicians, business leaders, and corporations, including Lula, have been convicted in the high-level corruption investigation known as Operation Car Wash. The effect on public opinion has been devastating: According to Gallup, just 17 percent of Brazilians have confidence in their national government, a decline from 51 percent just a decade ago. During the first round, 47 politicians charged with corruption or who were currently under investigation were defeated in re-election bids.

Meanwhile, inattention to public security has turned many Brazilian urban centers into shooting galleries. Seven cities in Brazil are among the world’s 20 most violent, and in 2017, the country saw a record 63,880 homicides, up 2.9 percent from 2016. It’s no wonder democracy in Brazil has become a “synonym for weakness and chaos and leniency with criminals,” according to Brian Winter, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly.

Into this vortex stepped the 63-year-old congressional backbencher and former paratrooper Bolsonaro, untarnished by corruption and skillfully capitalizing on popular anger at the status quo. Eschewing the traditional means of campaigning—massive financing, relying on the machinery of traditional parties, and free airtime on television—he has relied mainly on social media to connect with his supporters.

Although he has offered few detailed policies, he has been unafraid to speak bluntly about the ills of Brazilian society (and much else). His themes have been fighting crime, adopting a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, and releasing Brazil’s $2 trillion economy from its regulatory straitjacket. He has been merciless in attacking criminals and venal, disconnected Brazilian politicians.

To those who accuse him of an authoritarian streak, he says, “My administration will have authority, not authoritarianism.” He also points to his 27 years in Brazil’s National Congress to demonstrate his respect for democratic institutions. Still, his many critics accuse him of posing an existential threat to Brazilian democracy. But this underestimates the Brazilian people and the resilience of their institutions, as damaged as they are. Brazil is a country of more than 200 million people, with an array of entrenched interests across the spectrum that mitigate against political extremism. Even if Bolsonaro harbored some secret agenda to supplant Brazilian democracy with a personalist dictatorship, it is not clear that he would get very far.

Despite fears about what a Bolsonaro presidency might mean for Brazil, his rhetoric is unlikely to change, and he has been very clear about what he doesn’t want Brazil to look like: Venezuela.

Shortly after his first-round victory, he said, “The good people of Brazil want to rid themselves of socialism—they don’t want Venezuela’s regime. They want a liberal economy, and they want to defend family values.”

He also has recognized the importance of the Brazilian private sector, hiring an orthodox University of Chicago-trained economic advisor and being careful not to roil the markets with his offhand remarks. He has provided little detail about his economic agenda but insists his focus will be reining in spending and privatizing state enterprises. He will need a lot of help with the economy: Brazil’s budget deficit is creeping up to 8 percent of GDP, and the national debt is spiraling. (According the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, which evaluates the degree to which countries pursue free market economics, Brazil ranks a poor 153 out of 180 countries.)

Brazil is but the latest country in which voters are manifesting their profound unhappiness with the status quo: the indifference and unresponsiveness of their elected representatives even as they line their pockets with public funds. Millions of voters who placed their faith in the system only to see their needs and interests unaddressed while politicians feathered their nests are embracing populism of various varieties. Facing such challenges, no one should fault voters for their expectations—or their desperate search for solutions.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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