2018: The Year Bolsonaro Captured Brazil's Presidency

8 MINS READDec 26, 2018 | 07:30 GMT
Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Defense Minister General Joaquim Silva e Luna attend the launch ceremony of the Brazilian Riachuelo Class Submarine at a navy base in Itaguai city, Rio de Janeiro state, on Dec. 14, 2018.

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Defense Minister General Joaquim Silva e Luna attend the launch ceremony of the Brazilian Riachuelo Class Submarine at a navy base in Itaguai city, Rio de Janeiro state, on Dec. 14, 2018. After defeating all comers, Bolsonaro will take charge of Latin America's largest country on Jan. 1, 2019.

Editor's Note

The first day of 2019 will bring a titanic change to Brazilian politics as Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer and political outsider, assumes the presidency. Bolsonaro cruised to victory in October elections, as many Brazilians responded favorably to his campaign promises to get tough on crime and corruption. At the same time, his victory has struck fear into many in the country due to his praise of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, his rhetoric toward the LGBT community, his suggestion that leftist rivals can either "go overseas or go to jail" and his priority for agricultural production over environmental protection. As Brazil embarks upon an era like no other, we look back at some of the major milestones from Bolsonaro's path to the presidency, as well as his plans for the country.

A Path to the Presidency

Bolsonaro almost grabbed the presidency in the first round of voting on Oct. 7, but he made sure of his victory in a second round on Oct. 28. With popular former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — widely known as Lula — barred from running because of a corruption conviction, Bolsonaro coasted to victory on a campaign to get tough on crime.

Bolsonaro, who ran on a law-and-order political platform, wooed Brazilian voters weary of years of economic decline, growing crime and corruption scandals reaching the top echelons of government with promises to create stability and economic growth. While his policies to fight corruption are still works in progress, they likely will form a centerpiece of his presidency. Also at the top of his priority list will be satisfying voter demands for greater economic growth. To address those concerns, Bolsonaro will try to loosen regional trade regulations. His administration will also cast a more skeptical eye on Chinese investments in Brazilian infrastructure and natural resources projects.

The central message of his campaign, however, and the one that seemed to resonate strongest with voters, was getting tougher on crime. Bolsonaro's solutions to combat the rising tide of lawlessness in Brazil will include proposals that, even if they win congressional approval, would face legal challenges. He intends to offer amendments to existing laws that would reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and legally classify land seizures by squatters as acts of terrorism. But members of the political opposition and leftist advocacy organizations would challenge these measures in the federal court system. Opponents of penalizing land invaders as terrorists, for example, could challenge the government on the grounds that it would violate constitutional notions of proportional punishment for criminal actions.

Read the full article: What Bolsonaro Wants for Brazil and How He Will Try to Get It.

Charts showing Brazil's unemployment and crime rates.

Brazil's president-elect won the support of many citizens thanks to his hard-line stance against graft, particularly in the wake of the Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras) corruption case, which engulfed the country's state oil producer, Brazilian politicians and even leaders elsewhere in Latin America. Bolsonaro's policies on graft, however, remain somewhat vague.

Bolsonaro's anti-corruption policy ideas are largely limited to reopening debate on a set of 10 proposals that never cleared the National Congress. Those proposals mainly increased criminal penalties for suspects convicted of corrupt activities to dissuade would-be criminals. They did not actually commit the government to increase its capabilities to detect and prosecute corruption. 

Whether the next administration will shift beyond these indirect means of dissuading corruption to take a more direct approach remains an open question. The success of the Petrobras corruption case was largely a matter of determined prosecutors and judges maintaining pressure on a wide-ranging corruption network. Keeping up the fight against corruption across Brazilian society, even after the investigation and indictments related to the Petrobras investigation begin to dwindle, probably will require increasing the federal government's investigative and enforcement capabilities by hiring more investigators and giving them greater legal powers. It is here that the constraints will begin to pile up on the next president. Though he will have a broad mandate to act against corruption, whether he moves toward putting more effective anti-corruption mechanisms in place will largely depend on the available funds, government priorities and political will to do so.

Read the full story: In Brazil, Any Anti-Corruption Mandate Will Meet Political Obstacles.

A map showing perceptions of corruption around the world.

Bolsonaro has been in Brazil's legislature since 1991, but he successfully presented himself as an outsider during his campaign. His anti-establishment bona fides resonated with voters, many of whom were incensed at traditional party elites in Brasilia, as well as the outgoing government's decision to raise fuel prices — an act that ultimately ignited a truck drivers' strike.

The truck drivers' strike is a symptom of discontent not only with the government’s fuel price policies, but also with the country’s traditional political parties, particularly after a widespread corruption probe put several politicians and businesspeople in jail. 

This anti-establishment sentiment is growing, just four months before Brazil goes to the polls for general elections. Candidates who have poured scorn on entrenched political parties during their campaign, such as right-wing lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, have tried to capitalize on the truck drivers' strike by criticizing the government's current fuel policies, even though Bolsonaro has previously spoken in favor of economic and trade liberalization reforms — and even toyed with the idea of privatizing Petrobras. And as a tough, law-and-order candidate, Bolsonaro could benefit from this type of social upheaval. In fact, most polling suggests that Bolsonaro is the frontrunner for the presidency, albeit with just 15 percent of the total vote.

Read the full story: Brazil Loses Its Appetite for Economic Reforms.

A chart showing income inequality in Brazil.

Bolsonaro's Plans for Brazil

During his campaign, Bolsonaro emphasized that he planned to prioritize development and farming over environmental issues. Regardless of Bolsonaro's ultimate plans, his victory has pleased the country's powerful agricultural lobby.

Brazil's powerful farm lobby has forced the government to reduce tax debts, make labor and environmental rules more flexible and provide licenses permitting the expansion of Brazil's agricultural frontier. The lobby has also supported greater deregulation of the use of pesticides through a bill that would put the Agriculture Ministry in charge of approving new insect-control products rather than the health or environment ministries while also preventing cities and states from introducing legislation to restrict their use.

Read the full article: Brazil's Farming Lobby Wields Its Growing Power.

A map showing Brazil's three main geographical regions.

Brazil once entertained the prospect of developing an atomic program, only to shelve such plans when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998. While support to restart the program is shared by many of the country's politicians from across the spectrum, Bolsonaro is likely to stridently back a resumption of the program — even if fiscal and other concerns might make it difficult to do so.

The program could receive a particular boost under Bolsonaro, a former military captain who has appointed a former general as his prospective vice president. Bolsonaro has been a strong defender of Brazil's nuclear program and was a strong critic of the country's decision to sign the NPT in 1998. 

Free of scandal, Brazil is redirecting its energies toward nuclear power, but challenges remain to its pursuit of a far-reaching atomic program. … Even pro-nuclear front-runners like Bolsonaro might find it difficult to make much headway because of the country's growing fiscal deficit, congressional deadlock that could hinder legislation overturning a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons and financial impediments to the completion of the third nuclear plant — to say nothing of the ramifications that Brazil's departure from the NPT would have on relations with Argentina.

Read the full article: Brazil Considers the Nuclear Option.

A map showing the location of Brazil's uranium reserves.

On the international stage, one of the incoming president's main orders of business will be to renegotiate the Common Market of the South's (Mercosur) rules on trade deals to allow Brazil and other members to sign their own bilateral free trade agreements with non-members. Although Mercosur's members largely agree on the need for reform, Argentina's upcoming elections could complicate the talks, raising the prospect that Bolsonaro could take drastic measures.

President-elect Jair Bolsonaro takes office in Brasilia on Jan. 1, and the new administration will negotiate with the three other full members of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) to lift the restrictions that prevent member states from negotiating and signing bilateral free trade agreements. Brazil needs the unanimous consent of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina for the change. Though they appear willing to vote for it, Argentina remains the wild card in negotiations, mainly because of its October 2019 presidential election. A close race for President Mauricio Macri could make him reluctant to lend Bolsonaro a hand in amending the policy.

This approach could put Argentina in a politically risky position with Brazil. A delay by Buenos Aires could push any change to the bloc's trade policy into 2020 — and Macri may no longer be president then. Argentines weary of utility price hikes, high inflation and the country's economic slowdown could easily bring a populist Peronist administration to power. A Peronist government could resist amending the policy and push Brazil into taking more drastic measures. In response, Bolsonaro could threaten to withdraw from the bloc as a pressure tactic.

Read the full article: Brazil's Next President Is Looking to Shake Up Mercosur.

A chart showing the respective strengths of Mercosur's members.

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