In 2003, the last time there was so much concern over the direction Brazil would take under a new government, a former labor union leader and strong former opponent of market-friendly reforms, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pleasantly surprised the world by governing as a pragmatist moderate. Taking advantage of an export commodity boom that benefited Brazil, Lula presided over a successful eight-year period. Though Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist who will most likely win the a second-round runoff election on October 28th, has made it a point to campaign against the legacy of Lula—now jailed for corruption—Bolsonaro should learn a lesson from the former president. If Bolsonaro governs as a pragmatic and moderate president, he can put Brazil back on the path of economic growth without undermining democratic institutions.
The 63-year old Bolsonaro has captured the world’s attention in the worst possible way. During his 28-year legislative career, Bolsonaro made a name for himself as hotheaded right-wing populist known for intolerance, misogyny, racism and authoritarian inclinations. A former army captain who was fired for belligerence, Bolsonaro had an unexceptional career as a legislator. Having switched parties eight times during his seven terms as legislator, Bolsonaro never demonstrated consensus building skills. For the most part, he was a loner with a big mouth. Ideologically, he was never a champion of market-friendly reforms.
In the context of widespread discontent with traditional parties and politicians from across the traditional political spectrum involved in corruption scandals, Bolsonaro successfully reinvented himself as an outsider with a populist message of law and order and a rhetoric filled with nostalgic for authoritarian times. His simple and straightforward style of personalist leadership, along with promises to put Brazil back on the right track, explain his rapid rise in popularity.
In the first-round vote, Bolsonaro completed a hostile take over of rightwing parties. Several of his little-known allies won legislative seats in what was widely seen as a punishment vote against incumbents. The leading right-wing party, the market-friendly PSDB (that ruled between 1994 and 2002 and had won a spot in all runoff presidential races since 2002) lost half of its seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The rise of a new, more belligerent cadre of rightwing legislators—and the decline of the traditional rightwing parties—in the October 7th vote was eclipsed by Bolsonaro’s strong 46 percent support, which saw him fall just shy of the 50 percent required to become president without needing a runoff.
Having consolidated his support among voters for traditional right-wing parties, Bolsonaro’s strong showing was largely a protest vote against the Worker’ Party (PT) and former president Lula. The PT presided over a period of rapid growth under Lula da Silva (2002-2010), induced by an export commodity boom, but then fell out of grace as a result of mismanagement under Lula’s handpicked, democratically elected successor, Dilma Rousseff (2010-2016), who was impeached during her second term. A popular but highly divisive politician, Lula is serving an 11-year sentence for corruption (he claims to be a victim of political prosecution). When the electoral court banned him from running, Lula appointed Fernando Haddad, a technocrat and former Minister of Education, as the PT candidate. In the first-round vote, Haddad received 29 percent of the vote, but he lost decisively among the middle class. The election turned into a referendum on Lula, and the stand-in candidate paid the cost of Lula’s and the PT’s high negatives.
High levels of crime and corruption, combined with strong discontent with the PT and incumbents, turned the election into a custom-made battlefield for Bolsonaro. With a strong anti-PT platform and a forceful law and order message, Bolsonaro stood out among other candidates.
Bolsonaro will likely win in Sunday’s run-off because many Brazilians have chosen to overlook his negative traits. Brazilians are so discontent with the alternatives, that they are willing to give Bolsonaro—who has not disavowed many of his polemic past statements—the benefit of the doubt.
Bolsonaro should seize the opportunity Brazilians are giving him. Rather than let his authoritarian and divisive inclinations dictate his actions, Bolsonaro should rise the occasion and become the president Brazilians want, not the president his past career would point toward.
When Lula became president in 2002, many feared that he would rule as a left-wing populist. His past as a labor union leader who had opposed the military dictatorship (which ended in 1986) and his failed three previous tries at the presidency had made Lula into a traditional state-centered left-wing leader who talked more about social justice and redistribution than about economic growth, market-friendly reforms or competition. Lula’s victory was seen as by many as a radical shift to the left. Not surprisingly, markets became anxious in 2002 when it became clear that Lula would be Brazil’s next president.
After winning the election, Lula quickly moved to appease markets. He signaled that he would keep the market-friendly policies implemented by his predecessor, the PSDB president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002). He appointed a team of capable economists and technocrats and announced sensible pro-growth policies and reasonable social programs to help the poor. He presided over a period of sustained growth, expansion of the middle class and democratic consolidation. Brazil was at the forefront of Latin America’s reemerging democracies and Lula was the natural leftwing pragmatic leader loved by markets.
Bolsonaro generates concern among many who fear his populist and intolerant traits. As a former military and born-again evangelical Christian, he is closer to the authoritarian and conservative right than to the market-friendly right. Though his economic program calls for privatization and market-friendly reforms—and his likely Finance Minister is a University of Chicago-trained economist—Bolsonaro is only a recent convert (if at all) to free trade capitalism. Historically, he was aligned more closely with the nationalist, protectionist right than with advocates of market-friendly globalization.
Here is where Bolsonaro should learn a lesson from his political nemesis. After the election, Bolsonaro should quickly move to the center and signal pragmatism and consensus-building reasonable reforms. He should certainly cater to his constituency by adopting tough positions on law and order, but he should remember that people want results rather than confrontation or divisiveness. By implementing reasonable and much needed market-friendly pension and labor reforms, reigning in government spending and unleashing market-forces, Bolsonaro can put to rest concerns over his authoritarian past and intolerant views and instead become the kind of moderate, reasonable and unifying leader that Brazil needs today. Some might think this is wishful thinking, but 16 years ago, another recently elected Brazilian president, Lula, quickly put concerns over his populist past to rest and became a positive leader who helped make Brazil a better country.