Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. It appears here with permission. Click here to read the original article.
When populists come to power, they often have difficulty governing. Populist election campaigns are defined by rousing but largely empty speeches; governing, though, requires more than speeches and empty promises. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro now confronts that tough reality. The man who presented himself as the savior of the Brazilian crisis is watching his popularity fade quickly. Political forecasts initially gave Bolsonaro a positive outlook because he arrived in Brasilia with the backing of 57.7 million voters. Instead, as soon as he entered office, the candidate’s weaknesses as a president became evident.
Failure to launch
After Bolsonaro’s victory, the market bet that he would be able to finally reform pensions, essential for Brazil to get out of its fiscal and economic hole. Since January 1, Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes has had the text of the reform ready, but Bolsonaro has instead emphasized installing a good team of technicians to “de-ideologize” and “turn around” the government before reforms can go forward. In addition, Bolsonaro’s has argued that 2019 would see the inauguration of a new style of doing politics, in which he would eliminate bribes and kickbacks to deputies to vote favor of government projects. Neither of those projects have come to fruition.
As any first-year political science student knows, governing effectively requires not only technocrats, but politicians. Reform has been slow to get off the ground precisely because of the government’s inability to articulate its plans clearly and create alliances within the Brazilian Congress. Brazilian political architecture is defined by coalition presidentialism, so a president invariably needs a solid based in congress if he or she wants to govern effectively. Dilma Rousseff lost her coalition and ended up being impeached.
But the political juggernaut of the Brazilian Congress is not for beginners. There are 513 deputies from 30 different parties, the largest number since the country’s transition to democracy. Negotiating with such a diverse group requires enormous political skill. The president of congress, Rodrigo Maia of the Democratic Party and a representative of traditional Brazilian politics, is an essential figure if Bolsonaro wants to guarantee governability. No sensible president would want Maia as an enemy. But two months into his mandate, Bolsonaro did just that. He started off on the wrong foot with Maia by attacking him and vowing to neutralize “the old politics” that he represents. Maia’s response was to hinder the vote on the welfare reform. Bolsonaro had to retreat and bow to the power of Congress, but the damage was already done. Now, deputies are reforming Guedes’ original text to suit the demands of Congress, the long-promised reform is late, and Bolsonaro’s political ineptitude has started to dominate the narrative.
In addition, Bolsonaro’s vow not to participate in vote-buying practices failed from the get-go. Today, each deputy is allotted around $3.8 million during her term, money that is normally used for public works and infrastructure projects in deputies’ districts. Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni, whose ministry is in charge of funds allocation, offered a budget of almost $10 million to each deputy who voted in favor of welfare reform—a bad start for an administration that vowed never to bend to corruption.
Finally, on February 20, Bolsonaro handed his plan over to Rodrigo Maia for debate and votes in Congress. Two months later, the Constitution and Justice Committee approved the text by 48 votes to 18. This is considered as the first and easiest of all the commissions and votes that the reform will face, since its task is to judge the constitutionality of the text. Still to come are the votes of the technical commissions, as well as the plenary sessions of Chamber and the Senate. The path will be difficult for the president, who by now knows that the needed votes literally won’t come cheap.
Bolsonaro appears to be in his natural habitat when he’s dealing directly with his ideological base. The problem here is that the ideological excess to which Bolsonaro is given often clashes with the realities of everyday pragmatic governing and serving as the president for the whole country. An example of this was the trip the president made to Israel on March 31, following his promise to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a nod to Brazilian conservatives and evangelical groups in Congress that caused great discontent in the Arab world. Bolsonaro may have forgotten that Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of halal meat, which represents nearly 10 percent of Brazilian agricultural exports. Following criticism from his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Arab world, and the Brazilian meat lobby, Bolsonaro was forced to announce that the embassy would remain in Tel Aviv and that Brasilia would open a commercial office in Jerusalem.
Education is another field in which Bolsonaro has opted for an ultraconservative strategy. His minister of Education Ricardo Velez is best known for his attacks on “cultural Marxism” in universities and defense of family education. The truth is that, despite his ideological bravado, Vélez has proven to be an inept technocrat who made zero progress in three months in implementing any major reforms to improve education. As a result, he was dismissed on April 8.
His replacement, the economist Abraham Weintraub, is a neoliberal and a fellow ultraconservative. Weintraub’s first measure was to say that the government plans to weaken the studies of philosophy and sociology in public universities because “the objective is to prioritize the areas of study that give return to the taxpayer.” Next, Weintraub focused his attention on cutting the budgets of public universities that he saw as “unproductive” and “bastions of the left,” including the important Federal University of Bahia, where he cut the budget by 30 percent. When Weintraub was questioned about his decision to only cut funding at specific universities, he responded by announcing a 30 percent budget cut at all federal universities (there are more than 60 across the country) and vocational training institutes (there are around 40). At the same time, Weintraub announced that he was increasing federal the accreditation rate of private universities by 70 percent. A tsunami of criticism from the educational community, the opposition and the press was quick to follow.
Some of the Bolsonaro government’s measures are so extravagant that they are under judicial review. These include the budget cuts to federal universities; the closure of the Ministry of Labor; the closure of consultative councils dedicated to popular participation in government; the easing of firearms laws; and the announced prohibition of compulsory union fees. In the months to come, the Brazilian Supreme Court will likely rule on many of these setting the direction of Brazil.
Clashes with the military
One of the figures who stands out most positively in the midst of this political chaos is the vice president, General Hamilton Mourão. More intellectually sophisticated and moderate than Bolsonaro, he is considered by many as a voice of reason in the government. Mourão maintains open communication with press, which Bolsnaro often attacks, and often diverges publicly from the president on issues including the transfer of the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the criminalization of abortion, and trade policy with China. In the beginning of April, the evangelical deputy Marcos Feliciano of the Social Christian Party filed an impeachment motion against Mourão, claiming he was “disloyal.” Likewise, Bolsonaro acolyte Olavo de Carvalho attacked Mourão on social media in March and April: “The biggest mistake of my life as a voter was to support General Mourão. I will not stop apologizing for this nonsense.” On Easter, Bolsonaro’s son Carlos, a member of congress from Rio de Janeiro, joined the criticism, prompting strong unrest among the armed forces, whose members occupy several important government posts, including Secretary of Government, Secretary General of the Presidency, and Institutional Security Officer.
At the moment, Bolsonaro has sided with Olavo de Carvalho, going so far as to sign a 44 percent budget cut for the Armed Forces. Many wonder if the military, which was instrumental in Bolsonaro’s rise to power, will continue with its steadfast support of Bolsonaro. Others wonder about Mourão’s medium-term prospects of political survival.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro continues to accumulate negative editorials, including in the most conservative newspapers in the country, such as Estado de São Paulo and the magazine Veja, which supported him during the electoral campaign. The press largely supports the economic reforms that have yet to come to fruition but has been unreceptive to the growing frequency of ideological policies and pronouncements from the government and the assault on the educational system.
The market has also adjusted its expectations, downgrading expected GDP growth for the year to a paltry 1.49 percent (according to Central Bank data released on May 6). Bolsonaro’s popularity has also plummeted. According to an early April poll from Datafolha, 30 percent of Brazilians consider the government’s management bad, up from 22 percent in February. After Lula’s first 100 days in office, only 10 percent disapproved, the previous low mark since the country’s transition to democracy.
All the post-electoral political forecasts indicated that in the medium and long term, Bolsonaro would have difficulties in guaranteeing governability. Citing his lack of experience, the absence of a strong base in congress, and an electoral victory that came about through the backing of a non-traditional coalition (neo-liberals, the armed forces, conservatives, and evangelicals), many thought that it would be a rocky presidency. Still, the disaster is coming much sooner than anyone could have expected.