Note: This article was first published in esglobal. To access the original version in Spanish, click here.
As 2020 begins, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro finishes his first year in office. When the former captain arrived in Brasilia, nobody knew what his presidential style or top priorities were going to be. A year later, the challenges of the first far-right government in Brazil’s democracy are already evident. During this first year, Bolsonaro governed as he campaigned—always creating controversy, exposing himself on social media and, frequently, creating more chaos than stability. According to a poll from the Ibope Institute conducted on December 20, 2019, 38 percent of Brazilians consider the current executive bad or poor (in April 2019 they were 27 percent) against 29 percent who believe he has a good mandate (in April they were 35 percent), a percentage far from the popularity with which Bolsonaro entered the Planalto Palace backed by 57.8 million votes.
The economy: Good for some, not so good for others
The direction of the Brazilian economy divides public opinion. The pension reform, in addition to several privatization packages, concessions and public spending containment, have caused some expectations, although still slow, of a recovery. The GDP growth forecast for 2020 is, according to the Central Bank of Brazil, 2.2 percent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also expects Brazil to double its growth to close to two percent. But, if the Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes has the blessing of the market and the wealthiest classes, among the poorest—the victims of budget cuts—Bolsonaro’s popularity falls tremendously.
According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the number of people in extreme poverty rose in 2019 to a maximum of 13.5 million people. Also, inequality in Brazil is at a historic high. The Gini index, a statistical dispersion used to measure inequality, rose from 0.6003 in the 4Q2014, to 0.621 in the second half of 2019. Add to this the unwavered 11 percent unemployment rate, and above all the 41 percent informality rate (equal to almost 39 million informal workers), which, according to the IBGE broke records in 2019. For these reasons, Brazil’s poorest are withdrawing their support for the president. According to a Datafolha survey from December 2019, only 22 percent of the poorest viewed Bolsonaro’s government positively, compared to 44 percent of the richest citizens.
One of the grave problems Bolsonaro will have to face this year is his political isolation. Many of the reforms and bills he wanted to implement have taken a long time to complete or have yet to be voted on because of his inability to build alliances with the 32 parties that currently make the most fragmented Parliament in the history of Brazil. Bolsonaro tired to change the classic model of politicking in Brazil, to one based on coalitions between parties to approximate to, what in Brazil is known as “thematic commissions,”–parliamentary groups representing landowners, businessmen or evangelical pastors–with the goal of sidelining parties, but this has not been possible. In contrast, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia (DEM, Democrats), is taking advantage of Bolsonaro’s political weakness to accumulate a huge dose of power.
In addition to the challenge of maintaining the cohesion of Congress, Bolsonaro is facing some difficulties with allied groups, such as the military. The president’s recent support for U.S. military action against Iraq, which resulted in the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, has opened a divide with the country’s Military, including the very influential Minister of the Institutional Security Cabinet, General Augusto Heleno, who prefers to maintain a neutral position.
Lastly, the internal situation of what until recently was his own party, the Liberal Social Party (PSL) is chaotic. So much that, unheard of in the history of Brazilian democracy, Bolsonaro decided to leave the PSL and founded a “clan-party” with his own children, called Alliance for Brazil. Bolsonaro’s newly founded party’s motto is: “conservative party, representing all religions, supporting family values, the right to self-defense, the right to own a firearm, free trade with everyone, without an ideological agenda.” In fact, the new party was founded so quickly that it is possible it won’t register in time in Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, and be able to present candidates for the upcoming municipal elections of 2020. What is clear, however, is that if the PSL was already a weak political platform due to its short trajectory, this new party lacks the minimum structure to face the complexities of Brazilian politics.
The party chosen as the great crusader against corruption, turned out to not be so neat. The PSL is being investigated for “ghost” nominations during the 2018 election campaign and various members were singled out for taking money from the electoral fund, including Tourism Minister Marcelo Álvaro Antonio. This crisis was the accelerator that publicly confronted Bolsonaro and his children with important members of the PSL, such as its president, Luciano Bivar. Perhaps the most painful issue the President will face this year is the investigation against his son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, who is accused of embezzlement, money laundering and criminal organization.
Where Bolsonaro’s performance has been most criticized, without a doubt, has been on the topics of human rights and the environment. Although Brazil is a secular country, on a daily basis, Bolsonaro promotes Catholic events in the government palace and the government’s social agenda constantly references conservatism and a strong tone of Christian fundamentalism. The fight against “gender ideology” and the preservation of the heternormative Christian family is one of the greatest bets the legislature and the Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights Damares Aves, a funamentalist evangelical, are willing to take. Bolsonaro’s government has dismantled public policies in favor of the LGBT community, and launched a total setback on women or profeminist initiatives, such as, the debate on abortion—whose decriminalization is increasingly distant in a country where a woman dies every two days due to an unsafe abortion, according to data from the Ministry of Health. Anti-LGBT crimes, for example, have experienced a 14 percent increase over the previous year, according to data from the Gay Group of Bahia, in charge of gathering this data.
Another demographic that is also suffering from Bolsonaro’s new governance is the black population. In Brazil, public safety depends fundamentally on state governors. A clear example of the Bolsonarist public security paradigm is the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, who believes violence is best resolved by killing criminals. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum: from January to October 2019, theRio de Janeiro police killed 1,546 people, or 31 percent of all homicides in the state. In 2014, the figure was only 10.2 percent.
Finally, the country’s environmental policy–or lack of–has turned Bolsonaro into an international target.The Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, a climate change denier, almost completely dismantled the environment control policies and the ministry’s audit apparatus. This resulted in the takeover of large estates over indigenous lands, uncontrolled increase in deforestation and a burning Amazon region. According to the National Institute for Space Research, the number of fire sources in the Amazon increased in 83 percent over the last year. The number of indigenous leaders and farmers killed has also increased. The Pastoral Land Commission, which monitors these crimes, concluded that 2019 was a record year of violence against indigenous people, with nine indigenous leaders killed in total. Under Bolsonaro, the countryside is more violent and more unequal in a country that has an increasing concentration of agricultural owners—one percent of rural owners own 45 percent of the productive land in Brazil.
Rearranging the political center and the “petista” opposition
If Bolsonaro faces an intense year, so will the rest of Brazil’s political forces. The greatest feat of 2020 will be how to rebuild the country’s political center and center-right, that disappeared completely after the 2018 elections with the dramatic result of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), who obtained a shameful 4.7 percent of votes. Several now look to take opportunity of this vacuum spotting, on the one hand, Bolsonaro’s decreasing popularity, and on the other, that an anti-petism sentiment is still very present. Another scenario could take place if the 30 percent of the electorate that is dissatisfied with the current president, but holds no predisposition to vote for petism, is courted. This space is being fought over by the PSDB’s the strongest figure, Governor of São Paulo João Dória; by the Labor Democratic Party’s previous candidate Ciro Gomes; and even possibly by outsiders such as popular television presenter, Luciano Huck, the embodiment of what he calls the “renewal politics.”
he left also faces complicated times. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s release from prison in November 2019 was a great relief for the Workers Party (PT) sympathizers. Lula didn’t miss a beat and began touring the country and organizing talks to weave alliances that strengthen the opposition in the lead up to the 2020 municipal elections—which will be a great test for both Bolsonarism and petism. The greatest opportunity for PT will come from Bolsonaro losing support among the poorest, and that is where most of the campaigning will take place.
However, Lula’s freedom is still in jeopardy, for he could return to prison following several pending trials. But even if he remains free, he has lost his right to be a candidate given his conviction. His lawyers are working on nullifying the Lava Jato operation taking into account leaks published by The Intercept Brazil that prove then-Judge Sergio Moro supposed bias. If Lula wins the annulment, he could regain his political rights, but this won’t be easy considering Lava Jato has metamorphosed into an international corruption case. Even so, Lula’s hyper personalism obstructs new directions, strategies and new faces within the PT party. In the last confidence index, release the first week of January by Datafolha, Lula scored a five (on a scale of zero to 10), ahead of Bolsonaro who received a 4.8. However, a standout figure continues to be Minister of Justice Sergio Moro, with a score of 5.9. Who knows if in 2022 Moro will end up running against his political godfather.