The election of Jair Bolsonaro represents the largest shift in Brazilian political axis in the past several decades. It will arguably be the first conservative government since the old republic, a time period ended 88 years ago, and definitely a major departure from the past 25 years, which were marked by left-wing governments of social-democrat PSDB and socialist PT. Contrary to what most local and foreign analysts say – including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s appraisal of it as an “unthinkable” outcome – the result of the election was not difficult at all to understand. The former Army captain was the single only politician who was able to consolidate all the frustration and desire for change nurtured by the population in the past several years, especially after 2013, when the first street protests challenged Dilma Roussef’s government.
This article will try to argue for objective, straightforward reasons to be optimistic with the Bolsonaro Government. However, the local and global press has spread so much misguided information regarding the nature of the candidate, and continues to spread such a biased version of the facts, that, before addressing the reasons for being optimistic, it will first shed some light on the background of frequent arguments used by the media to label Mr. Bolsonaro as a “risk to institutions”, and conclude that this is not the case at all.
The dissatisfaction of the electors tackled by Bolsonaro includes a whole set of dimensions. The most important ones are: rising violence – Brazil registered more than 60,000 murders in 2016 – as much as the count of the United States, China and Mexico, combined; the enormous corruption scandals which compromised most of establishment politicians and major parties; the 2015-16 recession, which resulted exclusively from bad policies of the PT government and was the largest in Brazil’s history, having generated a combined drop of 7% in GDP and a loss of three million jobs; and last, but not least, dissatisfaction of the society with the advance of a socially liberal agenda during the leftist governments, especially in respect to children education. Mirroring these issues, the platform encamped by Bolsonaro includes stricter punishment for criminals and corrupt politicians, a liberal economic agenda, and a socially conservative agenda.
Despite the legitimacy of his rise and eventual election, most of the local and international observers have been highlighting the potential “threat to democracy” that Bolsonaro would allegedly represent. These accusations are usually founded on one or more of the following grounds, or variations of them: remarks the president-elect has made in favor of army officials which fought communists during the military regime; being in favor of more effective rules of engagement for police officers while conducting operations; or the alleged opposition that the president-elect has exercised, during his long congressional career , against the excesses of the leftist agenda towards minorities’ rights. All these arguments, in addition to rhetoric phrases he pronounced, most of which many years ago, under specific circumstances, would be evidence the president-elect would represent a “threat to democracy” or even to “the planet”, as one recent article in “El Pais” suggested.
The first argument goes as follows. Bolsonaro defends the dictatorial regime which vigored in Brazil between 1964 and 1984, therefore, he must be (at least a potential) dictator himself. The regime obviously committed excesses; however, the narrative of the period which passed to history was reconstructed by the left during the past decades, and now reads as if the choice Brazil faced at that time was between a 19th century UK-style liberal democracy, or a military regime. It was not. In the early sixties, former president João Goulart flirted with letting a soviet-style communist regime be established in Brazil. The military engaged in operations to combat terrorist organizations, which were determined to seize power and install a people’s dictatorship. These groups received resources from China, Cuba and the Soviet Union, where they also sent personnel to be trained. Their actions included the hijacking of three foreign ambassadors to Brazil, whose lives were exchanged for the freedom of formerly imprisoned terrorists; several commercial plane hijacks; bomb explosions which targeted airports, military facilities, bank agencies and other public places – having killed several innocents; and many other guerrilla activities. Despite all this, during the 20 years of military regime in Brazil, most counts point to a few more than 400 people who have been reported killed or missing (on both sides of the conflict). This figure is orders of magnitude lower than the several tens of thousands reported killed or missing in Chile or Argentina, during similar period and circumstances. All these facts are critical to consider in any analysis of the period of military ruling in Brazil – but are hardly observed in most of the available appraisals.
The second argument suggests that Bolsonaro would issue police forces a “carte blanche” to kill criminals while in action. Again, this is a distortion of reality. Rules of engagement for police officers in Brazil are such that law agents are heavily constrained while conducting operations against criminals. To avoid being later prosecuted for disproportional use of force in case of casualties, they must ensure they employ the minimum necessary load, and escalate the intensity strictly as needed. Sometimes this implies they may not fire in advance even when facing heavily armed criminals, a frequent situation which arises in large areas controlled by drug dealers in Rio and other major cities. The president-elect proposes to implement rules of engagement that would offer the police force a more suitable degree of judicial protection. This must be seen in the context of the extremely high rates of criminality displayed in Brazil. Apart from the record-high assassination rates, the country has large urban areas under control of criminal militia, and a decades-old criminal code which is way too soft on penalties. Usually this argument for arguing that the president-elect is “authoritarian” also distorts the fact that new rules of engagement would increase the number of deaths caused by the police force - more than 90% of the 60,000 yearly assassinations are not, however, caused by the police.
The third argument explores the president-elect opposition to the leftist agenda of the defense of minorities to label him as authoritarian, misogynist and other similar adjectives. In this realm, what Bolsonaro actually defends is the equality of all persons under the law, regardless of race, gender, age, and other features, a key article of Brazil’s 1988 constitution which has frequently been torn down, including by its Supreme Court - for example, when it ruled that racial quotas for public service jobs and public universities were constitutional. Most affirmative policies of firms in their workforces are, in this sense, against Brazil’s rule of law, since, according to law 7716 of 1989, article 4, it is a crime to obstruct career progression or deny a job to someone based on racial considerations. Only that the leftist agenda of the past several years prevented these laws from being observed. This argument therefore is entirely political – and the Brazilian society expressed its will to turn the pendulum to the other direction.
A lot has also been said about the risk that Bolsonaro would represent to the Constitution, even though his government program content, available at the Supreme Electoral Court of Brazil website, is entirely compliant to all constitutional principles. Interestingly, very little has been said on the fact that, on the contrary, it was the program of Fernando Haddad, of PT, Bolsonaro’s running mate, which contained explicit threats to democracy and the constitution, including the intention of establishing “social control” of the press and the convocation of a new constitution assembly with a higher degree of “popular participation” – an euphemism for the installation of a Venezuelan-style regime. The Supreme Court itself, in the past few years, has also repeatedly infringed the constitution, of which it would be supposed to be the ultimate defender - the most obvious offense having been the preservation of former President Roussef’s political rights when she was impeached, a possibility which is explicitly vetoed by the Constitution.
Having said all this, there are many reasons to be optimistic with the forthcoming government of Brazil. The economy enjoys stable and low inflation, due to the excellent work of the Central Bank in the past few years. After many years of uncertainty, recession and crisis, there is a substantial number of projects and investments ready to be launched. The economic slack is so large that the country would be able to grow some years at 3%+ rates, provided the economic agents are offered the perspective of solvency of the State. If the government delivers a good pension reform, economic confidence will do the rest.
As this article argued, however, Mr. Bolsonaro was not elected based on his fiscal adjustment proposals. Why would then he endorse such policies, and many of the other excellent proposals of his top economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, such as massive privatizations, a base-zero annual budget, and many others? After all, his voting record as a congressman has not been marked, in general, by alignment with market-friendly economic measures.
The reason is simple. Public finances have no margin of maneuver whatsoever. If pension reform is not passed relatively quickly, public debt will exhibit explosive dynamics, and the economy will fall back into recession. Mr. Bolsonaro showed remarkable political intuition and sense of opportunity during this presidential campaign. He is a smart man, having graduated from the Army academy, which is not an easy school to enter in Brazil. He is surrounded by top-notch professionals, such as Paulo Guedes – a Chicago-trained economist who was a founder of one of the most successful Brazilian investment banks; Hamilton Mourão – an extremely well-prepared former Army General, and many other advisers. Therefore, it is likely he will make the correct choices, in the correct moment, when presented with the relevant trade-offs.
Other frequent arguments of skeptical analysts are easier to dismiss. Some argue his team lacks experience. Former presidents Lula, in 2002, and Cardoso, in 1994, and their respective teams, had little or no government experience, but had important private sector or academic background. Both displayed good execution capacity. Other analysts question the governability conditions the president-elect will face. The inflection of the political axis in this election and the first movements of the actors suggest that reaching constitutional majority will be no more difficult than it has been in previous governments.
Brazil is about to witness a growth cycle that could be relatively long. Mr. Bolsonaro will make the correct choices, and can pass to history as the president with the best average growth rate since the re-democratization. And, no, he does not represent a threat to democracy - or at least, much less of a threat than the left-wing PT alternative would represent, and not more of a threat than that posed by any other government Brazil witnessed in the short history of its democracy.