‘Trump moment’ in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s election

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‘Trump moment’ in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s election

Sunday, 04 November 2018 | Makhan Saikia

‘Trump moment’ in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s election

As a large number of voters wanted to get rid of corruption, rising crime and an economic slump caused by Centrist and Leftist politicians, they elected Jair Bolsonaro to cure their country of the illness. However, the moot question is whether Bolsonaro’s radicalism will gel with the hopes of the masses

Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the office of the President of Brazil signals the coming of the “Trump moment” to the Latin American nation. Bolsonaro, the right-wing conservative presidential candidate, won 55.2 per cent of the vote against the Left-wing Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, who got only 44.8 per cent, despite the backing of former President Lula.

Bolsonaro displays an unusual trend in Brazilian politics. His rise is compared with the coming to power of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the US. All these leaders have promised to fight the establishment and settle for a new order of sort in their respective countries. Born to parents of Italian descent, Bolsonaro served in the Brazilian Army from 1971 to 1988 and was first elected as a City Councillor for Rio de Janerio to represent the Christian Democratic Party. In 1990, for the first time, he was elected to the federal assembly from the same party. By the end of July this year, the far-right Social Liberal Party declared him as the presidential candidate. From then, his very short journey to “The Planalto” (The Palacio do Planalto in Spanish language) has just begun. He is finally taking over as the President of Brazil in January 2019.

Bolsonaro has been making headlines by espousing populist and nationalist rhetoric from the very beginning of his campaign. He is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, abortion and migration. He has courted major controversies by releasing one of the ugliest statements particularly against women, gays, black community, foreigners and indigenous peoples. His derogatory remarks have no end. For example, once he suggested that all social schemes for escaped slaves are mere wastage as “they do nothing. I don’t think they even serve for reproduction”.

What has led to Bolsonaro’s rise? This former Army captain’s journey to the centre of Brasilia did not start in a day or two. He has spent nearly three decades in the Brazilian Parliament, but couldn’t be considered as one of prominent statesmen of the country. This makes his journey to the top post of the country interesting. To explain the mysterious rise, we need to go back to the ignominious reign of two former presidents, Rousseff and Temer (the incumbent). Today, Brazil is gripped by a spate of corruption scandals involving top political leaders, including the outgoing President Michel Temer. The roots of these scandals started in 2014. The most controversial of these scandals is the Operacao Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) which came up during the reign of former President Dilma Rousseff. The investigation revealed that the top executives at the state oil company, known as “Petrobras”, had accepted bribes from a number of construction firms to award them contracts at inflated prices. What was surprising was that as the tentacles of the Operation Car Wash fanned out, other scandals involving politicians, business executives and government officials started coming to light.

The largest South American nation has been witnessing a spate of political crises after the very end of the glorious Lula regime in 2010. Though Lula had carefully installed his protégé Dilma Rousseff as the first woman President of the country in 2011, her rule was marred by the much talked about Lava Jato scandal. And this has landed her, along with her mentor Lula, in jail. When Temer took over after Rousseff’s suspension from office in 2016, he miserably failed to restore the faith of the populace in the fragile democratic system of Brazil. The worst came to Lula’s Workers’ Party when it was alleged that money from the Lava Jato scandal was funneled to pay off politicians and buy votes and help in election campaigns to bring back Rousseff to power. The data revealed by the Public Prosecutor’s office in October shows that Lava Jato had resulted into more than 200 convictions for crimes, including corruption, misuse of the global financial infrastructure, drug trafficking and money laundering. Along with giant corporate houses, a number of foreign political dignitaries were implicated, including two former Presidents — Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Pedro Pablo Kuezynski of Peru, and the current Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro.

Another scam came to light in March 2017 through an investigation called ‘Operacao Carne Fraca (Operation Weak Flesh). It was the result of the Operation Lava Jato only. This Operation Weak Flesh pursued mounting allegations that some employees of the JBS and BRF, the world’s largest beef and poultry exporters, continuously bribed food inspectors to approve the sale of spoiled products. Once the scam was public, the European Union, China, the US, Egypt, Japan and Mexico suspended their meat imports from Brazil with immediate effect. What has heralded more chaos to the political atmosphere of Brazil was subsequent scandals that rocked the country such as: Operacao Panatenaico, which exposed alleged bribes paid by construction companies in return for contracts to build stadiums for World Cup Brasilia in 2014; Oeracao Green Field, an investigation into the alleged fraud at the pension funds of state-run companies and finally, Operacao Zelotes, that is investigating kickbacks allegedly paid by corporate, including JBS and Ford’s Brazilian subsidiary to tax officials to reduce their liabilities. Thus as the economic crisis deepened, political leadership gradually failed to restore the confidence of the public on the public institutions.

These scandals have led to extreme level of complications to revive the ailing economy amid its biggest downturn in more than a century. Meanwhile, the largest of the corporate houses of the country have faced major setbacks and people have started losing their trust in them. And the fallout of all these scandals reverberated through the just concluded presidential election in Brazil.

Bolsonar’s sudden rise within a year was supported by these complicated elements both in the political and economic scenes. People came out to streets across Brazil and demanded strict action on the high-profile public personalities. In a nutshell, what commoners longed for was radical political transformation and a leadership that can prevent mega corruption scandals and crime in Brazil.

And, this has made Bolsonaro’s long and arduous road to presidency rather too short. He and his party fully exploited the raging public anger against the establishment. While drawing attention from populace, he unleashed a purely populist campaign unlike all his opponents. He even showered praise on his country’s military dictatorship that existed between 1964 and 1985, advocated death penalty, etc. Besides, he has praised the long ruled late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, expressed support for tortures and wanted political opponents to be shot in his country. When it comes to foreign policy, he is planning to improve relations with America. On the economic front, he is continuously arguing for a market friendly and fully privatised economic system. At best, his entire political style can rightly be called as truly provocative and extremely polarising. Despite his aggressive and ultra-nationalist style, many in Brazil wanted an iron fist to fix the system.

On record, the country has registered a record number of 64,000 murders last year. People are hopeless about the law and order. That is why it was possible for Bolsonaro to crush presidential candidates with temperate views and impressive track records. Looking at the final runoff election result, it can be easily concluded what common Brazilians rebelled against — corruption, crime and financial crisis of the nation — than what they voted for in this presidential election.

What has surprised the world is that the business leaders of Brazil have finally decided to back Bolsonaro. They have done so for the very simple reason that their free market capitalism can no longer suffer under an extremely confused and corrupted regime of Temer. And, finally the corporates have decided to back a fascist like Bolsonaro than risking Haddad’s moderate Left-wing.

However, Bolsonaro’s coming to power is sending missed signals to the international community, and the Brazilians. His will be another illiberal regime at the backyard of America. His policies if not crafted properly will not be able to revive the falling economy of the biggest country of South America. Now, Brazilians see a civil-military coalition government at the centre under Bolsonaro. He has already indicated that he will appoint personnel from the Army as ministers of his Government. When he formally takes over, he would face very little resistance from fellow Congressman on the issues such as flexibility on gun control and lowering the age of criminal responsibility. But he may soon face popular protests both from within and outside the Congress on matters like reducing pension spending and privatising the state owned enterprises. Though he is trying hard to paint himself as the “Tropical Trump”, for all his outrageous and hateful speeches, he has already earned the label of the “most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world”. It is better if he can bring back Brazil to normalcy by cracking down on corruption and crime. Else, the country will further slip into a permanent mess. And, the same voters who elected him to the hot seat may turn violent and demand his ouster sooner or later. Thus, he should tread cautiously.

(The writer is an expert on international affairs)