30 October 2018

The Impact of Brazil's New President

Brazil’s 2018 presidential election will go down as one of the strangest election campaigns in recent history.  In a world that has become numb to unexpected election results and candidates that would have, at one time, been deemed un-electable, Brazil’s election this year managed to stand out for a number of reasons. As late as five weeks before the first round of voting, the front-runner in this election was former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, with no other candidate being favored by more than a quarter of Brazilian voters.  However, Lula was imprisoned on corruption charges and thus, disqualified from taking part in this election, although he attempted to remain a candidate until just five weeks before voting took place.  Meanwhile, the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro was polling consistently at between 20% and 25% until he was stabbed at a campaign rally just one month before the election.  This stabbing, and Lula’s forced withdrawal from the race, led to a surge in support for Bolsonaro in the final weeks of the election campaign. 

After winning a surprisingly large share of the vote (46.0%) in the first round of voting earlier in October, Bolsonaro was poised to win a clear victory in the second round of voting.  As such, he did exactly that, winning 55.1% of the vote and dominating the election in Brazil’s most populous regions in the center and the south of the country.  His opponent in the second round was Lula’s left-wing replacement candidate Fernando Haddad, who managed to win just 44.9% of the vote in the second round, and won a majority of the vote in just the poorest areas of northern and northeastern Brazil.  Bolsonaro’s share of the vote represented the largest share of the vote for a right-of-center candidate in Brazil since the end of military rule in the 1980s. Moreover, it continued what has been a shift towards the political right in South America, following right-wing successes in countries such as Chile and Argentina in recent years.

With rampant crime and corruption, and with an economy that has struggled mightily in recent years, it was clear that many voters in Brazil were seeking a change from the left-wing governments that have led the country for much of the past 16 years.  Three domestic issues dominated the campaign: 

  • Corruption: The massive Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal impacted nearly all segments of Brazilian politics and business, and especially tarnished the reputation of those linked with Brazil’s recent governments.
  • Crime: Crime rates have soared in many areas of Brazil in recent years and now stand among the highest in the world. Bolsonaro focused much of his campaign on this issue, vowing to deploy Brazil’s armed forces to combat criminal elements.
  • The Economy: Brazil’s economy has been stuck in a deep slump since commodity prices fell in 2014.  These struggles were blamed on Brazil’s previous left-wing governments, leading investors and businesses to back Bolsonaro.

 After the struggles of recent years, many Brazilians clearly chose to overlook Bolsonaro’s rougher edges and support his call for a stronger hand to deal with the multitude of problems facing their country.  Moreover, the need to improve Brazil’s economic competitiveness has become more apparent, driving many voters away from the political left.  Should Brazil’s next president manage to lower the level of crime and corruption and revive the country’s economy, many voters in Brazil will view his presidency as a success. 

As the past years have shown us, rising support for populist politicians and political parties is not confined to Brazil.  In fact, across Latin America, populism has remained a major force, with right-wing and left-wing populists leading many governments in the region.  For example, far-left governments are currently in power in a number of Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia, and a left-wing populist will soon be president of Mexico.  At the same time, support for more authoritarian right-wing parties and leaders is also growing in many Latin American countries, a trend continued by Bolsonaro’s success this year in Brazil.  With far-left and far-right governments soon to be entrenched in many of Latin America’s most influential countries, the stage is set for a region-wide showdown between right-wing and left-wing ideologues.  Given Brazil’s size and influence, that country’s president-elect will have the opportunity to increase support for more authoritarian right-wing parties and politicians across Latin America, should he prove successful in reducing crime and corruption and in improving the health of Brazil’s economy.  However, his success could also endanger democracy in Latin America should he forego the rule of law as he attempts to reform Brazil.

Despite its vast size, Brazil has had a relatively small impact on world affairs.  In fact, apart from South Africa, Brazil has been easily the least influential of the BRICS group of large emerging markets.  This is due to the fact that Brazil’s lack of hard power, either in terms of economic power or military power, has severely limited the country’s global role, as has its relative isolation in South America, as Brazil’s geographic position leaves it far from the world’s centers of economic or political power.  However, this year’s presidential election has focused much of the world’s attention on Brazil, with Bolsonaro’s rise to power being followed closely around the world. Now, the success or failure of a Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil could influence future elections and political developments around the world, particularly in emerging markets. Moreover, Bolsonaro clearly borrowed some of the strategies used by Donald Trump in his successful campaign to become the president of the United States in 2016, indicating that there is a path for more populist, and less traditional, right-wing candidates to win elections in large democracies by focusing on issues such as crime, corruption and immigration, and by winning the support of both the business community and social conservative voters.  In fact, the Brazilian president-elect is likely to have a good working relationship with his counterpart in Washington.

President-elect Bolsonaro has a unique opportunity to remake Brazil, a country that has struggled to live up to its great potential.  Without question, Brazil needs stronger political leadership, as recent governments allowed crime and corruption to spiral out of control and led Brazil’s economy into a devastating recession.  With his support among businesses and investors, Bolsonaro has the opportunity to enact the economic reforms that are needed to modernize the Brazilian economy and make it more competitive.  At the same time, his close ties with Brazil’s armed forces suggest that he will use all of the tools at his disposal to reduce the level of crime in Brazil.  In fact, it will be the issues of crime and corruption, and how he chooses to combat them, that will likely define the Bolsonaro presidency.  If he chooses to erode democracy and ignore human rights in his fight against crime and corruption, he could cause major harm to democracy in his country and across Latin America.  However, if he respects Brazil’s laws and the human rights of its citizens, and manages to reduce crime and corruption, his presidency could prove to be surprising successfully, especially if this is combined with reforms that improve the longer-term health of the Brazilian economy.