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Bolsonaro Blues: Why Brazil Can't Afford A Far-Right President

Jair Bolsonaro is threatening to curtail rights and liberties, and bring the army back into politics. He's also the front-runner heading into Sunday's presidential election.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's next president?
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's next president?


SANTIAGO — Deeply divided voters head to the polls on Oct. 7 for the first round of Brazil's presidential election. And a good many of them — fed up with a lingering recession and rampant corruption among politicians of all stripes — are expected to choose the far-right candidate, former military officer Jair Bolsonaro, who after decades as an obscure and mediocre parliamentarian now positions himself as the country's savior from the political establishment.

The recession that began in 2014 and continues to keep the country prostrate shrunk GDP by 7% in total between 2014 and 2016. So far this year, growth is forecast at just 0.2%, and the jobless rate is now over 12% — meaning that nearly 13 million Brazilians are out of work. That's the official number. There are also an estimated 4.6 million "discouraged" job seekers who have simply given up hope of reentering the world of work. The Brazilian state, in the meantime, gobbles up 39.5% of GDP (compared to an average 25.4% in other Pacific Alliance states), spending 56% of this fortune on pensions for retired bureaucrats. The fiscal deficit thus reached 7.8% of GDP in 2017.

The political environment is equally disastrous: 77% of Brazilians see their government as corrupt, while only 14% believe elections are clean. Security is a problem as well, with a record 64,000 homicides registered in 2017, the fourth highest toll in Latin America.

How is support for such a fanatical rightist possible in a liberal country like Brazil?

All of this explains Bolsonaro's lead among would-be voters, at 28% (in a crowded field), despite his fervent support for military rule and his repeated and offensive utterances against women, blacks, indigenous people and homosexuals. He has defended torture and proudly worn a T-shirt stating: "Human Rights, Manure of Social Scum."

How is support for such a fanatical rightist possible in a liberal country like Brazil? The Workers' Party (PT) and its jailed leader, former president Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva (2003-2011), deserve much of the blame. In their 13 years in power, Lula and the PT took the country to new heights in terms of pocketing taxpayer's money and taking bribes.

The state oil firm Petrobras and construction firms like Odebrecht put together a regional multinational whose corrupting tentacles reached from Mexico to Argentina. They have helped generate the country's worst political crisis in decades and fueled their own, passionate rejection by voters. As one analyst in the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo writes, "The anti-PT passion is greater than the decision to vote for Bolsonaro. It is more an anti-PT vote than a vote for Bolsonaro."

The stain of corruption is harming other parties as well. The crisis runs so deep that the legislature has lost all credibility, with many of its members already jailed or facing legal action. Brazil's executive branch is headed by a weak president bereft of all public support. Michel Temer, the outgoing leader, has himself avoided formal corruption charges by the skin of his teeth. He should probably be in jail alongside Lula.

Pro-Bolsonaro rally in Sao Paulo on Sept. 30 — Photo: Cris Faga/ZUMA

The result is a power vacuum that has been filled by the judiciary, which has taken on an enormous role by leading the investigations that landed Lula and several other bigwig politicians and business leaders in jail.

But now Bolsonaro wants to fill this vacuum, and with something much worse: military power — or at least an authoritarian regime backed by the armed forces. His aspiring vice-president, retired Army general Hamilton Mourao, has said that in case of "anarchy," the president should carry out a self-coup.

Bolsonaro said last year that half his ministers would be soldiers, and these words seem to have a context. The current Army commander-in-chief, Gen. Eduardo Villa Boas, has made threatening comments on several occasions. Brazil's military, who were never tried for their actions in the dictatorship of 1964-85, may be waiting for an opportunity to return to the fray, and Bolsonaro seems to be the candidate to open them that door with people's votes.

The most recent polls have halted Bolsonaro's ascent, giving him 28% of voting intentions, while the PT's Fernando Haddad, chosen by Lula as his replacement candidate, has risen to 22%. One poll gives Haddad 43% of votes in a second round, against Bolsonaro's 37%. But then, polls also said Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump. It may be the case too that there are a great many "hidden" Bolsonaro supporters, people who are ashamed to admit they would vote for such a controversial and blatantly ignorant candidate.

His support comes from those who see the country as in need of radical "cleansing," and includes members of the business elite and rising middle class who have taken a huge hit from the recession. He has already said he would give policemen "carte blanche to kill." On the economic front, he calls for privatizing all state-sector firms, despite a history of favoring state intervention. He once said that Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who was president from 1995 to 2003) should have been shot for privatizing a big mining firm.

What's at take isn't the economy, but the democratic system of government.

The PT candidate, in the meantime, is wallowing in a fantasy world. Haddad says the Brazilian economy needs no structural reforms, and that the government just needs to spend more to revive the economy. That means deepening the debt hole the PT dug as a grave for the national economy. Of course, if he's elected, he may act otherwise. And admittedly, as mayor of Sao Paulo he has been fairly competent and centrist.

The other candidates are the center-left Ciro Gomes, with 11% of voting intentions and unclear proposals on the economy, and Geraldo Alckmin, a former governor of Sao Paulo province. Alckmin wasn't a bad governor and, unlike his Social-Democratic Party, seems to have kept away from corruption. Also, unlike Haddad, he recognizes the need for reforms.

This time around, however, what's at take in Brazil's elections isn't the economy, but the democratic system of government. If a candidate with bad proposals wins — Haddad, for example —, opponents will be able to challenge him in parliament, and voters can choose a better president in 2022. But if Bolsonaro wins, there is a distinct possibility that he could eliminate liberties and possibly even pave the way for a coup.

In the first round, electors should vote for any candidate but Bolsonaro and thus state their support for democracy. And in the second, assuming Bolsonaro secures a spot in the runoff, they need to vote for whoever opposes him.

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