Brazil's Bolsonaro: A Six-Month Reality Check For 'El Mito'

A spotty performance as a communicator and uncertain start to downsizing the state mark the fiery Jair Bolsonaro's first six months as president of Brazil.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Guido Nejamkis

BUENOS AIRES — From "mito" to mere mortal: six months after entering the presidential palace, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, the country's first elected far-right president, is no longer "The Legend" (El Mito) his nickname touts.

Since taking office on January 1, Bolsonaro kept the political world and a great many Brazilians on tenterhooks with an exalted and polemical rhetoric palatable only to a country that had been mired in a political crisis that began in 2013. Massive protests then led to the great anti-corruption "Car Wash" trials of 2014, then to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff two years later that ended 13 years of government by the Workers Party or PT. Meanwhile on the economic front, from 2015 to 2016, the country experienced its worst recession in nearly a century.

In his first six months, Bolsonaro has dismissed three ministers and a dozen senior officials, failed to impose his agenda on the powerful Congress, and had prominent clashes with soldiers in strategic administrative positions as well as the government's reputed ideologist, Olavo de Carvalho.

In spite of the turbulence and a doggedly stagnant economy, Bolsonaro is ending the semester by hailing the "historic" accord between the South American trade bloc Mercosur and the European Union, which he had promised will bring enormous benefits to the Brazilian economy.

His controlled public stunts have failed to prevent a drop in approval ratings.

Bolsonaro has nonetheless implemented some of his popular campaign promises, reducing ministries and refusing to negotiate cabinet positions or heads of state firms with parties in return for legislative support. It is a political custom in Brazil dubbed "presidential rule in coalition."

The president lacks a firm support base in Congress and his own party is largely composed of political novices, seemingly more at ease with squabbling online than with forging legislative majorities to assure ambitious economic reforms. In this context, analysts tell Clarín that the speakers of the respective legislative bodies, Rodrigo Maia of the lower Chamber of Deputies and David Alcolumbre in the Senate, effectively play a moderating role, either diluting proposed legislation or aiding voting for changes that have support, such as with the overhaul of the costly pensions system.

Manifestation against cuts in education and pension reform, Rio de Janeiro — Photo: Fabio Teixeira/ ZUMA

This reform, a key component of promised measures to revive an economy that may grow but a measly 0.8% this year, seeks a minimum retirement age of 65 years for men and 62 for women. Some of its harsher proposals have been softened. Once approved, the government's next economic priorities should be massive privatizations and fiscal reforms intended to lighten the crushing tax burden on firms and entrepreneurs.

Like Trump, he has clashed with the nation's media.

But Bolsonaro appears to get too distracted in online controversies, and passing too much time attending military and religious events. Other unusual gestures these first months have included leaving the presidential palace to buy shampoo in a Brazilia supermarket, and eating lunch with truck drivers in a roadside steak house.

Yet his controlled public stunts have failed to prevent a drop in approval ratings. The number of Brazilians qualifying the government's performance as "good or very good" dropped from 49% in January to 32% in June, while those who thought it "bad or very bad" almost tripled, from 11% to 32%.

The president is a firm ally of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his foreign policy has sought a "dimension of religious values' representative of the 87% of Brazilians who declare themselves believers, one senior official told Clarín. Like Trump, he has clashed with the nation's media, though softening his jibes in recent weeks by claiming he was "warming to the press."

In spite of the controversies and declining approval ratings, some analysts are not counting Bolsonaro out. The top political consultant Stephen Kanitz has highlighted the professional performance of most cabinet ministers, the determination to trim spending for top political offices and progress made in modernizing infrastructures through swift bidding processes to run ports, airports and railways. Change may still be on the way.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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