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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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