Zehner: The Full Brazilian

The rise of Brazilian populism was inevitable.

by Callum Zehner | 10/9/18 2:00am

If I were to describe a leader who framed himself as a political outsider, who decried the corruption of the established elite, opposed such things as the Paris climate accord and has become famous for making outrageous comments, I suspect you would not immediately think of the Brazilian politician Jair Bolsonaro. But maybe you should. Brazil is about to elect its next president, and Bolsonaro will likely take up that mantle. This will be a wasted opportunity to turn the country around, but the result should not be considered surprising. Brazil’s recent problems have perfectly set the stage for Bolsonaro’s grand entrance, creating populist conditions in which the far-right strongman can easily establish control.

Populism typically relies on a sense of economic grievance — and Brazil’s economy has tanked. Although the country does reasonably well in certain indicators of economic malaise ­— its current account is fairly balanced, inflation is low and currency reserves are strong — there are still severe underlying issues. GDP per person fell by 10 percent between 2014 and 2016, and has yet to return to original levels. Unemployment hovers above 12 percent. The country also continues to suffer from a tragic pensions system that has drained much of the public funds. At the moment, more than half of Brazil’s non-interest spending goes toward pensions — 50 percent higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average — which has helped to minimize the potential for economic growth. And the unwieldy nature of the public sector is only getting worse, with public debt rising from 60 to 84 percent of GDP in the four years to 2018. It should be clear how, in this situation, Bolsonaro’s self-proclaimed image as the scourge of public-sector waste would be enticing to the Brazilian voter. He has aligned himself with the Chicago school of free market economics, calling for the privatization of all state-owned enterprises, the simplification of the tax system (Brazilians currently spend 1,958 hours a year filing taxes, compared to 175 in the U.S.) and the reduction of the number of government ministries by half.

Bolsonaro has also, with clear allusions to the notion of “draining the swamp,” declared war against the inherent corruption of Brazilian politics. The impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, due to her alleged manipulation of budget deficit figures and attempts to interfere in a corruption probe into Petrobras, made it clear to many Brazilians, though not all, that corruption was rife in Brasilia. The overarching corruption probe known as Operation Lava Jato — literally meaning “Car Wash” — has been almost too effective, discrediting the whole political class. Former President Lula Da Silva was sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption while in office, and Michael Temer, the current president, has also been accused. Surveys have found that only eight percent of Brazilians currently trust their government. Bolsonaro has been extremely effective at exploiting the public’s lack of faith in its representatives. He has employed Trumpian tactics of outrage to distinguish himself from the tainted elite, claiming that, for example, he would rather his son be dead than gay. By making open, offensive remarks, Bolsonaro has painted himself as someone who is honest — a man of the people who can be trusted because he is not like the other politicians. This has proved crucial at a time when Brazilians have lost all trust in their government.

Brazil also finds itself in the midst of a crime epidemic. In 2017, 63,880 people were murdered across the country, bringing the murder rate to 30.8 per 100,000, up from 29.9 the year before. This has mostly been the result of an increase in gang violence surrounding the drug trade and underfunded law enforcement. The dire situation has made public security a key issue in the election, and Bolsonaro has taken a firm stance against crime, vowing to ease restrictions on bearing arms and to allow law enforcement to use lethal force against criminals. Revealingly, his trademark move on the campaign trail has been a trigger-pulling motion with his hands. As a former army man with the vocal backing of the military, Bolsonaro is viewed as a no-nonsense strongman who can set the country straight. He has even explicitly praised the country’s brutal former military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, and called for its resumption. Yet this hasn’t scared off voters.

Brazilians have lost patience. After 14 years of governance by the Worker’s Party, they feel like the country has gone down the drain. Now they are desperate for substantial change, and it seems inevitable that Bolsonaro, the ultimate outsider, will win. Economic woes, rising crime rates and rampant corruption have fuelled a dangerous populism that will negatively affect Brazil for the duration of Bolsonaro’s term. The whole situation is eerily similar to the U.S. elections of 2016. The inherent similarities between the two reveal how easy an escape populism is from properly addressing the issues facing various countries around the globe. Although Brazil will have to wait for effective change, hopefully in the future, other countries will learn from Brazil’s and the U.S.’s mistakes and seek healthier channels through which to resolve their problems. 

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