A far-right hurricane threatens to blow Brazil over the edge
If Jair Bolsonaro is elected president it could further rock the country and the continent
Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
The outgoing president has been charged with bribery and obstruction of justice. His predecessor was impeached and kicked out of office. Her predecessor is in prison. The likely next president is a demagogue-in-waiting who has endorsed the use of torture and is nostalgic for the days of military dictatorship.
And they say God is Brazilian?
Jair Bolsonaro, the handsome, charismatic new phenomenon in Brazilian politics, looks set to win the second round of that country’s presidential election on October 28th. He took a big lead in the first round earlier this month, winning 46 per cent of the vote. His opponent, Fernando Haddad, seems almost too mild-mannered for the brutal realities of Brazilian politics. He also represents the Workers’ Party, which has governed, initially wisely and more recently with staggering incompetence, for much of the past 18 years.
If Bolsonaro wins he will take the reins of a country that appears to outsiders – and even more so, one suspects, to insiders – to be falling apart. Brazil is beset by epic corruption, an economic slowdown, violence and social inequality, and discredited state and political institutions. It is potentially ripe for exploitation by a populist “strongman” – the mix of simplistic policies, nationalism and grandiose machismo that has mounted a hostile takeover of the politics of much of the world and of which Bolsonaro is almost a caricature.
A win for Bolsonaro could tip Brazil into a period of social and political upheaval not seen since the end of military dictatorship three decades ago. That would be a national tragedy, and also a regional one, because Latin America looks more unstable now than it has done for a generation. Argentina is battling yet another financial crisis. Venezuela has become a failed state. Mexico is under siege from drug cartels and is ushering in a new presidential era, this time from the left. And in Nicaragua, the revolution that overthrew a brutal dictatorship 40 years ago is being betrayed by its own architects.
As the most populous and important country in Latin America, Brazil matters to the world. It has an abundance of advantages – natural resources, a booming young population and a multi-racial society, the riches of the Amazon and considerable soft power (which extends well beyond football). It has been on occasion, and could be again, a democratic beacon for developing countries.
Yet it manages always to live up – or perhaps down – to the jibe about being the country of the future, never quite of today. The confident Brazil we occasionally glimpsed when it hosted the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics has vanished. The fire that swept through the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro during the summer, destroying thousands of years of republican and indigenous history, appears symbolic of something very wrong.
Brazil’s problems, and Latin America’s, have their roots in the end of the commodities boom that prevailed for a decade up to 2014. In that time, and especially during the rule of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – the former president now languishing in prison – Brazil’s economy grew at an annual rate of 6 per cent. According to the International Monetary Fund, poverty across the region fell by well over half, to a current level of about 12 per cent.
The boom was fuelled by demand from China, for oil, minerals, soy beans and grains. One of its two important legacies is – or at any rate was – an expanding middle class, equipped with rising expectations. But from 2015, when Chinese demand dropped, Brazil’s economy ground to a halt. The IMF predicts growth of just 1.8 per cent this year. Now that revenue from the boom is no longer flowing, Brazil is nursing a huge fiscal deficit – about 8 per cent of economic output – and high public debt.
The commodities boom’s second legacy is the corruption that is now suffocating Brazil. Its nexus is Petrobras, the state oil company, and it has ensnared much of the business and political elite. The revelations of graft and bribery have fuelled the rage of the recently elevated middle classes, whose hold on their social status is now under threat.
They have now turned in their millions to Bolsonaro and his promises to send the army into the favelas, promote God and country, and slash the size of the state and its out-of-control spending. If he wins next week, he could have a huge popular mandate for such shock-therapy tactics. Whether they will solve Brazil’s problems is less certain.
There are some grounds for optimism. Brazil’s judiciary has demonstrated exemplary independence in exposing and pursuing corruption. Its political system is under unprecedented strain, but it is not broken. The question is whether it is strong enough to survive the Bolsonaro hurricane that looks set to hit it in a week’s time.
Vincent Boland is a writer and commentator