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Bolsonaro's broken promises

Thomas Milz
October 28, 2019

One year ago, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil's president. But he has failed to fulfil many of the promises that helped bring him to power, experts say.

Jair Bolsonaro
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/M. Chello

"Our country became incredibly polarized in October 2018," says Brazilian political scientist Jairo Nicolau of Rio de Janeiro's Fundacao Getulio Vargas (FGV) university. "Families would fight over politics." But he now has the impression that things have calmed down somewhat. Sociologist Demetrio Magnoli tells DW that while debate "on social media is still pretty heated," in society at large, "tensions have abated somewhat and social polarization has declined as well, in step with [President Jair] Bolsonaro's popularity ratings."

According to the latest figures from Brazilian pollster Ibope, Bolsonaro's approval ratings have dropped from 49% when he took office in January to 31% in September. About a third of respondents said they were disappointed with the president's record so far – up from just 11% in January. Magnoli describes the loss as "dramatic." But the president counters this trend with ever more biting comments on social networks: "The government ramps up its rhetoric the more it loses in popularity," Magnoli says. "That is not a particularly good strategy." 

A weak president

Magnoli says the Brazilian government has achieved very little. The executive appears surprisingly feeble. After all, it was Congress and not Bolsonaro's government that came up with the recently passed pension reform. Magnoli says the government isn't driving economic policy-making either. He says that the parliament will probably devise the next economic reforms as well — even though, technically speaking, the Brazilian president holds a uniquely powerful position in the country. Magnoli, therefore, believes that "today we no longer have a presidential system but a semiparliamentary one."  

Bolsonaro is almost powerless against the parliament's strength. During the election campaign, he pledged to rid state schools of ideologies, make abortion laws stricter and allow all citizens to buy guns. Minorities, in particular, were scared of losing their rights. But very little has come of this, as parliament has blocked most of the president's plans. 

Protesters holding green oranges in front of Congress
The pension reform bill met with much protestImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Lima

Brazil's left-wing opposition remains paralyzed

But during this time, Brazil's opposition has not been particularly strong. Philosopher Vladimir Safatle says the "political left has collapsed, which is unprecedented in the history of Brazil." He says the reason for this is that they never managed to get over their electoral defeat and have been unable to make a fresh start.

Between 2003 and 2016, Brazil had been governed by the left-wing Workers' Party (PT) — longer than any party in the country's history. But when protests broke out in 2013, the PT lacked an adequate response to them. It was blamed for the economic crisis, and found itself mired in corruption scandals. In 2016, it was voted out of power. But the party never conducted a post-mortem, says Safatle: "They love to tell everyone they failed because of their virtues, not because of their mistakes." But, he says, Brazilian ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — or Lula for short — had created a power structure replete with internal contradictions that ultimately led to its implosion. Safatle says "the political left has since then struggled to formulate a new agenda."

The opposition's paralysis means Bolsonaro can keep governing, even though his popularity is waning. "Bolsonaro is supported by only 30% of the population, a minority," Safatle says. "But it is better to have the backing of a small organized group than that of a large, disorganized one."

Lula da Silva
Lula is serving a 12-year sentence for money laundering and corruptionImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Penner

Bolsonaro promised a conservative revolution

Bolsonaro had promised the Brazilian people a conservative revolution. In Safatle's view, it was one that would "turn the clocks back 100 years in Brazil, which would have catastrophic consequences, among other things for environmental policies." He says the Bolsonaro government has refused to draw lessons from the recent ecological catastrophes, such as the mass deforestation of the rain forest, the hugely destructive Amazon fires and the oil spill in the country's north. 

Safatle says that Bolsonaro is also creating a social order that will lead to "further income concentration." He says that these are the kinds of policies that are causing Chile's current unrest. "And they will also lead to a real explosion here, though it will take longer for this to happen," he predicts. He also points out that Bolsonaro has cultivated an "extremely authoritarian and militant atmosphere," something that manifests itself in growing police brutality, among other things. Safatle says that "the extent of state violence against blacks, the poor and Favela residents is shocking; this year alone, some 1,800 people were killed by the police."

A forest fire burns trees and brush in Brazil's Amazon
Bolsonaro was criticized internationally for his response to wildfires in the AmazonImage: picture-alliance/AP/E. Peres

What's next for Brazil?

So, what will Brazil's future look like? Magnoli believes that if ex-President Lula is released from jail sometime soon, this could "shake up Brazil's political landscape." But he thinks "Lula's release could even ironically play into the government's hands, as Bolsonaro's support derives largely from people's rejection of Lula and the PT."

But political scientist Jairo Nicolau is certain that the Brazilian people will grow more accepting of the PT, in part because of revelations indicating that the trial against Lula was possibly manipulated, but also because Bolsonaro has so far delivered little of what he promised before taking office. Nicolau explains that "people wanted a change, but when that change does not materialize, people may reconsider; Lula will probably be seen in a more positive light today than he was a year ago."

For this reason, sociologist Magnoli gives a mixed assessment one year after Bolsonaro's election: "There is certainly hope that Brazil's economy will get back on track — but the government may also continue to grow more and more unpopular."

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