Bolsonaro’s Brazil


CARTOON/Business Day/Duck Duck Go

I: Lula/Dilma

The teratology of the contemporary political imagination – plentiful enough: Trump, Le Pen, Salvini, Orbán, Kaczy?ski, ogres galore – has acquired a new monster. Rising above the ruck, the president-elect of Brazil has extolled his country’s most notorious torturer; declared that its military dictatorship should have shot thirty thousand opponents; told a congresswoman she was too ugly to merit raping; announced he would rather a son killed in a car accident than gay; declared open season on the Amazon rainforest; not least, on the day after his election, promised followers to rid the land of red riff-raff. Yet for Sérgio Moro, his incoming justice minister saluted worldwide as an epitome of judicial independence and integrity, Jair Bolsonaro is a ‘moderate’.

To all appearances, the verdict of the polls last October was unambiguous: after governing the country for 14 years, the Workers’ Party (PT) has been comprehensively repudiated and its survival may now be in doubt. Lula, the most popular ruler in Brazilian history, has been incarcerated by Moro and awaits further jail sentences. His successor, evicted from office midway through her second term, is a virtual outcast, reduced to a humiliating fourth place in a local Senate race. How has this reversal come about? To what extent was it contingent or at some point a foregone conclusion? What explains the radicalism of the upshot? By comparison with the scale of the upheaval through which Brazil has lived in the last five years, and the gravity of its possible outcome, the histrionics over Brexit in this country and the conniptions over Trump in America are close to much ado about nothing.

Brazilian politics are Italianate in character: intricate and serpentine. But there is little hope of grasping what has befallen the country without some understanding of them. When Lula left office in 2010 – presidents in Brazil are limited to two successive terms, though not barred from subsequent re-election – the economy posted 7.5 per cent growth, poverty had been cut in half, new universities had multiplied, inflation was low, the budget and current account were in surplus and his approval ratings above 80 per cent. To succeed him, Lula picked his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, in the 1960s a fighter in the underground against the military dictatorship, who had never held or run for electoral office before. With Lula at her side, she coasted to victory with a 56 per cent majority, the first woman to win the presidency. Initially better received by a middle class that detested Lula, for two years she enjoyed quite widespread esteem for a show of calm and competence. But her inheritance was less rosy than it seemed. High commodity prices had underlain Lula’s boom, without altering Brazil’s historically low rates of investment and productivity growth. Virtually as soon as Dilma took office in 2011, they started to fall, bringing growth abruptly down to 1.9 per cent by 2012. In 2013 the US Federal Reserve announced it would stop buying bonds, setting off a so-called ‘taper tantrum’ in capital markets, drawing foreign finance out of Brazil. The balance of payments deteriorated. Inflation picked up. The years of buoyant prosperity were over.

Politically, a mortgage lay on the PT government from the start. After the re-democratisation of the country in the late 1980s, three parties loomed largest: on the centre right, the fig-leaf ‘social democratic’ PSDB, home of big business and the middle class; in the centre, the theoretically ‘democratic’ PMDB, a sprawling network of clientelism in rural and small-town settings, feathering local nests with federal or provincial largesse; on the left, the PT, the only party that was more than a collection of regional notables and their underlings. Alongside this trio, however, in Brazil’s system of open-list proportional representation in very large constituencies, a plethora of smaller parties of no ideological orientation proliferated: contraptions for extracting public funds and favours for their leaders, proliferated. In these conditions, no president has ever led a party with more than a quarter of the seats in a Congress through which all significant legislation must pass, making coalitions a condition of government and distribution of lucrative prebends a condition of coalitions.

For twenty years, the presidency was held by only two parties, the PSDB and the PT. The former, committed to delivering what it called a salutary ‘shock of capitalism’ to the country, had little difficulty finding allies among the traditional oligarchies of the north-east and the eternal predators of the PMDB. They were natural allies for a liberal-conservative regime.

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