Jair Bolsonaro, the former army captain Brazilians elected president on Sunday, makes President Trump look like genteel Uncle Donald. His victory, like Trump’s, is a reflection of how angry and frustrated voters are. But we already have a pretty good idea of how this turns out – and it’s not good.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why Brazilians turned to a candidate known for outrageous statements, such as: He’d rather have a dead son than a gay son; he wants to let the police and army loose on the favelas; make it easier to buy guns; thinks the country’s former military dictatorship should have killed more people and on … and on.
After the rapid economic growth that lifted millions out of poverty, boosted Brazil’s status and brought soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic summer games in 2016, things went horribly wrong. The country’s democratic foundation wasn’t strong enough, and the economy was far too dependent on exporting commodities.
Brazil is only now, and slowly, emerging from what was the worst recession in its history. The murder rate is an astronomical 30 per 100,000 people; nearly 64,000 people were killed last year, or 175 a day. Bolsonaro himself nearly died after a knife attack on the campaign trail. An epic corruption scandal landed a popular former president in jail and tainted many other prominent officials. So, yes, Brazilians (like voters in so many other countries in recent years) were in a mood to throw the bums out.
But what they’re likely to get won’t cure what ails Brazil. There almost certainly will be more bloodshed, but it won’t address the causes of violence. Bolsonaro seems inclined to double down on commodity exports rather than diversifying the economy. And turning to an authoritarian populist with a fondness for the army is not likely to eliminate corruption, only change the beneficiaries.
Brazil matters to the rest of us, too. It is the globe’s fifth-most populous country and possesses a top-10 economy, bigger than Canada’s or Russia’s. Its agricultural sector competes with U.S. farmers for global markets in soybeans and other commodities. In an era of deep concern about climate change, the Amazon rainforest is often called the world’s lungs. At a time when global politics is undergoing a major realignment, Brazil could help shape a new world order as an emerging power: The ‘B’ in BRIC is for Brazil.
But it’s Brazilians who vote, of course, and Bolsonaro appealed to those angry about crime, to those in the business community interested in trimming bureaucracy, to farmers and to socially conservative Evangelical Christians who make up about 30 percent of all Brazilians.
Bolsonaro might be able to get a handle on one big problem, the pension system, which is rapidly going bust. The current president, Michel Temer, failed earlier this year to reform it, but the public may be coming around. Two polls nine months apart found that the number of Brazilians rejecting pension reform had fallen from 71 percent to 44 percent.
Temer also directed federal authorities earlier this year to take over security in Rio de Janeiro to try to quell violence that is largely the result of turf wars among drug gangs. Reuters reported that in the first six months, the number of people killed in confrontations with police increased by 35 percent over the previous year. That may not be a huge surprise, but the number of murders also increased, by almost 5 percent. Gang leaders interviewed by the news agency said little will change; high-profile leaders might lie low for a while; their foot soldiers will continue to sell drugs. The favelas will be just as poor, and the young men who make up the vast majority of the murder victims will be just as vulnerable. It may get quieter, but only for a while.
Bolsonaro’s economic policies are less clear, but he has expressed interested in ramping up mining in the Amazon region. The organization representing Brazil’s agribusiness sector has endorsed Bolsonaro, as well.
The problem is that Brazil risks reinforcing the boom-and-bust cycle of a commodity-driven economy. Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse: It produces about 20 percent of the world’s sugar (and 40 percent of sugar exports), and 30 percent of global soybeans; it’s the largest producer of coffee and oranges, and a major global supplier of beef and chicken, among other commodities.
The economy was great while demand was strong, particularly from China. Brazil may be able to take advantage of the trade war between the United States and China by exporting more soybeans, for instance. Overall, though, the Chinese economy is slowing down – and that won’t be good for Brazil. Nor would an increased emphasis in the United States on domestic production. Sure, you can produce more. But where do you sell it?
Meanwhile, unless President Bolsonaro is completely different from candidate Bolsonaro, he will be exacerbating social and economic tensions in an incredibly diverse society. He’ll be giving the army, which had stepped to the background in an era of democratic civilian rule, new prominence.
You can indeed throw the bums out. But in Brazil – as in many other countries – it can be very easy to replace them with scoundrels.