President Bolsonaro: Years of turmoil?

Make no mistake, folks: Jair Bolsonaro managed a clear victory on Sunday. 55 percent of valid votes is a lot for a polarized country, especially for an extremist candidate. Furthermore, Mr. Bolsonaro’s allies snatched control in many states, including the country’s four richest (São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul). The far-right also elected a major congressional front – something that neither the Workers’ Party nor the Brazilian Social Democracy Party managed to do. The message is clear: there was a colossal vacuum in power. And there isn’t anymore.

This was not, by no means, a normal election. Nor was it won by a normal candidate. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect a normal presidency. It is frightening, yet expectations are also immense. President Bolsonaro will have a fragile legitimacy and little room for error. And there are many signs that he will make mistakes. Here’s what I expect from the future President Bolsonaro:

There will not be a coup (at least, not for now)

Mr. Bolsonaro is a proto-fascist, as I’ve written before, but there’s no evidence suggesting he will take power and launch a coup d’état, dissolving Congress and so forth. This just doesn’t happen anymore – and not even textbook fascists did this. The risk, of course, is in the medium term, as institutions could quickly deteriorate – as they have in Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, just to name a few.

Expect bloodbaths and arbitrary arrests

One of the things which future President Bolsonaro never shied away from is his promise to give police carte blanche to arrest and kill. I’d be surprised if we don’t see a rise in deaths by cops and urban militias – and that will happen right off the bat. Black poor people in peripheral communities, rural workers, LGBTQ people (especially transgender people), and rival militias will all be the first against the wall.

Then, at the same time, we are likely to see a surge of arbitrary arrests targeting the leaders of social movements – such as Guilherme Boulos, for example. The leader of the Homeless Workers’ Movement and presidential candidate for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) could soon be arrested – simply to send a message that “these protests stop now.” Leaders of movements in the Amazon face a genuine risk of being killed. Workers’ Party leaders should be spared, though, as they have more power and prominence.

Anti-Workers’ Party propaganda and fake news as state policy

There is no “Bolsonarism.” He is the result of an intense anti-Workers’ Party sentiment fueled by the bombardment of fake news. Future President Bolsonaro knows that, and will do whatever he can to keep the spectre of Lula alive. There is no bogeyman politics without a bogeyman, especially when Mr. Bolsonaro faces a crisis. If he ran the dirtiest election campaign in history without that much money, imagine what he’ll be able to do with the federal budget at his disposal. Fake news targeting the Workers’ Party will become state policy. All major scandals in Brazilian politics involved advertising contracts.

Expect chaos in the economy

If you have money saved in Brazil, be careful. In the mid-term, the Bolsonaro government will become catastrophic from the economic standpoint. He’s not U.S. President Donald Trump – who took over a well-functioning, open economy. Nor is he Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has a developmentalist economic program.

Brazil’s economy struggles to overcome the worst recession on record. To tame it, we’d need the best politicians and economists out there. The Bolsonaro administration will be made of newcomers with little appreciation for complex issues, who don’t understand how the state operates. On top of that, there are plenty of internal divisions, even between the president-elect and his future Minister of Finance, Paulo Guedes. This administration will have a hard time recruiting great economic minds.

At first, the stock market will rise, the BRL will grow stronger – and everything will look normal. But this can change in a heartbeat. Mr. Bolsonaro was elected to implement what will be the most radical neoliberal program in the world. Neoliberalism, in Brazil, cannot work. Half of the population depends on the state for everything. But if that neoliberal plan goes further – which I doubt it will – his approval ratings will be on par with incumbent Michel Temer’s (3 percent).

As a matter of fact, the comparison with Mr. Temer is quite pertinent. If he abandons the neoliberal program – the elites will abandon him. If he doesn’t, then the people will turn its back on him. The most probable scenario will be somewhere in the middle: neither will he implement Mr. Guedes’ plan, nor will he make a U-turn.

Cultural blitzkrieg

If it will be difficult to deliver economic results, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration will have no trouble when it comes to culture. Expect a boatload of decrees slashing everything in sight: programs for LGBTQ or homeless workers, glorification of the military dictatorship, a militarization of schools, cutting down gun control…

However, Brazil is a 207-million-people country with a gigantic, feeble, and poor state machine. The chances of all of these changes actually being implemented across the land are low. The most likely scenario is that they will become ineffective laws, existing on paper to pander to conservatives.

Complex relationship with Congress

The so-called “Big Center,” a plethora of center-right parties that have been in Congress for ages, has lost a lot of power. The House has become more fragmented – with 30 parties being elected – and more diffuse. Mr. Bolsonaro should have no problem passing simple bills – but for more complex issues that require constitutional amendments, he might find it hard. Mr. Bolsonaro promised no more horse-trading. I call bullshit. The question, though, is if that will be enough.

Tense relationship with the Judiciary

Brazil’s Justice system is conservative – but not extremist. The relationship between the Executive and Judiciary branches will be tense. For one, because it is already tense, especially with the Supreme Court. Federal prosecutors, which are part of an independent body, are unlikely to lie down for him either.

There will be a lot of opposition

Never has a president in Brazilian democratic history been elected with such high rejection levels. He will face a massive level of opposition on the streets, in civil society, in Congress. The world sees him, rightly so, as the most extreme elected leader in the world. He can say he’ll govern for all Brazilians – but a big part of the country simply doesn’t want him as president. Unlike his predecessors, people who reject Jair Bolsonaro do so on moral issues. That is way harder to revert than, say, an economic-based rejection.

The media will breathe down his neck

While outlets such as Record, Band, Estado de S.Paulo and small local radio stations will become propaganda machines (more openly or not), Folha de S.Paulo and Globo won’t. And these companies, which house the country’s best journalists, have been elected as enemies of the state. That will have a cost for future President Bolsonaro: he will be put under a lot of scrutiny. Plus: companies like the BBC, El País, and The Intercept will hopefully continue to make a great job of investigative reporting.

Things are going down the toilet

On one side, these signs can be positive: today, I think that it is unlikely he will become an adored figure and perpetuate himself in power. Besides the 20 percent that traditionally supports the far-right, there’s a real chance that his approval ratings will tank very soon. That will lead him to a catch 22: he won’t be able to win back support from the public while carrying out the agenda of the economic elites.

My guess is that somewhere during his second year in power, one thing will be clear: things are going down the toilet. The messiah hasn’t delivered. The legend has become a sad reality. And that pushes us into the unknown. Will he pull an authoritarian course? Will he be defeated in 2022? The latter version is not necessarily a good solution. In 2014, we couldn’t imagine saying “President Bolsonaro.” in 2022, we could have an even worse option. João Doria?

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BY João Carlos Magalhães

João Carlos is a journalist and Ph.D. researcher at the London School of Economics.