On March 15, 1985, Army General João Baptista Figueiredo left office, ending Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. It has taken almost 34 years for another military man to be sworn into the country’s highest office—this time, by way of a democratic election. On January 1, 2019, former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s 42nd president.
Military undertones were all over the place on this New Year’s Day inauguration. During the oath of office ceremony in Congress, someone in attendance shouted the military salute Selva! (“Jungle!”) while Vice-President Hamilton Mourão (himself a retired General) signed the act of his inauguration. Later, Mr. Bolsonaro used the word Aço (“Steel”), an expression used by the Army’s tank division.
Even if the military has always had prominent roles in Brazil’s republican history, this might be the first time these salutes were shouted during a presidential inauguration. And these were by no means the only martial aspects of the January 1 ceremony. Mr. Mourão shouted his oath of office, and stood at attention during the national anthem, as if he were back in the army barracks.
Not to mention the unprecedented security apparatus on show, with tanks on the streets of Brasília, snipers all over the Ministries Esplanade, and the work of the press restricted by unnecessary barriers (journalists from France and China reportedly abandoned their coverage in protest against the working conditions for those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the new president held a cocktail reception).
Not surprisingly, there was no room for conciliation in the new president’s speech.
The first speeches
Prior to his inauguration, Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo (the best-voted congressman in October’s general elections) said that his father’s first oration would be “a box full of surprises.” Besides its short length (coming in at a mere 10 minutes), Mr. Bolsonaro’s first address as head of state was altogether predictable, offering nothing different from his usual Twitter diatribes.
He opened his speech to Congress by making reference to his September 6 stabbing, which he said was “perpetrated by enemies of the country.” He then went on to make mentions of God, promise austerity reforms, bash the so-called “indoctrination of children in public schools,” and lobby for looser gun control laws.
There were some small concessions, when he vowed to defend democracy (which should go without saying) and called for a society without discrimination (even if he has been called a bigot by several minority groups). But even his pledge to respect all religions had a crucial caveat, promising to do so “within [Brazil’s] Judeo-Christian tradition.”
The populist tones were everywhere to be found. The new president talked about taking power away from Brasília and sharing it with the whole country.
His second speech of the day, after outgoing President Michel Temer passed him the presidential sash, was more worrisome. Equally short, it had the tone that made opponents doubt his commitment to democratic values. “This is our flag,” he said at the end of the speech, “and it will never be red.” The phrase is a motto chanted by right-wing protesters in reference to the Workers’ Party, which is represented by the color red.
“It would only become red if we have to give our blood to keep it green and yellow,” he said.
The only difference between “Campaign Bolsonaro” and President Bolsonaro was his offering of an olive branch to Congress. “We have a unique opportunity to rebuild our country,” he told the almost 600 members of the lower house and Senate. After his clan tried to undermine Speaker Rodrigo Maia, who wants to be re-elected for another two-year term, Mr. Bolsonaro called him a “friend” during his inauguration.
Pandering to Congress is a smart move. After all, if Mr. Bolsonaro wants to accomplish anything, he’ll need to approve—and quick—some form of pension reform. Investors have jumped on the Bolsonaro bandwagon, but their support will only survive as long as the administration is giving the expected results, namely: more market-friendly measures, shrinking the size of the state, and promoting radical neo-liberal policies.