The Schizophrenic Presidency

The word that has become popular to describe Jair Bolsonaro’s government is “schizophrenic.” It stems from the many interests that Bolsonaro appealed to during his presidential campaign and which now form groupings within his government. Some of the salient ones are the military, economic liberals, agribusiness and the so-called anti-globalists. These groups’ interests showed themselves to be contradictory once the presidency was secured.

The anti-globalist agenda in particular is at odds with the political prudence of the others. The anti-globalist rhetoric portrays the international political regime as imposing “cultural marxism” on Brazil. This perspective is represented by the foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who wrote in an article shortly before taking office that he would remove ideology from Brazil’s foreign policy, pointing to the “Marxist ideology” of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) that in his view is being propagated by academics and the media.

One of the items on Araújo’s agenda was the move of Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the lead of US President Trump and Bolsonaro’s evangelical supporters. The military figures within the government viewed the initiative with skepticism, seeing the alienation of Middle Eastern powers and Palestinian factions as creating threats to Brazil where none previously existed while gaining little in return. In the end, Bolsonaro desisted from moving the embassy and settled for a trade office in Jerusalem.

Severals spats have occurred between military government figures and Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian philosopher living in the US who is seen as the ideological guru of the Brazilian anti-globalists and is influential with Bolsonaro and his family. Olavo has suggested a number of names that Bolsonaro ended up nominating for important positions, such as the Minister of Education. The philosopher — known for his liberal use of swearwords and proclivity for conspiracy theories — criticized harshly officials such as the vice-president, general Hamilton Mourão, and the former chief minister of the Government Secretariat, general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, using descriptions such as “stupid,” “idiot” and “a bunch of shit.” Both generals had criticized his works and polemic behavior, seeing him as a vulgar man of little consequence who constantly resorts to vitriol. Santos Cruz was replaced by another general, Luiz Eduardo Ramos. He said that he was not told the reason for his dismissal.

The military wing of the government was also against intervention in Venezuela beyond humanitarian aid, after analyzing Maduro’s support among the population as weak but strong within the armed forces. Bolsonaro saw as unlikely Brazil taking part in a military intervention, but did not discard the option. The generals have overall opted for a more prudent and subtle approach than the confrontational language used by their president.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was another item on Bolsonaro’s and Foreign Minister Araújo’s agenda. It met with resistance from the agribusiness sector, which feared that it would damage the international image of Brazil’s agricultural production and undermine exports. “Those who want to exit the agreement never exported anything,” the executive director of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association told the newspaper Estado de S.Paulo in January. The EU exerted additional pressure on Brazil to adhere to the Paris Agreement as part of the trade negotiations with Mercosul, whose full members include Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela was suspended from the trade bloc in December 2016 for violating democratic norms and human rights.

Brazil’s renewed effort to sign the trade agreement between Mercosul and the EU is part of the Bolsonaro government’s goal to liberalize the country’s economy and open up its markets to international trade, a vision primarily represented by Paulo Guedes, the Minister of Economy who received his Ph.D. from Chicago University where he was taught by Milton Friedman. Such a vision was supported by President Bolsonaro during his campaign but seemed to clash with his anti-globalist rhetoric aligned with that of his close ally Donald Trump. Foreign Minister Araújo defined “globalism” on his blog as “the economic globalism that has come to be driven by cultural marxism,” calling it “anti-human” and “anti-Christian.”

Bolsonaro signed a decree in May liberalizing access to guns, a cause he had long championed, that was opposed by the Evangelical caucus in another clash between allies. Evangelicals supported Bolsonaro during his campaign and the caucus holds a total of 195 seats in the Câmara dos Deputados, the lower chamber of Congress to which a total of 513 deputies are elected. Some of the caucus’s deputies said after the signing that they were articulating projects to revoke the decree, which the government saw as a potential threat. A bill to make the gun liberalization into law is currently under consideration in the Câmara dos Deputados.

The pension reform is generally considered one of the president’s few successes so far, having passed two voting sessions in the Câmara dos Deputados and now awaiting the Senate vote. But it was the speaker of the Câmara, Rodrigo Maia, and not Bolsonaro who was declared the protagonist in the effort to get the constitutional amendment through.

Many said that Maia managed to pass the amendment despite the president, rather than with his support. Members of Congress, including from the president’s party, have complained about Bolsonaro’s lacking dialog with them throughout the process. The president tended to distract from the reform, preferring to polemicize on social media or focus on other matters.

Bolsonaro at one time entered Congress amid deliberations over the pension reform to personally present a bill increasing the number of infractions allowed before a driver’s license is revoked. The bill was a response to demands from large mobilizations of truck drivers who supported Bolsonaro in the election. The timing irritated many of the deputies present, who saw it as an interruption of something far more consequential.

The trade agreement with the EU is seen as the government’s second achievement. The agreement had been under negotiation for 20 years but received a spur with the ideological change of the Brazilian government. It still needs to be ratified by the parliaments, which can be tough with the likely win of the Peronists Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner in the upcoming Argentinian election.

Bolsonaro is already on bad terms with the probable next president of Argentina, having said earlier this month that the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul could become like Roraima if Fernández wins. Roraima is a Brazilian state that has received an increased influx of immigrants from neighboring Venezuela, although far less than Spanish-speaking countries such as Colombia, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

The Brazilian president has not missed a chance to insult the leadership of France, Germany and Norway after criticisms of the rapidly increasing deforestation of the Amazon forest under Bolsonaro’s government. He canceled a visit with the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, when he was in Brazil last month. The French minister’s Brazilian counterpart explained that there had been scheduling problems. Bolsonaro then appeared in a live video on social media getting his hair cut just minutes after when the canceled meeting was supposed to have ended. He later questioned why the French minister had wanted to speak with environmental NGOs during his visit: “When you speak about NGOs, already an alarm signal goes off.”

Le Drian said that France will take “the time necessary” to evaluate the trade agreement with Mercosul when questioned about the rising deforestation under Bolsonaro’s mandate. Norway announced on August 15 that it would withhold 300 million Norwegian kroner (about USD 33.4 million) in money transfers to the Amazon Fund.

The implementation of the EU-Mercosul agreement, once lauded in Brazilian media, now appears less likely. The pension reform has come far but has been watered down along the way. The equal treatment originally promised by Bolsonaro was abandoned in favor of special treatment for the military corporation from which he himself stems, as a former member of the Armed Forces. The reform still has to pass through the Senate where the president has another pressing concern to spend his political capital on: getting his 35-year old son approved as ambassador to the United States, arguably the most coveted post in the foreign service.

With sinking approval ratings, Bolsonaro will have to balance the interests within his government, build a stronger coalition in Congress, and decide what his priorities are. He will not get far with a schizophrenic agenda where the goals contradict themselves.

The Power of Lula

A little more than one month ago, at the end of August, things looked differently. For the voter concerned with the rise of Bolsonaro (PSL), and the wave of extreme right-wing populism washing over Brazil, it looked like things would turn out okay in the end. Sure, the rise of Bolsonaro and what it signified –– similar to the growth of extreme right-wing views seen in many recent elections –– was worrying, but Brazil would not repeat the US experience of Trump.

On August 20, Bolsonaro led the polls with 22% according to Datafolha (one of Brazil’s major polling institutes, associated with one of the nation’s foremost newspapers, Folha de S.Paulo). He was followed by Marina Silva (REDE, green center-left) at 16% and Ciro Gomes (PDT, center-left) at 10%. Bolsonaro’s high rejection percentage, however, meant that the opponent qualifying for the second round would defeat Bolsonaro by receiving the total of the anti-Bolsonaro vote. What did the first round matter anyway if everything would be settled comfortably in the second round?

Voting intention %, Datafolha.

At the time, the country’s most popular contender, “Lula” da Silva, had already been sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, impeding him from running in the election. Although the prospects were bleak for him in succeeding with judicial appeals in order to regain his right to participate in the race, his party, PT (center-left), insisted on keeping him as their official intended candidate. Looking beyond this posture, most observers believed Fernando Haddad, the ex-mayor of São Paulo, would eventually be named the official candidate. At 4%, Haddad was widely seen as a minor threat. The question for PT was if Lula’s popularity (steadily above 30% of voting intention) could be transferred to a candidate not well known outside his native São Paulo.

Supreme Court minister Luis Roberto Barroso had given the party until the 11th day of September to officially replace Lula as the head of the ticket. On September 11, Haddad became the official candidate. On that day he had 8% in the poll conducted by IBOPE, another major polling institute. Ciro Gomes got 11% and Marina Silva a shrinking 9%.

One week later, Ciro remained at 11%. Haddad had reached 19% –– an increase the same as Ciro’s total. Marina kept shrinking, down to 6%. On the way down she passed by Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB, center-right) whose fall was a little slower, now at 7% from a previous 9%. The Datafolha poll showed the same pattern only in slightly lower numbers.

Voting intention %, IBOPE.

Alckmin’s low popularity was just another showcase of this election’s peculiarities. His party, PSDB, has been the main contender against Lula since Fernando Henrique Cardoso won the 1994 election (the second presidential election since the country’s redemocratization) already in the first round. This time around, despite having the most exposure on free television networks (a regulated space for political ads in the election run-up), usually key in winning elections, the former governor of São Paulo had not managed to propel himself. Political realities had changed.

With Haddad’s rise the concerned moderate anti-Bolsonaro voter began to worry. Just a week had passed but it changed everything. Haddad was now predicted to continue to the second round. It was the worst possible outcome. The two most polarizing candidates facing each other, forcing those who agreed with none of them to choose sides. A definite advantage for Bolsonaro.

In a chaotic first interview as official candidate, on the main late-night news show Jornal Nacional, Haddad fed the rejection of himself. William Bonner, a long-time anchor on the show, insisted on asking about PT’s reluctancy to engage in self-criticism regarding its extensive involvement in systemic corruption schemes. Fernando Haddad kept avoiding answering, instead repeating over and over that the laws that allowed for the revelations were passed by his party.

While the rejection of Bolsonaro has kept relatively steady in the last month, Haddad’s has risen 18% since he announced his candidacy. In the last poll before the election, carried out by IBOPE, Jair Bolsonaro had a rejection of 43% and Fernando Haddad one of 36%. Behind them were Marina Silva at 22%, Geraldo Alckmin at 16% and Ciro Gomes at 15%. In Friday’s debate on TV Globo, the last one before the election, Marina made a firm appeal to Haddad: “When we are facing a crisis like the one we are going through, we need to think about the project that is the country, not the project that is power.” A sentiment that probably many Brazilians shared at that moment.

On election night, it looked as if Bolsonaro would gain a majority of votes in the first round but it eventually ended up with a second round between Bolsonaro and Haddad, as predicted. Also predicted is that Haddad will face huge difficulties in defeating his opponent in the second round. The candidates predicted as having a good chance in the second round –– thanks to lower rejection percentages –– had no chance against Haddad in the first round.

Lula demonstrated his unparalleled electoral power in nominating a replacement for his party who immediately overtook the months-long campaigns of the other candidates. The question for PT now is if that power is strong enough to take their candidate all the way, or if it has cinched the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.