Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Has Bolsonaro’s First Year Been a Success or Failure?

Brazil’s controversial president, Jair Bolsonaro, on Wednesday marked one year in office. // File Photo: Brazilian Government.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday completed his first year in office, one marked by international controversy over the Amazon, a slight economic recovery, political spats within his own party, as well as some significant legislative wins, including comprehensive pension reform. How well has Bolsonaro fared in his first year as Brazil’s president, and has he met voters’ expectations of change? How well is his government handling economic matters, and what should it focus on in the year ahead? To what extent has Bolsonaro’s confrontational political style helped or hindered his effectiveness in working with Brazil’s Congress?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “After long, gradual decline, Bolsonaro’s poll numbers have stabilized at about 40 percent approval, due mostly to the slow but continuing improvements in Brazil’s economy. Especially encouraging has been Congress’ surprisingly smooth passage of a substantial pension reform, reinforced by modest upticks in growth and employment. Still, many other, more complex reforms—including new tax and labor policies, reduced government spending, trade openings and increased infrastructure investment—are needed to sustain Brazil’s recovery from recession. While business leaders and foreign investors appear increasingly confident that economic revival is in sight, many prominent analysts paint a darker picture. Homicides and other violent crimes, according to official statistics, have fallen dramatically this year, but there has also been a steep rise in murders by police. Nonetheless, Bolsonaro’s hardline approach to crime has the support of many Brazilians, fed up with unbridled violence. Despite revelations of Sérgio Moro’s questionable tactics against corruption, the country’s most admired graft fighter and now a senior government minister is today Brazil’s most popular political figure. Many Brazilians oppose Bolsonaro for his extreme, confrontational agenda on ideological and cultural issues, but these have attracted the loyalty of most of Brazil’s evangelicals, some 30 percent of all Brazilians. Bolsonaro’s denial of climate change and indifference to Amazon deforestation have provoked particularly harsh criticism, much of it from abroad. But neither the environment nor foreign policy are priority concerns for Brazilians. And Bolsonaro has managed to maintain solid economic ties with his two largest commercial partners, China and the United States, although relations with several other key partners are more problematic. Municipal elections this fall will offer a good measure of Bolsonaro’s standing nationally, and they will begin to reveal the breadth of Lula’s political influence. That polls show Lula (who cannot run for office) as the only serious challenge to Bolsonaro indicates the frailty of the president’s opposition. Despite his many critics and detractors and a record of poor judgment and offensive, uninformed statements, Bolsonaro today stands as a strong contender for re-election in 2022, with his prospects mainly tied to the ups and downs of the economy.”

Nerea R. García, political scientist and a member of the Public Opinion, Political Marketing and Electoral Behavior group at the Federal University of Minas Gerais: “President Jair Bolsonaro’s first year in office was marked by a slow economic recovery and numerous controversies. Bolsonaro is characterized by not being conciliatory, preferring to dialogue only with his electoral base. So it is not surprising that his approval ratings have been the lowest for any modern president during his first year, with only 30 percent approval. Among his supporters, 58 percent are satisfied, with 31 percent describing his government as average, and 10 percent as negative. However, stronger economic growth seems to have stemmed the decline in popularity that Bolsonaro had been experiencing, with his disapproval rating holding at about 36 percent in December. Economic indicators show small advances after the approval of the pension reform. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IGBE) released data showing that the economy has grown 0.6 percent. This has had an impact on citizens’ perceptions. They are a little more confident in an economic recovery than they had been in previous months. Maintaining economic growth and reducing unemployment and public debt will be the government’s main economic challenges. Another important challenge for Bolsonaro will be governing a country that is characterized by coalition-presidentialism. That is, the president needs Congress’ support to pass his agenda. However, the president’s aggressive style, laid bare in his recent exit from the PSL party, means that his relationship with Congress will be a key challenge for the rest of his term.”

Jorge Zaverucha, professor of political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil: “Analyzing the Bolsonaro government’s 12 months in office is no easy task. As Popper said, it depends on where the spotlight is placed. In short, the government is made up of two sides of the same coin. There is a virtuous side and a dark side. The government ended the year with economic results superior to those of preceding governments. Interest rates are at their lowest level ever, inflation continues to fall, and job creation has improved. The minister of infrastructure is, probably, the best in the government. Roads have been paved. Airports and railways have been built. The government, with the support of Congress, approved the social security reform and the economic freedom act. To date, Bolsonaro has not been charged with corruption. Even so, however, he ended the year with declining popularity. The president has made a series of insulting and inconsistent statements. It seems that he feels good when dealing with conflict situations—so much that, if none exist, he creates them. Bolsonaro has appointed several military personnel to his ministries and to other government positions. The move has had the support of the population, which is angered by corruption and the collusion of political parties. The president declared that the armed forces are the anchor of his government. So anyone who wants him out of power must defeat first the men in uniform. Yet there are still social scientists and journalists who write that Brazilian democracy remains consolidated.”

Fábio Kerche, professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro: “Corruption scandals surround Bolsonaro’s family, as do allegations related to the murder of a leftwing Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman. The economy has not recovered significantly, and the lives of the poorest have not improved. The president’s statements are offensive and politically incorrect. On the international scene, Brazil’s image is especially eroded by the government’s neglect of the Amazon. Bolsonaro attacks the press and journalists, who tend to criticize his government but not its ultra-conservative economic policy. Congress has never turned down as many initiatives by a president as in this government. Bolsonaro has left his party, and his congressional support is fluid and unpredictable. Reforms that cut rights and promise improvements in public fiscal accounts have been passed, but not with Bolsonaro’s leadership and in spite of his government. Rodrigo Maia, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, has assumed the unplanned role of prime minister in a kind of informal parliamentarism. In this scenario of destruction, Bolsonaro incredibly still holds the support of his most fanatical followers and the economic elite. If the government has so far been a disaster, the future is uncertain. On the one hand, the idea of impeachment has begun to appear in public debate, and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now out of jail, has tried to organize an opposition that is not quite sure what to do with the buffoon-president. On the other hand, analysts see Bolsonaro as able to win re-election, especially if he runs with his minister of justice and Lula’s persecutor, Sérgio Moro, as vice president, and if the economy grows more than in recent years. In this confusing scenario that escapes political science textbooks, next year’s municipal elections may point more clearly to what the future holds for Bolsonaro and his government.”


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