Populist leaders to attend Jair Bolsonaro's inauguration in Brazil


Jair Bolsonaro, the world’s latest populist leader to be elected after Donald Trump, Evo Morales and Viktor Orbán.

Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

BBC's Dom Phillips - Rio de Jenario

The Israeli and Hungarian prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orbán, will join the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, at Tuesday’s inauguration of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Netanyahu wants Bolsonaro to confirm his election promise to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem and claimed on Monday that the president-elect had told him the move was a matter of “when, not if”. The pledge has divided allies and sparked a diplomatic row – an early sign, analysts said, of how the former army captain’s radical ideology will sit uneasily with the realities of governing.

Bolsonaro is the latest populist leader – from the right or left – to be elected, following Donald Trump, the increasingly autocratic leftist Morales, and arch-nationalist Orbán.

Bolsonaro campaigned on a nationalist, anti-corruption manifesto, promising to drain Brasília’s political swamp, develop protected Amazon reserves, rescue a moribund economy, protect family values and make his country great. Iron-fist proposals to tackle terrifying rates of violent crime, such as freeing up arms possession, were central to his campaign; on Saturday, he tweeted about plans to guarantee citizens without criminal records the right to have guns. 

But the myriad groups hitched to his bandwagon – which include evangelical Christians, agribusiness, nationalist military officers and neoliberal economists – have potentially conflicting agendas, analysts said, as the Israeli embassy issue illustrates.

“Keeping these four factions together [is] quite messy. It’s not that easy,” said Cristóbal Kaltwasser, a professor of political science at Chile’s Diego Portales University and populism specialist.

Bolsonaro wants closer business and technology ties with Israel, and the embassy issue is important to the evangelical Christians who make up about a third of Brazil’s population.

“For us there is a spiritual value in blessing Israel,” said Silas Malafaia, a powerful televangelist who married the new president, a Catholic, to his evangelical wife, Michelle. “Evangelicals gave Bolsonaro victory.”

Brazil has historically supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Arab League leaders warned in a letter this month that moving the embassy would violate international law and United Nations resolutions.  Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of halal meat and its powerful agribusiness sector, which supports Bolsonaro, is spooked. “We are really concerned about the reaction of Arab League countries to this embassy move,” Bolsonaro’s agriculture minister, Tereza Dias, said.  Investors are optimistic Bolsonaro’s government will cut a soaring deficit, revamp a bloated pensions system and get the economy moving again.

“There’s a privatisation programme that I think will be very aggressive. Brazil wants to sell,” said one member of his transition team, talking on the condition of anonymity. “Brazil will open up its economy. We are going to deregulate.”

The finance minister, Paulo Guedes, is inspired by the “neoliberal revolution” wrought in Chile under the brutal former dictator Augusto Pinochet, whom Bolsonaro admires. Guedes taught in Chile and trained at the University of Chicago like the liberal economists – the “Chicago Boys” – who sold off Chile’s assets and slashed spending.

Critics say Pinochet’s so-called economic miracle was in reality a series of boom-bust cycles. Today, Chile has the highest per-capita GDP in South America but is one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, with almost a third of workers in informal or non-permanent jobs. Half the population has low literacy.

“If Bolsonaro really wants to push for that level of radicalism, I don’t think he can do it in a democratic way,” Kaltwasser said.

Bolsonaro has followed the rightwing populist script Orbán helped develop, says the author Yascha Mounk. He has expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s repressive military dictatorship, criticised minority groups such as LGBT and indigenous people, and painted the Brazilian establishment as infested by a morally decadent, communist ideology.

“Populists have figured out the basic steps to undermine a political system and what rhetoric to use,” Mounk said. “There is a populist playbook and that’s dangerous.”

Mounk was an adviser for a recent study of 46 populist leaders from 33 democratic countries over the last 30 years. The study found that only 17% stepped down after losing elections, 23% were impeached or forced to resign and half rewrote or amended their country’s constitutions.

“Populists are far more dangerous to democratic institutions than others,” he said.

Bolsonaro and his supporters blame “cultural Marxism” and communism for everything from political corruptionto a decline in family values and the rise of drug crime, drawing on the work of Olavo de Carvalho, a rightwing philosopher.

“It’s a necessity to create threats,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at São Paulo’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “The enemy is within.”

De Carvalho cited Bolsonaro’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who believes climate change is a “Marxist plot” and wrote in the conservative US magazine New Criterion that “divine providence” helped Bolsonaro’s election victory. “Brazil is experiencing a political and spiritual rebirth,” Araújo wrote. “God is back and the nation is back.”

Bolsonaro looks up to Donald Trump, who hailed his election win, and breakfasted with the US national security advisor, John Bolton, in Rio last month. Bolsonaro’s congressman son Eduardo sported a Trump 2020 baseball cap after meeting Jared Kushner in Washington.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro attacks traditional media. He avoided campaign debates after surviving a near-fatal knife attack in September, granting interviews only to a church-controlled channel. He talks directly to his supporters on social media and recently blocked journalists from the Intercept Brasil.  His preferred target is Brazil’s biggest newspaper, the Folha de S.Paulo, which he said was “over” in a television interview after winning the election. The newspaper reported that companies paid for mass campaign messages attacking the opposition Workers’ party on WhatsApp, contravening campaign financing rules.

Bolsonaro has promised to protect police officers who shoot criminals. The retired general Augusto Heleno – Bolsonaro’s minister of institutional security and one of seven military men in his cabinet – said giving police “judicial security”, improving the prison system and a better equipped and integrated security forces would produce “very considerable results”.

During a military ceremony last week, Gen Walter Braga Netto boasted of the “positive results” of a nine-month “federal intervention” that put him and his officers in charge of security in the tough state of Rio de Janeiro. Homicides and street robberies fell 6% between March and November. However, he did not mention the 38% rise in killings by police. Instead, in a sign of how the Bolsonaro regime might play out, a press conference was set up and, without explanation, cancelled.

Dom Phillips - BBC, 02/01/2019