Brazil: Bolsonaro Targeting Political Participation

By Paulo Castro*

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil looking pensive

Jair Bolsonaro / Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom – Agência Brasil / https://flickr.com/photos/129729681@N06/35164638165/ Wikimedia Commons

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – unwilling or unable to engage in the coalition-building necessary to pass legislation – has focused an important part of his first 100 days in office on social policies that he can dominate with executive power while reducing citizen participation in policy formation. Elected in one of the most polarized elections in Brazilian history, Bolsonaro ran a campaign focused on fighting corruption and implementing a market-oriented economic agenda that would lead to GDP growth, with pension reform as its main pillar. His first months have been far from a “honeymoon” with Congress; a wide array of problems add up to a legislative inertia as seldom seen in contemporary Brazil.

  • Lacking a strong base in the House and Senate – and facing dissidence even within his own Partido Social Liberal – Bolsonaro has relied on the risky strategy of ignoring the nature of the Brazilian political system, which includes building support for his agenda in Congress, and is focusing instead on attacking adversaries and what he calls the “ideological agenda” of the Workers Party (PT). Meanwhile, key ministries have yet to announce even general policy goals. The Ministry of Education, which has the second largest budget in the federal government and is responsible for one of the most deficient areas of the country, has been largely silent even though reform of the early education system was one of Bolsonaro’s main campaign promises. The President has issued executive measures, such as the bureaucracy reduction decree this week to help business owners and start-ups, but has introduced no relevant legislative agenda.

Shifting social issues is the one area in which the government is running at full throttle. Social accountability, gender equality, and broader human rights initiatives have experienced budget cuts. Because many PT-era policies were implemented by presidential decree or ministerial order, the Bolsonaro administration can cancel or alter them without Legislative Branch approval. (Many changes in the economic area require amending the Constitution, with a three-fifths majority of both houses of Congress.) Far from the prying eyes of the press and markets, small changes in the government processes threaten to increase the country’s democratic deficit.

  • An executive order signed by Bolsonaro abolished more than 600 civil society participation councils that promoted transparency and accountability by bringing civil society into policy discussions. Bolsonaro has eliminated the National Environment Council, the National Council of People with Disabilities, National Council for the Promotion of LGBT Rights, National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor, and National Commission for the Eradication of Child Labor, among others. The Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, headed by conservative religious leader Damares Alves, has announced it will limit the number of requests analyzed by its Amnesty Committee, created in 2002 to promote remedial actions for victims of the military dictatorship in Brazil.
  • On the environmental front, conflict between farmers and indigenous people has escalated since Bolsonaro limited the powers of the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI). Along with the National Forest Service, he transferred FUNAIS’s responsibility for the demarcation of new indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is headed by Congresswoman Tereza Cristina, a former leader in agribusiness.

Bolsonaro is trying to appear confident, but the consequences of his inaction on big-picture items such as pension reform – which will affect economic performance and public perceptions of his effectiveness – will reach a point at which his emphasis on social, cultural, and symbolic matters will not be sufficient to maintain his position. By deinstitutionalizing democratic participation on these important social issues, Bolsonaro is further reducing the country’s ability to take up tough issues, such as the priority reforms awaiting Executive and Legislative Branch attention. When it comes to education and health policies, civil society organizations and union representatives have important roles in mobilizing the interests of beneficiaries. While it is natural that opposing governments have opposing political views, Bolsonaro’s actions don’t only reflect policy shifts; they amount to a substantive reduction in accountability and government responsiveness, closing important doors that enable citizens to influence public policy and make political processes more inclusive.

May 3, 2019

* Paulo Castro is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Brasilia and professor at the Brasilia Institute for Public Law. He has worked as an advisor and analyst in the Ministry of Justice and private sector organizations. He was a CLALS Research Fellow.

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