Brazil: Surge in Divisive Politics

By Marcus Vinicius Rossi da Rocha*

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Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro disparages fellow politician Maria do Rosário during a debate on violence against women. / Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Political tumult, constant corruption scandals, and widespread popular loss of confidence in political institutions have given rise to divisive right-wing movements that, although not poised to win office in the 2018 elections, are laying the groundwork to have an impact on Brazilian politics in coming years.  Brazil will elect a president and both houses of Congress in October 2018, after five years of economic crisis (3.6 percent contraction in 2016); corruption scandals (President Michel Temer is still under investigation in the Lava Jato probe); low confidence in government (Temer has 3 percent approval); and political instability.  Many observers believe Brazilian democracy could be in peril.

Two factors in particular – the economic decline and the odor of taint surrounding Temer and the political class – are fueling a surge in right-wing and populist politics.  Conservative and market-oriented agendas are, unsurprisingly, gaining momentum, but also are challenges to the country’s three decades of democracy, including the defense of torture and military dictatorship.  The surge is seen in three main areas:

  • The Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) is a youth libertarian movement born in early 2014 following the mass street protests of 2013, which its leaders helped organize. While promoting free speech, less government, individual liberty, and market-oriented reforms, its agenda emphasizes moral issues as an electoral strategy.  It mobilizes protesters against left-leaning politicians and gay art exhibits and succeeded in shutting one event down on spurious grounds.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain turned lawmaker, is famous for his defense of torture and the death penalty, his opposition to human rights protections, and his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in 1964-85. Proud of his lack of political correctness, he compares himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he casts himself as engaged in a moral struggle to save the nation.  He promises to withdraw Brazil from international human rights agreements; opposes gay marriage; and wants to adopt the death penalty and loosen gun laws.  In a speech on the House floor one time, he told a female legislator and human rights defender, “I do not rape you because you are not worth it.” He was reprimanded by the courts for this and other statements, but a leading public opinion institute Datafolha shows him with almost 20 percent of popular support.
  • A handful of senior active-duty and reservist military officers also seem to be crossing the line with greater frequency, openly speaking about “constitutional military intervention.” These officers espouse a highly disputed interpretation of Article 142 of the Constitution – which states that the “Armed Forces aims … to defend the homeland, to assure the constitutional powers, and, by initiative of any of these powers, to assure law and order” – to argue that the Constitution gives the Armed Forces authorization to intervene in politics.  At an event a few weeks ago, General Antonio Hamilton Mourão said that if the judiciary does not fix the government’s corruption problem, the Armed Forces could.  The high command remained silent.

Few analysts believe that the 2018 elections will be obstructed in any way, but the years of crisis, compounded by the polarizing rhetoric and activities of frustrated conservatives, will put checks and balances to test.  A military coup is highly unlikely – the Army is not eager to run the state again – but the apparent politicization of institutions sworn to defend the rule of law could cause others to flout the Constitution.  Congressman Bolsonaro does not appear likely to score big in 2018.  His party is small, but his popularity could very well give a boost to similarly minded groups poised to gain ground in Congress. This could lead to more than a continued shift toward the interests of construction firms, financial system, and agriculture sector that support them; it could portend a dismantling of decades of work to build democratic institutions; end torture and police brutality; and protect citizens’ rights to choice, freedom from discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation; pro-choice laws, gay rights, and indigenous rights.  Three decades of democracy won’t be reversed easily, but the next several years call for healing, not a new politics of division.

 October 5, 2017

* Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and a CLALS Research Fellow specializing in the Brazilian executive branch and corruption in municipalities.

Brazil’s Foreign Policy:  A Regressive Path?

By Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues*

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Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes speaks at a MERCOSUR meeting regarding the situation in Venezuela. / Divulgação / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Dilma Rousseff’s foreign policy was less active than President Lula’s, but Brazil has lost prominence in international politics even faster since her impeachment almost exactly one year ago.  According to the Soft Power 30 survey, Brazil now ranks 29th in international influence, having ranked 24th in 2016.  One reason is both domestic and political:  President Temer’s government has had to struggle to be recognized as legitimate.  The other is strategic: a wrong bet made by the new heads of Brazil’s foreign affairs.

  • Temer left the Ministry of Foreign Relations in the hands of the Social-Democratic Party (PSDB), appointing São Paulo Senator Jose Serra – at that stage a potential presidential candidate – as foreign minister. Temer and his PSDB partners’ most important project was to align Brazil more closely with the United States.  In parallel, they sought to progressively dismantle the South-South international policy that President Lula championed and President Rousseff continued, with its focus on the BRICS countries.
  • Their approach was based, however, on the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. election, and they had no “Plan B” for collaboration with the Trump Administration and its significantly different view toward Latin America and Brazil. Unable to rescue the heart of his policy, Serra resigned after nine months, claiming health issues, and another PSDB senator and political ally, Aloysio Nunes, took the job with a clear plan to align Brazil with the international market.  Brazil’s application to the OECD was done fast and without controversy.

At the same time, several important issues have been disempowering Brazil’s foreign policy.

  • MERCOSUR and UNASUR. The most important diplomatic capital Brazil built in the past 20 years – launched by President Cardoso, deepened and revamped by Lula, and maintained by Dilma – was the broad South American cooperation built in MERCOSUR and, later, UNASUR.  Temer has refocused the former on trade and essentially abandoned the latter.  The country’s vision for broad integration has fallen prey to ideological suspicions.
  • Venezuela. By shaming President Maduro as a dictator, Brazil essentially disqualified itself as a possible neutral player in efforts to resolve the Venezuela crisis, the most important challenge in South America today.  Many Brazilian observers believe Brasilia’s absence could mean a blank check to a still unknown and unpredictable White House policy on Latin America.  President Trump’s recent suggestion of a possible military intervention in Venezuela has deepened those concerns.
  • Corruption. The Temer Administration is poorly positioned to push for the sort of initiatives that many governments and societies need to combat corruption.  The problem has deep roots, but Temer’s rise to power in the wake of a campaign attacking alleged corruption by Lula and Dilma gives greater salience to his own shortcomings.  The Attorney General’s Office and the Lava Jato investigators have accused him and most of his ministers of corruption.  This makes Brazilian foreign policy fragile and contradictory in this field despite the government’s efforts to cast itself as a champion of integrity.  It is much more like “a saint with feet of clay,” according to a Brazilian saying.

President Temer and his Foreign Ministers’ two-pronged approach to foreign policy entails risks for Brazil’s international clout.  By deconstructing the so-called “ideological diplomacy” of Lula, Dilma, and their Workers Party, the new team is eliminating an agenda that has achieved unity, albeit in fits and starts, of the continent around a series of issues relevant to them all.  Their efforts to refocus policy on trade and financial issues – essentially a neoliberal agenda that most of the region has rejected – may ultimately yield them economic and political benefits at home, but at the cost of moving Brazil off center stage and reducing its ability to provide regional leadership in the future.  The country’s inability to drive a regionally-supported resolution in Venezuela is already being felt.  Even if this reorientation of foreign policy is ultimately successful, the political capital that gave Brazil a higher international profile as a major world democracy will be difficult to rebuild. 

September 6, 2017

*Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

Lula Convicted: End of an Era?

By Anthony W. Pereira*

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Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva / Jeso Carneiro / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s conviction last week on corruption charges was more than a legal decision and could mark a political watershed – the beginning of the end of “Lula-ism,” a political and redistributive pact that lasted from 2003 until 2010 which Lula has been offering to revive as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.  On July 12, Federal Judge Sergio Moro found Lula guilty of taking a bribe and laundering money, sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison, and banned him from taking public office for seven years.  This judgment, the first to convict an ex-president in Brazil, was the result of the Carwash anti-corruption investigations begun in March 2014.

  • The decision will be appealed to the Federal court for the Fourth Region in Porto Alegre. This court will probably rule on the case before the 2018 filing deadline for presidential candidates (yet to be decided, but usually in mid-August), and is expected to uphold the conviction.  Lula would be legally barred from being a candidate at that point, although he might mount some sort of challenge to such a ruling.  Lula’s strategy for now is to press on with his campaign, to criticize his conviction as political persecution that was not based on evidence, and to portray himself as a man of the people capable of taking on the “elite.”

Lula still has great strengths.  The basis of Lula-ism has been his personal appeal – he captured twice as many voters as did his political party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 2002 and 2006 – boosted by economic forces and public policies that raised the living standards of the poor.  With his finely-tuned ability to communicate to ordinary people, he showed that it was possible to both grow the economy and redistribute its fruits.  His government reduced poverty significantly, offered the poor inclusion in the consumer society and the chance of social mobility, and even achieved a modest reduction in income inequality – while promoting the interests of big companies.

  • But he may not have achieved the long-term realignment his supporters claim. Lula-ism proper only lasted for eight years, the length of his two presidential terms.  His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, ruled for almost six more years, but by the last year of her first term, poverty had stopped declining.  The current government of President Michel Temer has passed a constitutional amendment freezing federal spending in real terms for 20 years; the measure does not automatically reduce spending on social programs, but in the absence of tax increases that is what it has produced.  Temer’s own bribery scandal may take him down, perhaps within the next couple of weeks, but his policies raise a more fundamental question:  whether Brazil can return to economic redistribution, diminishing the severe inequality that still marks its society, without Lula-ism.

The organs of anti-corruption investigation and control that have challenged Lula, Dilma, and Temer – the media, the Federal Police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the judiciary – are neither consistently politically neutral nor free of corruption themselves.  They are not a Deus ex machina that can free the Brazilian polity of corruption all by themselves.  For that, Brazil needs political reform, further changes in at least some of the rules that regulate elections and governance, a realignment of incentives faced by elected officials, state bureaucrats, business people, trade unions, and the electorate.

  • The PT and the other two most important parties, however, seem incapable of renovation despite leaders’ awareness of the low level of legitimacy with which they are viewed by voters. The PT has few viable new leaders and is clinging to Lula’s candidacy as its only hope of a return to power.  The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) still nominally supports Temer.  And Temer’s own party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), is torn between defending the president in an act of self-preservation, and fearing the wrath of the voters in 2018.

Brazilians face a “trilemma”: they yearn for the three long hoped-for goals of sustained and successful anti-corruption investigations, political reform, and a return to economic redistribution.  Achieving two of those goals at the same time, let alone three, seems impossible.  The 2018 elections therefore will reveal a country in which anti-corruption investigations continue to knock major figures out of the political game, while political reform and economic redistribution are postponed.  The old cliché that Brazil is the country of the future takes on a new meaning in light of this somber possibility.

July 17, 2017

*Anthony W. Pereira is a Professor and Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.

Can the 2018 Election Overcome Brazil’s Crisis of Legitimacy?

By Fabio Kerche*

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The Brazilian flag. / Club Med UK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The political and economic crisis punctuated by the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 persists unabated under the troubled administration of Michel Temer.  Stagnation is fueling unemployment, and the government’s efforts to rein in pensions and limit public spending are reinforcing the perception that the principal objective of those who ousted Dilma is to cut back on social rights promised in the 1988 Constitution and deepened by Dilma and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  Even more ominously, the continuing cascade of corruption allegations is also undermining support for the new government.

  • Surveys show that only 10 percent of Brazilians rate the Temer government as “good” or “great,” and that its legitimacy is further undermined by whistleblowers alleging that the president and nine of his ministers are corrupt.

The notorious “Car Wash” anti-corruption campaign is hurting more than Temer and his men.  Zealous prosecutors and judges are essentially criminalizing not only politicians’ behavior but, through aggressive interpretations of the law, the practice of politics itself.  The targeting of Dilma’s leftist PT is most obvious, but the deluge of charges is now buffeting all the major political parties.  Leaders of the center-right PSDB, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have been accused of corruption as well.  Except for some miniscule political parties, virtually the entire political system now faces corruption charges.

The 2018 presidential election offers the most plausible avenue for emerging from the crisis, but even that remains highly problematic.  There is a relative consensus among the political class and political analysts that a new, legitimate, and directly elected president could reverse, or at least limit, the deterioration of the political system.  With just over a year remaining for candidates to register, the likely roster is very uncertain, in part because a basic feature of constitutional democracy – that citizens are allowed to compete for office – is increasingly in jeopardy amid the current anti-corruption fever.  Early polls place Lula as the strongest among the likely candidates, and he remains in first place even when surveys include Sérgio Moro, the most important judge in the Car Wash saga, who has not declared himself to be in the running.  But it is unclear whether the courts will let Lula stand for office.  Right-wing media are hammering Lula’s alleged corrupt practices while downplaying those of Temer and his cabinet.  Potential candidates of PSDB have been denounced for receiving bribes and having overseas bank accounts, and their numbers are shrinking in the polls.  An alternative now being floated as a potential PSDB candidate is João Dória, the newly elected mayor of São Paulo who, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is a non-mainstream politician and businessman who formerly hosted the Brazilian version of the TV show The Apprentice.)

  •  This uncertainty – even if the parties resist the continuing wave of Car Wash denunciations and take back some political space from the unelected judicial branch of government – raises the question whether, over the next 18 months, Brazil’s 32 year-old democracy proves itself to be irreversible or to have been an all too brief interlude in the country’s political history. The apparent appeal of outsiders in an environment that is criminalizing politics is a worrisome sign.

April 24, 2017

* Fabio Kerche is Research Fellow at CLALS and Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil: Is Marina Silva the PT’s Nemesis?

By Luciano Melo

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Photo courtesy of the Marina Silva campaign website

No politician in recent years has been able to shake and polarize Brazilian politics as Marina Silva has since becoming the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate after its original nominee, Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash last month. She has an alluring biography: born into an extremely poor family and illiterate until she was 16, she worked as a rubber tapper and rose to become one of the most prominent ecologists and defenders of the Amazon region alongside Chico Mendes, a true Brazilian hero. After earning a degree in history, Silva entered politics in the mid-1980s. Several years later she received the most votes as a state representative for Acre, served twice as a senator, and later became the Minister of Environment in Lula’s administration (a position from which she resigned due to fundamental divergences with the Workers Party and Dilma Rousseff). In 2007 she won the UN’s Champions of the World award, and three years later she ran for President under the Green Party banner, amassing 20 million votes on a platform emphasizing environmental issues and education.

Recent polls find roughly a third of Brazilian voters favoring Silva in the first round of balloting scheduled for October 5, and running even with or slightly ahead of President Rousseff in an anticipated run-off election three weeks later. The Brazilian media suggest that a large part of Silva’s appeal comes from a personal aura of transparency and rectitude – a refreshing change from others competing for Brazil’s top job. She has also demonstrated an old-fashioned ability to compromise in order to form alliances. A committed environmentalist, Silva teamed up with Eduardo Campos, a titan of agribusiness, and now, heading up the PSB ticket, her running mate is Beto Albuquerque, a moderate farmer who can bring a certain level of balance in the economic-environmental equation. On the separation of church and state, however, Marina may face a difficult balancing act. She is an evangelical Christian, winning a large chunk of religious voters in 2010, and she has defended the teaching of creationism in schools, saying that God created even Darwin. She rolled out an agenda for advancing LGBT rights recently, but criticism by Pastor Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s main evangelical leaders, forced her to reverse course and abandon her position 24 hours after having presented it.

Although Brazil is a religious country, laïcité – a French version of secularism – is a serious matter for the upper and middle classes, and Silva’s religiosity may cost her votes. She has exposed her core weak spot, which the other candidates will exploit in the upcoming debates and electoral campaigns. But popular concerns about corruption run much deeper in the eyes of the Brazilian people. The fact that presidents Dilma and Lula and the PT have become synonymous with misconduct in general, and mismanagement regarding Petrobrás in particular – a scandal involving 40 PT members in a multi-million real scheme – weakens their ability to counterattack amidst Silva’s continuous rise. What we will see in the elections in October is therefore a battle between the PT’s Bolsa Família – one of the most successful social programs in the history of Brazil – and a candidate who theoretically embodies honesty and honor. Whatever the outcome, it seems that PT has met its biggest challenge in 12 years.