JOHANNESBURG – Donald Trump’s America and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have followed a different playbook this year. Both regimes have risen strongly and relied heavily on strong political leadership.
New polls, as well as a dramatic increase in popularity for Brazil’s right-wing President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, show that a whole new way of governing the world is emerging.
Brazil is a good example of just how this change is sweeping the globe. Bolsonaro is an acerbic former Army captain, who led his country’s 2014 military coup.
A baggy-suit-clad geezer in his mid-fifties, Bolsonaro has brought some profound changes to a nation reeling from a political crisis. The center-left administration of president Dilma Rousseff was repeatedly investigated for corruption scandals that even appeared to go as far as casting allies in the US as junior members of the Venezuelan regime.
Throughout, Bolsonaro sat back in the background. Just before the first round of elections in October, he finally offered an opportunity for rivals to debate. Bolsonaro, it turned out, is also skilled in public speaking, something he honed early in life, when he was a youth football coach.
In the pre-debate events, Bolsonaro offered a surprisingly self-assured performance, trying to soften his image. This was a culmination of an aggressive catchphrase that grew from an olive-branch approach to lecturing Brazilians in English, seemingly taking them by surprise.
As he began to make public remarks, under attack for a wide range of complaints that resonated in a nation battered by falling living standards, he seemed to lose the grip. The first presidential debate he participated in offered him a swan song, as he referred to his usual jibe that he is a “damn soldier”, and “if he dies in office, it’s fair play” and he admitted in the last debate of the campaign that he was high on the drug Jazaquim.
Video of the first public “martyr” to Bolsonaro’s “Adelante” has gone viral, as the embattled Bolsonaro seems to acknowledge the brutality of his rule. Then there was the “captain” that Bolsonaro appointed to his cabinet, who appears to suggest that the 34 million Brazilians living in poverty would be driven into a temporary retirement home.
Over the past weeks, however, Bolsonaro has begun to lose power at a more personal level. Now that he has lost the election of the vice president, a favorite candidate of mine, Fernando Haddad, a public servant who’s one of the architects of Rousseff’s popular welfare programs, Bolsonaro was forced to issue apologies to the cabinet minister who ran the safety ministry.
It remains to be seen if Bolsonaro’s dominant public image will prevail in the coming years. With Bolsonaro being president, the Congress under his control and one of the two chamber debates being organized by a member of his movement, his critics are wondering if we will see an armed uprising at this new power. He has already banned smoking inside the presidential residence. With that comes a number of high profile powers to determine government policy.
End of an era
The replacement of Rousseff as Brazil’s leader with Bolsonaro brings to an end an era of reconciliation, when the country’s polarized political history was playing out before the eyes of the world.
Since Rousseff left office, the nation has suffered a collapse in its economy. Shortly after Bolsonaro’s election, the securities industry regulator withdrew its approval for the sale of Brazilian asset management company Fundao AMIA to Cayman Islands-based Tempo Investments. The deal raised the ire of trade unions, who then started protesting to shut down the trading floor. Later in the month, the billionaire controlling shareholder of Vale SA, the largest Brazilian mining company, resigned amid a financial crisis.
It is unclear whether these events, especially the radical changes in government, will trigger any type of unrest, or at least a confluence of protests like the one which occurred to mark the Rio Olympics in 2016. In fact, many analysts see many historic similarities between the Brazilian political and economic crises over the past three years.
Brazil now falls just short of the direct elections we have seen in 2018; Venezuela has been riven by violent dissent and the United States under Donald Trump has seen its polarized politics harden with authoritarianism. With the first anniversary of Mr. Trump’s inauguration fast approaching, Brazil is lucky that Bolsonaro, like Trump, appears to be losing power at a more personal