Brazil’s New President Faces Few Constraints

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Now that voters have elected former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president, the country’s democracy will face a stern test. The most important question is: Can Brazilian institutions withstand the threat posed by the man’s well-documented authoritarian and illiberal streaks?

Brazil transitioned to democracy more than 30 years ago, an evolution that seemed largely to have been consolidated -- witness Operation Carwash's successful anti-corruption investigations of powerful politicians. Yet there is reason to be less than sanguine about what is in store.

Consider the prospects for the checks and balances on the presidency within the Brazilian system, starting with the legislature.

In spite of his long parliamentary career, Bolsonaro has never been in the thick of legislative action; infamously, over seven four-year terms, he had a single bill signed into law. Few expect him to be a skilled negotiator, and he will face a newly elected Congress that is extremely fragmented, even by the country’s usual standards. Surely Congress can present meaningful roadblocks?

Perhaps not. The new Congress tilts further to the right, giving Bolsonaro a robust base of support in the “beef, Bible, bullet” caucus of agricultural interests, evangelicals and law-and-order types. A large congressional contingent is also motivated by transactional goals; it could presumably be brought on board with enough enticement. In addition, the announced presence of former generals in Bolsonaro's administration points to its strong backing within the armed forces; the implicit threat of their disfavor thus hovers over any political challenge to his administration.

How about the courts? Brazil’s judicial system, as well as the Public Prosecutor’s Office, whose autonomy was enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, have recently shown remarkable independence and zeal in pursuing accountability. That said, the Supreme Court has indicated its willingness to accommodate the new political winds, with its Chief Justice hiring a former general and making conciliatory remarks about the 1964-85 military dictatorship that Bolsonaro so admires. Bolsonaro has stated his intentions to pack the court with friendly justices, as well as to make politico-ideological considerations in picking the new chief prosecutor -- ostensibly to eradicate “left-wing bias.” With the recent musings by Bolsonaro’s son (also a congressman) about shutting down the court (disavowed quickly by his father), or by a former general (and newly elected congressman) about impeaching justices, the possibility that the judiciary will also fall in line can't be dismissed.

Perhaps cold, hard economic realities will constrain Bolsonaro’s worst instincts? Most economists agree that the country’s fiscal situation is dire, and that dealing with it requires, among other things, reforming the pension system, which should therefore be high on the new government's agenda.

I have my doubts. Bolsonaro is exceedingly unlikely to hurt the pensions of the military, police and the like, which are a key constituency. If these interest groups are left untouched, other powerful ones, such as the country’s judges and prosecutors, will hardly acquiesce to sacrificing their pensions.

Instead, the new government is likely to focus on the relatively cheap agenda of satisfying specific constituencies, such as social conservatives and rural interests, by changing school curricula or lifting environmental regulations. Industrialists have already indicated that they will support Bolsonaro in exchange for old-school industrial policies and protection. He has already welcomed that deal. Given his long-standing views, that shouldn't come as a surprise: His only successful bill extended a manufacturing tax break to more sectors.

Another source of checks and balances is of course the media, which will face the same pressure brought to bear on political institutions. There has already been a spike in intimidation of journalists, mostly by Bolsonaro supporters, and some of the big media groups are aligning themselves with the new regime. Bolsonaro has implied that he will retaliate against those that are not by withholding the government’s advertisement support.

Perhaps the people will take to the streets against threats to democracy, should they materialize? Bolsonaro’s confrontational approach and aggressive rhetoric toward his political adversaries do not suggest that he would be inclined to give in to that kind of pushback.

A final hope many Brazilians seem to hold is that Bolsonaro would moderate in order to ensure his ability to govern. I am less optimistic. His ascent to power was only made possible by extreme polarization and disenchantment with the political establishment. His incentive will be to fan the flames that ignited his candidacy in the first place -- not unlike his idol President Donald Trump, whose “pivot to the center” keeps not coming. Brazilian democracy may not collapse. But the odds are strong that it will experience a 21st-century-style democratic backsliding, with all the accompanying erosion of norms and guarantees that sad progression entails.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Filipe Campante is the Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.