Bolsonaro Will Test Brazil’s Democracy

(The Bloomberg View) -- Brazil has entered a new and unsettling political era. Voters chose Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain from a once-fringe political party, as their new president. In the biggest legislative turnover since democracy was restored in 1985, they also booted droves of incumbents out of Congress.

Bolsonaro’s campaign was alarming. He expressed disdain for women, minorities, his political opponents, and the rule of law. He made no secret of his nostalgia for the military dictatorship. He threatened to banish the “red criminals” of the Workers’ Party that governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016, promising “a cleansing never seen in the history of Brazil.”

If voters had qualms about such disturbing outbursts, they put them aside. Perhaps they judged that the crime, corruption and stagnation overseen by the previous administrations called for desperate measures. Yet they’re taking Bolsonaro on trust. So far, he has said little about what he actually means to do.

Only time will tell whether Bolsonaro is the would-be autocrat he has often seemed. Toward the end of his campaign he softened some of his positions in response to public opinion; the threat to withdraw Brazil from the Paris accord on climate change was among them. This is encouraging. It also helps that the opposition Workers’ Party is still the largest in Brazil’s lower house, and that Brazil’s judicial institutions aren’t helpless. (Remember that two previous presidents were impeached.) But this does not relieve ordinary Brazilians of the need for vigilance.

Businesses, civic groups, voters and legislators should urge him to speedily lay out his plans for cutting unemployment and restoring fiscal control. At $1 trillion, Brazil’s federal debt is roughly double what it was five years ago. Brazil’s dysfunctional and over-generous pension system is partly to blame, and the new president should say what he proposes to do about it. Tax reform is crucial. Previous governments have lavished unaffordable tax breaks on many of the country’s businesses. Bolsonaro also needs a plan for privatizing state businesses, something he has resisted in the past and waffled on during the campaign.

Bolsonaro needs to keep his promise to curb corruption. Brazil’s landmark Carwash investigation should be allowed to proceed, and more crooked politicians and businessmen should be brought to book. He says he’ll bring forward anti-corruption measures supported by federal prosecutors but blocked by legislators. He should support lifting lawmakers’ de facto immunity from prosecution, and refrain from ethically challenged cabinet picks.

If Bolsonaro does mean to change Brazil for the better, he faces enormous challenges. The rewards for the country from less corruption and better economic policy could be enormous — but Brazil will fail to realize them unless it demands, and receives, better leadership from its new president than he’s offered during his campaign.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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