Bolsonaro’s Star Is in Decline, Ex-President Cardoso Says

Few people have a deeper understanding of Brazil’s ruthless politics than Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The two-term president from the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party survived relatively unscathed in a job that saw most of his peers impeached, jailed or ostracized over the past three decades. In an hour-long video interview from his Sao Paulo home, the 89-year-old sociologist spoke candidly about the outlook for the nation he governed between 1995 and 2002.

His main thesis: the social buzz that catapulted Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in 2018, following a 13-year rule by the leftist Workers’ Party of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is unlikely to be sustained until the next general election in 2022.

“Now we know Bolsonaro and I find it hard to see him making people excited as he once did -- largely because of an exaggerated fear of the Workers’ Party, which he rode on,” Cardoso said. “Now that he’s there, he needs to do something, but what is he actually doing?”

Bolsonaro’s Star Is in Decline, Ex-President Cardoso Says

Of course that doesn’t mean that the far-right president won’t be a strong contender for re-election in two years. Bolsonaro’s popularity reached a record high at the height of the pandemic on the back of massive emergency cash handouts to informal workers, which he’s being forced to discontinue due to budget constraints.

But his populist brand took a double hit last month: first his ally and champion Donald Trump fell short in his own re-election bid in the U.S. Then Bolsonaro, who doesn’t have a political party of his own, emerged weakened from municipal elections that dealt a blow to all the mayoral candidates he supported.

While the municipal vote showed limitations to the president’s Trumpian brand of politics, complications are growing with the administration’s inability to make progress in an agenda of reforms that all but stagnated this year. Chances of passing them in the second half of Bolsonaro’s term are even slimmer, with prospects of a lame-duck president and an economy minister facing difficulties in congress, Cardoso said, recalling his time as the country’s finance chief before becoming president.

“I had the advantage of being a senator when I was chosen finance minister,” he said. “But Minister Paulo Guedes doesn’t know congress, he feels like fish out of water there. That makes it tougher for congress to follow his reforms.”

Deteriorating Finances

Cardoso, who is credited with building the architecture of Brazil’s relatively stable economy after decades of hyperinflation and debt defaults, watches with concern the deterioration of the country’s finances, including early signs of trouble in the rollover of government bonds in domestic markets. Yet it’s not the size of public debt -- now approaching 100% of gross domestic product -- that worries him, but rather the government’s dwindling credibility in financial markets.

Bolsonaro’s Star Is in Decline, Ex-President Cardoso Says

“Brazil’s debt load is large but not that scary,” he said, citing countries that owe more but enjoy higher credit ratings because investors trust they’ll be repaid on time. “Is this government taking action to ensure there will be funds to repay its debt or not? I don’t think it is. I haven’t seen a very strong will.”

Whomever becomes the next president will need to rebuild that credibility and “reinvent a path” for the country, Cardoso said, citing four up-and-coming potential challengers, not all of them from his party: the governors of the states of Sao Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, TV superstar Luciano Huck and leftist Ciro Gomes, who ran for president in 2018.

To all of them, Cardoso had a piece of advice: It’s not too early to start putting your name out there. “It takes a certain time to get name recognition in Brazil, this is a large country,” he said. “Particularly now, when we need someone to open a new path of hope and to show leadership.”

Despite a “populist smoke” clouding Brazil’s political landscape, Bolsonaro doesn’t have the charisma nor the right rhetoric to become a populist dictator, as feared by some groups, according to the ex-president.

“The crisis of democracy hasn’t gotten to the point where people say it’s better to have a dictator,” Cardoso said. “We still have time to rebuild some party structure.”

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