Jair Bolsonaro will have to find some way of assembling a reliable block of support from a giant, self-interested jigsaw puzzle (Reuters/Ricardo Morae)
For more than a quarter of a century, Brazilian MP Jair Bolsonaro has switched party allegiance time and again in a dance aimed at keeping his Parliamentary seat.
Now, from virtually nowhere, he is to become the country’s first right-wing President since the end of military dictatorship in the mid-1980s, with little legislative achievement, no service in a position higher than MP and a trail of verbal menace that has many fearful of what comes next.
But first, he must establish his Presidency. He has barely two months to build his administration and take the reins.
Can he do it, from within the tiny Social Liberal Party (PSL), to which he switched only six months ago? How will he work with a notoriously fractured Brazilian lower house of Congress? And will key businesses get the favourable treatment they are anticipating?
What shape is his party in?
“They’re a tiny little party, with a bit of a rump, but very few people and no technocratic capacity,” says Sean Burges, deputy director of ANU’s Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies.
“This means he’s going into the Presidency with no depth of technical people that he can draw on to fill the myriad spots that are in the federal bureaucracy,” Dr Burges told PM.
Jair Bolsonaro has been in Congress for almost 30 years without gaining much traction among voters, until recently. (AP: Eraldo Peres)
Will he have the support to govern?
Brazil’s House of Representatives has 513 members. They come from a total of 30 parties. It is a coalition-building nightmare.
“If you look at the two largest parties, the two of them only have 21 per cent of all votes,” says Brazilian-born economist Deborah Farias from UNSW.
Well before the President-elect tries to negotiate pension or social security reform, he will have to find some way of assembling a coherent, reliable block of support from a giant, self-interested, politically-charged jigsaw puzzle.
Who will rule the roost?
“There’s going to be a bit of a battle at the trough,” is how Dr Burges describes the coming horse-trading of positions in exchange for support.
But the President-elect has pledged to cut the number of ministries from 28 to about 15. If he does that, the trough will be a bit bare.
“He’s not going to be able to do that because if he doesn’t have the cabinet posts to give out to the different parties, he’s not going to have a coalition in Congress,” says Dr Burges.
“With no coalition in Congress, first time he says the wrong thing, they’ll impeach him.”
With multiple presidents already impeached, it is easy to imagine Mr Bolsonaro at a lot of coffee meetings between now and January when he takes up the Presidency.
Love him or hate him, it’s no longer possible to ignore Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s political landscape. (AP: Andre Penner)
What’s this about ‘Bullets, Bibles and Cattle’?
As the fortunes of the now-ousted Workers Party have waned, so has the number of elected representatives coming from trade unions or the environment and human rights movements.
What has replaced them is a coterie of MPs closer to Mr Bolsonaro’s instincts on at least some big issues. One example is the powerful grouping called the “Bancada da bala, da biblia, do boi”.
“It translates to Bullets, Bibles and Cattle,” Dr Burges says, of the cattle ranchers vehemently opposed to Brazil’s substantial body of environmental law.
Mr Bolsonaro is sympathetic with their position. He has threatened to pull Brazil out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He changed his mind just before the second-round Presidential vote — but it may be academic. Environmental laws can be changed by regulation and the Bancada will insist on it, Dr Burges says.
“Whether he comes out of Paris or not, it’s looking a little frightening for Brazil’s delicate environmental areas like the Amazon and the Pantanal.”
Is more violence on the cards?
Plenty of words have already been written forecasting a rise in violence, with special risks for minorities and women, given Mr Bolsonaro’s record of comments offensive to many.
“The election has gone into a twilight zone of ‘what are you afraid of most’ and not necessarily who do you think will do a better job,” says Dr Farias.
Already, in the three weeks since the first-round Presidential vote, Dr Burges says there has been a rise in violence.
“It looks like some of the cruder, nastier, more panicked responses to the challenges that Brazil faces are going to be given a sort of tacit moral permission by the President to engage in repression and violence on a scale that takes us back to the worst days of the 1990s,” he says.
Marchers in the anti-Bolsonaro women’s protests carry a huge #EleNao (#NotHim) banner (REUTERS)
So, what’s behind Bolsonaro’s rise?
The now-ousted four-term Workers’ Party have played a large role in their opponent Mr Bolsonaro’s success.
Despite losing public support after their descent into corruption involving billions of dollars in bribes, the left-wing party assumed Mr Bolsonaro’s extreme tendencies would leave him unelectable.
“It’s a condemnation of the Workers’ Party government and the half job that they did, and it’s also a condemnation of every other major political party in Brazil and their failure to do what’s good for the public and not themselves,” Dr Burges says.