Bolsonaro’s election is no cause for despair

Brazil's young democracy has made big strides in recent years

Reactions to the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency range from alarmism to outright hysteria. As an apologist for the military dictatorship, a defender of torture, and proponent of a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected criminals, Bolsonaro’s rupture with the political norms that have governed Brazil for the last 30 years has made him the most controversial candidate since the restoration of democracy in the mid-1980s. But Brazil, and the world, should not be panicked.

Brazil’s democratic institutions are resilient, capable of weathering the Bolsonaro storm and curtailing some of his worst vices, and in the “Tropical Trump” analogy frenzy that has accompanied Bolsonaro’s victory, too many facts are being ignored. First, the 1988 Constitution emulates the American Constitution. Like the U.S. founding document, it includes strong checks and balances and three independent branches of government which can overrule one another, thus ensuring a diffusion of power.

Second, as he transitions from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing, Bolsonaro will face a multiparty Congress too fractured to easily pass his legislative agenda. As a member of a minority bloc, he faces the onerous task of building and maintaining a multiparty coalition — a mind-bogglingly complex endeavor in Brazil. Even after gaining 44 seats this year, Bolsonaro’s contingent holds 52 in a chamber of 513. They are outnumbered in the lower house by the Workers’ Party, whose presidential candidate lost to Bolsonaro by 10 percent.

Given the importance of his appeal as a politician untinged by Brazil’s endemic corruption, Bolsonaro will find it difficult to justify any coalition comprised of unrepentant political leaders currently embroiled in corruption scandals of their own—figures he regularly attacked as duplicitous on the campaign.

Should he contemplate any executive branch overreach, Bolsonaro will undoubtedly remember that Brazil has a well-defined process for impeaching presidents, and that two presidents were removed from power in the country’s short democratic history — one of the few areas in which Brazil’s Congress has displayed any functionality of late.

Third, the judicial branch zealously guards its independence, and is known for its successful efforts in curtailing the power of the executive. And those institutions have done their job. In recent years as the lava jato investigation rolled on, the judiciary branch held members of the executive and legislative branches to account for their corrupt behavior. Brazil’s independent Prosecutor General has brought numerous charges against sitting Brazilian President Michel Temer, despite being appointed by him. Even the darling of Brazilian politics, former President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, was convicted in the sprawling corruption investigation that has ensnared almost 200 people. The fact that the overwhelmingly popular judge heading the investigation, Sérgio Moro, has accepted Bolsonaro’s appointment as head of a new “super ministry” combining the justice and public security portfolios should reassure those concerned that Bolsonaro will not govern democratically.

Fourth, although Bolsonaro’s strong military backing has many worried about their political influence, this moment is not analogous to the 1964 coup; Brazil’s military has evolved. Since the end of the dictatorship, the military — already a fixture in the daily life of many Brazilians — has studiously maintained a strict political firewall. Still, Bolsonaro’s statements in favor of a return to military rule should be taken seriously. So should the justification given by Hamilton Mourão — a former general and Bolsonaro’s Vice President — for a break in the constitutional order as a stopgap solution to public security challenges.

Nor can the outsized role the military already plays in internal Brazilian affairs be ignored. It’s the military and not the civilian police that have been charged with quelling the recent and dramatic surge in homicides. And it was the armed forces that spearheaded security operations during the run-up to the Rio Olympics—part of a program to reclaim territory from heavily-armed drug gangs. Given the centrality of Bolsonaro’s security policies to his political base, it’s unthinkable that the military would lose their policing role under Bolsonaro, even if it’s controversial.

The man many call mito, or “legend,” will have to meet high expectations. The same exasperation and rage against the political establishment that fueled Bolsonaro’s rise, however, will eventually result in a demanding public opinion environment. He is likely to have a short honeymoon as difficult issues like the insolvent pension system will quickly erode his political standing. This alone could prevent Bolsonaro from following the Putin, Erdogan, or Duterte playbook for democratic backsliding.

The silver lining of Brazil’s recent political woes has been the opportunity for Brazilians to see the robustness of their democratic institutions at work. The country has had an earnest reckoning with corruption in its political life — a reckoning that plenty of other countries would have found a way to avoid. Not many young democracies would have sent a former president who left office with sky-high approval ratings to jail.

With a record of incendiary remarks and authoritarian impulses, Bolsonaro will challenge Brazil’s institutions like never before. The presence of retired generals in Bolsonaro’s cabinet may further the generational amnesia surrounding the apocryphal, but deeply-held belief that Brazil’s dictatorship afforded political and economic stability. It is hoped that the generals will be the real adults in the room and leave the political and economic mess to be sorted out by the politicians.

Neither Brazilians nor their neighbors in the hemisphere should just sit and watch the show. Vigilance is imperative. But odds are that under President Bolsonaro, Brazil will find a way to muddle through thanks to the democratic institutions that are its real pillars of democracy.

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