Bolsonaro’s first days of government: a threat to liberal democracy

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shows a pen during a Jan. 15 signing ceremony for the decree that eases gun restrictions in Brazil. (CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters)

In early September 2018, I wrote a blog post about Jair Bolsonaro, at that moment the frontrunner in the Brazilian presidential election, defending that he could be considered a populist radical right politician. He was elected and has been in power since January 1. In this post, I discuss the adaptation of Bolsonaro’s radical appeal to incumbency.

Scholars claim that populist right-wing parties drift toward the mainstream and tone down the radical rhetoric when they assume office, i.e., they abandon their radical positions on issues such as immigration and law and order, show more commitment to liberal democracy, and became more programmatic, attributing more importance to socio-economic issues. Nevertheless, recent studies have shown that these parties keep their radical profile in office, especially on issues salient to their voters.

Based on the choice of officers, priority measures announced, and a few measures adopted in the first month of governing, Bolsonaro’s government has adopted two distinct strategies in office. On one hand, it follows a mainstream right-wing party in regard to economic management. On the other hand, it maintains the campaign’s radical approach to public security and cultural issues.

The first path was already signaled during the campaign, with the choice of Paulo Guedes, a graduate of the University of Chicago strongly committed to economic liberalism, for the Ministry of Economy. Other important members of the economic team have the same  academic background: Joaquim Levy, president of the National Bank of Development, and Roberto Castello Branco, president of Petrobras. Finally, Bolsonaro chose officers with long careers in financial markets: Roberto Campos as president of the Central Bank and Pedro Guimarães as president of Caixa Econômica Federal. Further, the government’s policies show a commitment to fiscal responsibility and economic liberalism. It aims, for example, to reform the Social Security System and privatize national companies, which seeks to raise R$802 billion ($215 billion).

Conversely, in the cultural domain, the government moved away from the mainstream and shows a clear radical profile. The choice of four ministers illustrates this claim. First, Ernesto Araújo of the International Relations Ministry is against what he calls globalism. In his words, it is an anti-human and anti-Christian system based on cultural Marxism. Instead, he defends national sovereignty based on Christian and extremist values. In practical terms, this radical ideology indicates that the Brazilian government will oppose international norms on issues such as climate change and immigration. Also, the government might not accept the interference of international or intergovernmental organizations, if they are considered to be against national interests.

Damares Alves, in charge of the Human Rights, Family, and Women Ministry, also holds alarming positions. She is an evangelic pastor allied with the neo-Pentecostal group of the Parliamentarian in Congress. In her opening speech, she made the polemic statement that Brazil is “in a new era” and “boys will dress in blue and girls will dress in pink.” Despite guaranteeing that the LGBT community will not lose any rights, she is strongly opposed to progressive gender ideologies and declared her skepticism of feminist movements. Finally, she defends abortion keep being a crime in the vast majority of cases.

The Minister of Education, Ricardo Vélez, also has radical positions on cultural issues. He is a supporter of the movement “School without Party,” an initiative that seeks to control and persecute teachers expressing ideas considered “leftist” or “Marxist” and ban supposed ideological indoctrination in the classroom. He also states that teaching themes such as gender and sexuality in school are a “crime” against the family. Finally, he declared that he is an admirer of the Brazilian dictatorship.

Finally, the Minister of Environment, Ricardo Salles, also sympathizes with the government agenda. He is closely committed to landowner’s interests and has made public statements against indigenous access to land. This is of particular importance since Bolsonaro transferred the responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from the National Foundation of Indigenous Communities to Salles’ office.

Measures adopted by the new government demonstrate that Bolsonaro will keep the campaign’s authoritarian profile. On January 1, Bolsonaro signed a decree to loosen gun ownership rules, one of the key pledges of his presidential campaign. Also, in early February, the Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro, announced the Anticrime Package, presented by the government as a legal apparatus to fight against corruption and crime. Nevertheless, specialists state that the proposal restrains rights and fundamental warranties by allowing early execution of a sentence, giving free rein for policy violence, increasing sentences, and changing the rules of jury trials.

In conclusion, the first days of Bolsonaro’s government showed two paths: a mainstream right-wing management of the economy combined with populism and radicalism on cultural issues. In the former, the president relies on a group of specialists committed to liberalism to conduct the country’s economic management. First measures suggest that this government will prioritize the balance of public finance over social goals, persuing austerity policies. The second path is a radical policy towards public security and cultural issues. The government’s radicalism is concentrated among a group of Bolsonaro’s top-level officials, who disregard LGBT, immigrant, and indigenous group rights. The first days of governing suggest that its authoritarian profile has been translated into policy outcomes. Therefore, it is not too early to affirm that Bolsonaro’s government has the potential to rapidly transform Brazil into a less liberal version of democracy. The composition of alliances in the upper and lower houses further suggests that the government will face limited restrictions to passing its radical proposals. In this scenario, the role of the Supreme Court will be the key to determining to what extent illiberal initiatives will become legislation.

Ms Juliana Chueri is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and Doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Geneva. See her profile here:

© Juliana Chueri. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).