Brazilian Elections 2018: What does it mean for the EU?

By Joao Lucas Hilgert, Adviser to the board of the Munich European Forum

Part 3 of 3

If you have been paying attention to western media coverage of the Brazilian elections, you would probably think that Brazil, along with Britain, the US and the Philippines, has gone off the right-wing cliff and is about to crash and burn. President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s previous statements have made him somewhat infamous in this context. His opinions on the failure of democracy and his praise of the Brazilian dictatorship were controversial to say the least. His comments on homosexuals, women and people of color have offended many, and rightfully so. Which lead to the surprise of many, when upon winning the election Bolsonaro called for national unity of a country made up of “many opinions, colors and orientations”. He repeatedly referred positively to the constitution and vowed to uphold democratic principles. He didn’t speak of threats and fears, but of hope and prosperity. His whole victory speech was underlined by one concept: Liberty. As he himself put it: “Freedom is a fundamental principle. Freedom to come and go, to walk on the streets everywhere in this country. Freedom to innovate. Political and religious freedom. Freedom to inform and to hold an opinion. Freedom to make choices and be respected for them.” Exactly the opposite of what would have been expected of a populist, fascist, right-wing strongman.

 

Is it too early to tell what he will make of the executive office? Yes, definitely.

Is it too early to say if he will indeed become the threat to democracy that so many fear? Undoubtedly.

One could argue that his older remarks should not be taken at face-value and that we should shift our focus to his more recent and more moderate rhetoric. His comment that he was in favor of torture, for an instance, took place nearly twenty years ago. In the last few months he has made more affable comments towards homosexuals, women and racial minorities. However, not all of his remarks were made that far in the past. In 2016 he proclaimed that the mistake of the military dictatorship was that they tortured instead of killing. Furthermore, one could in turn argue that his recent, seemingly more moderate stance is simply electoral pandering, or just a way to calm down his detractors, especially if taken into account that there was an almost successful attempt on his life in September. Though he will not appear publicly as often now that the election is over, there are definitely concerns that such an attack could happen again before he’s sworn into office.

 

What has been more constant throughout the election has been his liberal economic stance. He has run on a decentralized, small government platform, with particular focus on open trade policies. And this is where the consequences for the EU lie. If his more authoritative views are implemented, he will definitely be seen as an enemy to European values such as democracy. However, what has escaped the focus of most European commentators during this election is the fact that a less isolationist Brazil is extremely beneficial to the European Union and particularly those EU members that heavily rely on exports, such as Germany. According to the German-Brazilian chamber of commerce 10% of Brazil’s industrial gross domestic product is created by German companies alone, and São Paulo, Brazil’s largest and richest city, has the largest amount of German companies of any city in the World (excluding obviously Germany itself). Brazil alone is the EU’s 11th largest trading partner, according to the European Commission, and considering Brazil is the World’s 9th largest economy, there is still room to grow when it comes to trade.

In the last 15 years, Brazil has shifted its foreign policy towards the so-called South-South axis. This means that Brazil gave preferential treatment to the Southern Hemisphere in terms of bilateral agreements and trade relations. The net result of these policies is simply bad. Perhaps the best example of this trend is the government-owned National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). It financed many projects across countries in Latin America and Africa. However, many of those were handed to countries lead by left-wing governments with an arguably negligible trade balance with Brazil, raising the suspicion of an ideological bias in the selection process for possible prospects. Many of these countries now find themselves in tough economic situations and are unable to pay back these loans. Venezuela for an instance still owes Brazil €787 million. The fact that they almost defaulted on their payment of US$ 274 million earlier this year does not exude reassurance that they will be able to repay that debt any time soon. And Venezuela is not alone. Mozambique owes € 375 million and has forfeited a payment of US$ 22 million. The third and largest creditor on that list is Angola. While their situation is less dire, the fact that they owe a total of € 1 billion to Brazil as well as € 19.6 billion to China and Russia raises concerns that they will not be able to pay these loans back in the future. Since the BNDES is a publicly owned bank, these outstanding loans have to be covered by the Brazilian Treasury, i.e. the Brazilian taxpayer. Most of those loans were used to finance big infrastructure projects, something that Brazil desperately needs itself. And, as mentioned previously, that money was given to countries that bring much less to the table than one would expect. Brazilian exports to these three countries combined totaled € 1.7 billion, a full € 4.3 billion less than Germany alone and € 29.4 billion less than the EU as a whole.

 

It’s no surprise that in his victory speech Bolsonaro vowed to “free Brazil and Itamaraty (Brazil’s foreign ministry) from ideologically based international relations” and “seek bilateral relations with countries that can aggregate economic and technological value to Brazilian products.” He didn’t specifically name any countries (or unions thereof), but it is implied that he means the US and the EU. Furthermore, this message resonates with many Brazilians, who feel those investments would be much better spent in a country in dire need of an infrastructural overhaul and that Brazil should focus on countries that actually bring something to the table.

While the possibility of an authoritarian government in Brazil could prove to be devastating to its constitutional democracy, a Brazil “open for business” might be the best outcome for Europe.

Also check out Part 1 and 2 of our special series!

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

Brazilian Elections 2018: The Death of Nuance

By Joao Lucas Hilgert, Adviser to the board of the Munich European Forum

Part 2 of 3

In the last article focused on the road that led to Brazil’s current political, economical and social situation. Now the country is faced with two options for its top leadership that aren’t remotely similar. The country, as mentioned previously, is deeply divided. The fissures of this clash of ideas threatens the very fabric of Brazilian society. The two sides not only are seemingly irreconcilable, they have also devolved into a quasi tribalistic team-mentality, that resorts more often to name-calling than actual substantive discussion of the challenges at hand. If you support leftist policies, you are immediately labeled a communist. If you support a more conservative agenda, you are promptly branded as a fascist. There is no middle ground, there is only far-left or far-right.

And these cleavages run through nearly every segment of Brazilian society. According to a poll by Ibope[1] (Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics), one of Latin America’s largest market research providers, the right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro underperforms when it comes to the female vote, older voters (over 55 years of age), income between one and two minimum wages (between €225 and €550 a month[2]), those who didn’t graduate from middle school, non-evangelicals and African-Brazilians. However, by underperforming it is meant that Bolsonaro was not the candidate of choice for more than 50% of the interviewees, although he remains in first place. The only groups, in which he actually loses to his opponent Hadad from the Worker’s Party (PT), are among the poorest, meaning those who make less than one minimum wage (€225[2]), the much less educated, meaning those who didn’t finish elementary school, and voters in the northeastern region of the country (perhaps not surprisingly where 55% of Brazil’s abject poverty is concentrated). There is a large disparity in voting behaviour between the extremes. The research evidentiates that the richer, the better educated, the whiter and the more evangelical one is, the more likely he/she (but mostly he) is to vote for Bolsonaro.

Planalto Palace, the official office of the President of Brazil, in the capital Brasilia

Though Bolsonaro has served as a federal lower house member since 1991, many still perceive him as an outsider. For one, he has largely remained untouched by the political turmoil caused by Operation Car Wash, that rocked the Brazilian political establishment to its core. Second, much like Donald Trump, he often says things that are considered unusual, politically incorrect and sometimes blatantly offensive. He once stated that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son, that he was strong the 4 first times he had sons but the 5th time around he got weak so he had a daughter, that he is in favor of torture and that the military dictatorship in Brazil did not kill enough. It must be noted that many of his offensive statements were made years, if not decades, ago. In the last few months he has made statements that contradict the narrative that he is homophobic, misogynistic or racist, however that in and of it itself could be classified as electoral pandering.
Perhaps more consequentially for the election, he has stood for the possession of firearms by the general populace, he has supported the increase of penalties for criminals and corrupt politicians, extinction of benefits for convicted felons (e.g. financial help for their families, conjugal visits, temporary leave of prison during holidays) as well as more leniency towards police violence. He has defended a more liberal economic stance while also promoting more conservative social policies. He has criticized the inclusion of homosexuality in sexual education and has defended the inclusion of religion and military procedures in public schools. He also supports the voluntary chemical castration of rapists in exchange for sentence reductions.
These are only a few of the aspects that explain why his rhetoric and policies resonate in a crime-ridden, corrupt and ailing Brazil. The people see in Bolsonaro a sort of PT antiserum. A political figure that will rid Brazil of the corruption and failed policies of the PT era that put the country on the path to ruin, analogous to its neighbor Venezuela.

After former President Lula was incarcerated and therefore not legally allowed to participate in the elections, Bolsonaro quickly took the number one spot in the polls. PT’s answer was to nominate Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of Brazil’s largest city São Paulo, as their presidential candidate. He was also the education minister for much of the PT’s governments. As Mayor he neglected healthcare leading to a 63% increase in the number of patients waiting for treatment[3] and he himself was denounced by the State of São Paulo’s attorney’s office for corruption, money laundering and conspiracy to commit crime. His policies regarding corruption and violence are, among others, to call for a new constitution, restructure the judiciary and set free convicted felons, who didn’t commit a violent crime.

When considering that the areas that most concern Brazilians are healthcare, violence and corruption, it is not hard to understand why in the first round of the presidential elections Bolsonaro ended only 4 percentage points shy of securing the required 50% of votes to win the Presidency. Since he didn’t, a second round between him and Haddad, who ended in second place with 29%, will take place on October 28th 2018.

Brazilian politics and political discourse have become very tribal and polarized. Nuance has been killed and buried a long time ago.

People stopped defending policies or ideologies, they now defend teams. But what has completely escaped the understanding of PT, its supporters and anti-Bolsonaro voters is that pointing fingers and calling the other side fascist every time they express their grievances will not take them very far. PT is trying to frame this as a fight between democracy and autocracy, between good and evil. But they can’t do that while they are seen as the root of Brazil’s problems. They can’t be both cause and solution. In this limited rhetorical arena that is Brazilian political discourse the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has never rung truer in the ears of many voters. As long as PT and its supporters keep pushing Bolsonaro (and particularly his potential voters) towards the extremes and keep painting him as a radical autocrat, they are only confirming the suspicions about their own party in the eyes of most of the Brazilian population. That this is not a fight between democracy and fascism. This is a fight between order and crime, between progress and corruption.

Check out Part 3 here!

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

References:

[1] Globo.com. 2018. “Pesquisa Ibope de 15 de outubro para presidente por sexo, idade, escolaridade, renda, região, religião e cor”. URL: https://g1.globo.com/politica/eleicoes/2018/eleicao-em-numeros/noticia/2018/10/16/pesquisa-ibope-de-15-de-outubro-para-presidente-por-sexo-idade-escolaridade-renda-regiao-religiao-e-cor.ghtml
[2] According to the currently available currency exchange data at the date of publication
[3] R7 Brasil, URL: https://noticias.r7.com/eleicoes-2018/fila-para-exames-de-saude-cresceu-63-na-gestao-haddad-em-sp-16102018