Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected president, represents a leap of faith into the unknown for Brazil. With reactionary rhetoric and populist appeals against crime and corruption, Bolsonaro pitched himself to the Brazilian electorate as a drastic break from the past 16 years — and a move away from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party (PT).
To deliver on the mandate he has been handed, Bolsonaro will need to pass legislation, which will depend on forming coalitions in the National Congress. The judiciary and its role in prosecuting crimes will also be important — but the courts could get tough on the new president, too. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper exposed an illegal operation that systematically spread messages against Bolsonaro’s opponent, the PT candidate Fernando Haddad; Bolsonaro’s campaign is alleged to have been involved, and the judiciary and federal police are investigating. In short, conflict with other branches of government seems likely. And that is without even considering the future of the economy or support of the military, which looks set to be heavily involved in the administration.
These tensions suggest Bolsonaro’s tenure will be extremely unpredictable. What happens now? Here are three possible scenarios and what each might mean for Brazil:
1. Disaster for Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro, who comes from outside Brazil’s two main parties, the PT and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), is in a fragile position. The legislature’s fragmentation is at historic highs, with 30 parties elected to the Chamber of Deputies (for a whopping effective number of parties score of 16.4). Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) has the second-highest number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies but just 10 percent of the total representation. And the PSL is made up of political rookies, which could make it difficult for Bolsonaro to navigate the peculiarities of Congress. A similar situation ended up sinking Brazil’s first president after re-democratization, Fernando Collor de Mello, on Sept. 29, 1992.
Brazil’s economy is also fragile. Unemployment only recently dipped below 12 percent — and the slide could mean the unemployed are giving up on finding work. Bolsonaro has signaled that he is willing to outsource his economic policy to Paulo Guedes, who has a doctorate from the University of Chicago and who may push free-market economic fixes, but will the new president — and Brazil — have the patience to fix the economy? Pensions urgently need reforms. And any global downturn or economic crisis would be a real concern, as Brazil would be vulnerable because it is a major exporter of commodities.
Bolsonaro’s combative style could lead to conflicts with both the Supreme Court and legislature. A significant percentage of his electoral base is loyal to him personally, but evangelical support could evaporate if social reforms fall short. Failing to improve security could also alienate law-and-order types, and his anti-PT strategic voters could jump ship at any time.
Given the ambivalence of some of his supporters toward democracy and the presence of a retired general as his vice president, paralysis in the face of a political or economic crisis could bring a premature end to Bolsonaro’s term. And if he picks too many fights, Congress could also act, making him the third impeachment victim since Brazil reestablished democracy in 1989.
2. Success for Bolsonaro
Or the opposite could happen, as Bolsonaro is coming from a position of strength. He won a decisive 10-point victory over Haddad in the second round of the election Oct. 28. The three largest states elected his allies as governors and the PSL emerged from obscurity to become the second-largest party in the Chamber of Deputies. Many of the other parties are not explicitly opposed to Bolsonaro and could be convinced to support his initiatives.
Bolsonaro could start off by throwing a bone to his evangelical and socially conservative base by offering socially oriented legislation. If he takes advantage of his honeymoon period to keep his big-business base happy, he could build up a head of steam that will be difficult to stop — particularly if the economy continues to improve.
Neither Congress nor the judiciary are popular, so when the eventual conflict comes, Bolsonaro might be able to intimidate them into submission. His son, a federal deputy, even opined, famously, that it wouldn’t take an army to close down the Supreme Court — just a private and a corporal would suffice.
Bolsonaro has already floated the idea of increasing the number of judges on the Supreme Court, adding his allies. His vice president floated the idea of a self-coup, or autogolpe — like Peru under Alberto Fujimori, closing Congress if it proved to be too much of an obstacle. If Bolsonaro approaches the 2022 election with a strong coalition, he could take Brazil ever closer to a delegative democracy — where Congress and the judiciary are largely sidelined.
3. Partial reform and polarization
Despite Bolsonaro’s authoritarian style and anti-system discourse, he could be less combative than many observers fear. Like every other president since re-democratization, he could become co-opted by the system, distributing federal money and pork to pass laws through Congress but without being able to intimidate legislators with his support among the public and military. This would guarantee some legislative success but could eat away at his support.
It could also be that Brazil steers clear of economic crisis but continues to see an underwhelming economic recovery. Long-term structural problems such as pension reform would probably go unaddressed. This scenario would see Bolsonaro lose part of his anti-PT support but keep his hardcore supporters on board. In this case, he very well could become a “Trump of the tropics” — largely ineffective, extremely polarizing and with an outside chance at reelection in 2022.
What does this mean for Brazil?
Bolsonaro’s first steps as president-elect seem to indicate that he might follow Path No. 3. He has named Sérgio Moro, the key figure behind the Operation Car Wash investigation to be his justice minister, which could either strengthen the investigation into government corruption or compromise it.
Either outright failure or blinding success for Bolsonaro — Scenarios 1 or 2 — could spell disaster for the country as a whole, damaging democratic institutions and setting Brazil on a path from which it could take decades to recover.
In fact, the best outcome possible would probably be mediocrity. If Bolsonaro becomes an ineffective leader but can prevent outright chaos from taking hold, it would at least stave off the worst on both sides.
Ryan Lloyd is a postdoctoral fellow in political science and international relations at the University of São Paulo.