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Bolsonaro’s First Hundred Days: A Short and Fractious Honeymoon

Nick Burns
Bolsonaro’s First Hundred Days: A Short and Fractious Honeymoon

Last November at the Wilson Center, Eurasia Group expert Christopher Garman predicted President Jair Bolsonaro would have a “short honeymoon” and encounter a challenging public opinion climate. Garman was right. By late March, only 34 percent of Brazilians thought Bolsonaro was doing a “good or great job”—down from 49 percent in January, and the lowest rating after three months in office for any first-term president since 1990.

The end of the administration’s first hundred days in office on April 11 presents an opportunity to look past the highly polarized political atmosphere and take stock of what the new government has accomplished so far, in concrete terms.

It makes sense to evaluate the government on its own terms. Bolsonaro’s campaign promised an administration that would focus on four main areas: combating crime and corruption, promoting conservative values (especially in areas like gun access and education), promulgating fiscal reform, and realigning foreign policy. The government can credit itself with making certain steps towards its goals in each area, but few of its gains have been consolidated—and with a hundred days come and gone, consolidation will be all the more difficult from now on.

Public security and anticorruption were paramount issues during the campaign, helping Bolsonaro to rally a country buffeted by high rates of violent crime and frustrated after years of corruption scandals implicating wide swaths of the Brazilian political class. The government’s marquee policy initiative in the area is Justice Minister Sérgio Moro’s anti-crime, anti-corruption program of legislation.

Besides reforms such as allowing criminals to be imprisoned after one appeal, and facilitating plea bargains for criminals willing to provide information to prosecutors, the program borrows from Bolsonaro’s campaign rhetoric in making it possible for judges to reduce or vacate the sentences of police officers who kill in the line of duty due to the “excessive course of excusable fear, surprise, or violent emotion.”

With police killings having risen by more than 100 percent compared to five years ago, controversy remains over whether lethal force employed by police forces is part of the problem or the part of the solution to Brazil’s security crisis—a debate which came to the fore again recently when soldiers shot dead an innocent musician in Rio de Janeiro in April.

Moro’s program is currently on hold until a pension reform bill can pass through the federal legislature, as Vice President Mourão confirmed during his talk at the Wilson Center in early April. Moreover it remains unclear exactly how much support Moro’s program commands among Brazilians. A Datafolha poll was interpreted by newspapers as demonstrating a majority of Brazilians were against key aspects of the program, but Moro retorted by correctly pointing out its questions did not directly refer to his proposed legislation.

What was clear in the poll results, however, is that a majority of Brazilians are against the gun-ownership liberalization which Bolsonaro wasted no time in delivering once he assumed office. Fulfilling a campaign promise popular with his base of supporters, Bolsonaro signed a decree on January 15 that made it easier for Brazilians to obtain guns. Support for the measure does not appear to extend far beyond his base. Datafolha has asked Brazilians whether they believe gun ownership ought to be prohibited since November 2013. The percentage who agreed dropped as low as 55 percent in June 2017, but has never fallen below half, and as of April has risen to 64 percent.

Another key campaign promise under the heading of conservative values had to do with the “education without party” drive to rid public schools of perceived left-wing influence. An important area for rallying Bolsonaro’s conservative base, education has been a problem spot for the administration. Education Minister Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez was buffeted by successive scandals, one involving an email to schools instructing teachers to film students reciting Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan, and found himself opposed by both hard-core factions associated with the administration and opposition legislators. Fired by Bolsonaro on April 5, he was replaced by Abraham Weintraub, an economist who served on the president’s transition team and had been working in the executive branch.

Less important for Bolsonaro’s base, but of vital importance for the economic future of the country, is pension reform. Draft legislation containing changes to Brazil’s extremely generous pension system, authored by economy “super-minister” Paulo Guedes, is a centerpiece of the government’s agenda to boost the Brazilian economy. Analysts agree it is necessary but not sufficient: it is long overdue and only a first step towards fiscal consolidation, but also a sine qua non for growth, preserving the potential of Paulo Guedes’s agenda of economic reform, and maintaining investor confidence. Pension reform, however, was not a key plank of Bolsonaro’s platform during the campaign last year, and voters appear to be split over the measure.

Having raised onlookers’ hopes by presenting a draft of pension reform legislation to Congress on February 20, Bolsonaro has not impressed with his follow-up. Bolsonaro and Justice Minister Moro clashed in late March with the powerful Speaker of the House of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, clouding the future of pension reform passage. In Washington in mid-April after a bruising session of testimony to the Brazilian Congress that ended in shouting, Guedes insisted the reform would pass before the end of the first semester of 2019 but admitted Bolsonaro himself was not “in love with the pension reform.” Passage by mid-year seems increasingly in doubt, as recently passage of the bill through a House committee came belatedly and only with modifications, while markets lost much of their enthusiasm.

Foreign policy is the area where the most conspicuous advances have been made, but even there much remains in flux. At a joint press conference in the Rose Garden, President Trump declared his intention to designate Brazil a major non-NATO ally. After decades of frostiness in the bilateral relationship, observers of U.S.–Brazil relations hope the strong alignment between Bolsonaro and President Trump in both the content and style of their politics can lay groundwork for stronger ties and provide mutual benefits that transcend political party and outlast both administrations.

As Trump pledged to support Brazil’s bid for membership in the OECD, these hopes rose. But as analysts warned, OECD membership for Brazil remains far off and will be reduced to a distant aspiration—along with the rest of Paulo Guedes’s agenda—if pension reform fails to pass in the near future. Bolsonaro’s full-throated defense of Trump in the Rose Garden, and his proclaimed assurance that Trump would win a second term, however, raised fears that his taking sides in American politics could hurt chances for closer ties if the US presidency were to change hands in 2020.

No truly significant agreements were signed, but a one-year safeguards agreement for American technology to be used at a Brazilian Air Force base at Alcântara raised hopes for a longer-term deal that could see the American space industry cut costs by launching satellites from the Brazilian base, which is closer to space because of its proximity to the Equator. Long a desideratum in U.S.–Brazil relations, a previously struck Alcântara deal foundered in the Brazilian legislature for largely ideological reasons during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Looking back over Bolsonaro’s first three months in office, the trip to the United States stand out as a highlight, while chaos within the administration remains a lowlight. The biggest test remains the fate of the pension reform in the legislature, which is anything but clear. Whether it can pass by the end of the year in a relatively intact form will decide, perhaps more than any other single factor, whether these first hundred days will be remembered as halting steps towards achieving the administration’s policy goals, or as stumbles.

Image by Alan Santos via Agência Brasil

About the Author

Nick Burns

Nick Burns

Staff Intern
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Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors.  Read more