Bolsonaro Wins Brazilian Presidential Elections, Prompting Scrutiny Over Next Steps

1 November 2018

Jair Bolsonaro, a member of Brazil’s Social Liberal Party (PSL, by its acronym in Portuguese), won the second and final round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday 28 October and will take office on 1 January 2019, with the result expected to bring about various significant, though still uncertain, changes for South America’s largest economy and most populous country. 

Bolsonaro faced off in the second round against Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), with the final vote count showing that Bolsonaro had over 55.2 percent support, relative to Haddad’s 44.8 percent. The two candidates had squared off earlier this month in a crowded first round election that showed clear divergences in approach between the people vying to succeed outgoing president Michel Temer. (See Bridges Weekly, 11 October 2018

Bolsonaro, a military veteran and long-time lawmaker, has courted controversy both during his campaign and during his tenure in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, which is the lower house of the country’s national legislature. Along with expressing nostalgia for the days of Brazil’s harsh military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964-1986, he is known for having repeatedly made offensive comments insulting people based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, fuelling fears that Brazil could be entering a profoundly challenging and destabilising chapter in its history. 

“What has happened today in the elections is not the victory of a single party, but the celebration of an entire country in favour of freedom,” said Bolsonaro in his victory speech, according to an informal translation of his recorded remarks by FRANCE 24 English. 

He also called for Brazil to seek a particular type of future, led by a “government which creates the right conditions for growth for everybody.” For example, he called for limiting bureaucracy and waste, also pledging to lower Brazil’s national debt, and that Brazil would focus on “bilateral relationships with countries that can add value to Brazil.” 

The Brazilian economy has faced a challenging few years, including undergoing what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Deemed to be a “severe recession” during the years 2015 and 2016. 

The Washington-based agency issued a statement earlier this year suggesting that 2018 and 2019 could see Brazil’s GDP growth rates hit 1.8 and 2.5 percent, respectively, which it credited to “a recovery in domestic consumption and investment.” The Fund’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) from this past October noted, however, that Brazil and various other Latin American emerging markets are experiencing “growth easing,” among other pressures. 

From trade and the economy to the environment and climate change, Bolsonaro’s next steps are expected to draw hefty scrutiny from both the regional and international communities. For example, the Brazilian President-elect’s plans for his country’s future participation in the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change are also up in the air, given conflicting statements that he has made throughout the campaign. 

While he initially pledged that he would withdraw Brazil from the international climate accord, he told reporters just days before the election that he would no longer be pursuing this approach, according to comments reported by Reuters. 

International responses

Regional leaders have largely issued pledges to work with the incoming Bolsonaro government, even as various other stakeholders, such as environmental advocates and economic experts, have expressed scepticism or outright criticism over the president-elect’s plans and expected governing style. 

“The Argentine government… congratulates Jair Bolsonaro for his victory in the second voting round,” said the Argentine Foreign Ministry in a statement, describing the elections as a testament to the “strength of Brazil’s democratic institutions.” 

The Argentine government also declared its support for working with the incoming Brazilian leadership, with the hopes of “deepening ties between both countries and, together, continue working in favour of the well-being of all Argentines and Brazilians.” 

Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay are all members of Mercosur, a regional cooperation mechanism and customs bloc, which sets out a common external tariff and also negotiates trade agreements on a collective basis, barring some exceptions. 

Previously Bolsonaro’s team had indicated that they would hope to either slash the coalition’s common external tariff or make it easier for the coalition’s members to negotiate trade deals individually, though incoming finance chief Paulo Guedes has since said that bolstering international trade with all partners, slashing debt levels, and privatising state-owned companies would take precedent over any specific overtures towards Mercosur members. 

Bolsonaro’s team has expressed interest in deeper ties with members of another regional bloc, the Pacific Alliance, and has received the welcome of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, whose country is one of the Alliance’s members. The Chilean leader has extended an invitation to Bolsonaro via Twitter. He later confirmed that he had spoken to Bolsonaro directly and confirmed plans for a visit, and that the “frank and useful discussion” also addressed next steps for a recent free trade agreement that both sides finished negotiating earlier this month, bringing to a close a process that began this past March. 

US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, wrote on social media site Twitter that “Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!” Trump was not more specific on the trade point, however. Various commentators have noted the similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump, both in tone and in their embrace of populist rhetoric and policy. 

ICTSD reporting; “Brazil's Bolsonaro scraps pledge to quit Paris climate deal,” REUTERS, 25 October 2018; “After Nafta Rewrite, Brazil’s Bolsonaro Eyes Mercosur Changes,” BLOOMBERG, 17 October 2018; “Future economy minister says Mercosur not a priority for Bolsonaro's Brazil,” MERCOSUR, 30 October 2018; “Jair Bolsonaro poised to upend Brazil’s foreign policy,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 30 October 2018. 

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