international analysis and commentary

Bolsonaro: the tricky job of a populist in power


Last October, Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidential election promising radical and high-speed reforms. The majority of Brazilians, tired of the status-quo, believed that Bolsonaro was their only hope to reduce violence and corruption while boosting the economy after years of profound crisis. Yet, after more than 100 days in office, the honeymoon period between the former officer and Brazil may be experiencing an awkward turn. According to the latest Datafolha poll, Bolsonaro is recording the lowest approval rating for a first-time president in the initial 100 days in power in Brazil’s recent democratic history.

Although it is undoubtedly too early to judge his overall performance and future support, it is interesting to understand the reasons behind this trend.


Live by social media, die by social media

Bolsonaro’s electoral strategy was grounded on coordinated and unorthodox campaigns via social media channels such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Using these channels, he delivered sometimes offensive and incendiary, yet powerful and effective messages. Bolsonaro largely avoided appearing on the main television stations, preferring to reach Brazilians through their smartphones instead. Bolsonaro still uses social media as a medium for his government’s leadership but, as he is now the main ruling figure of the country, he risks affecting Brazil’s reputation worldwide, delivering chest-thumping messages rather than bringing nuance to global discourse.

“Brazil above everything, God above everyone” – one of the most used lines of Bolsonaro’s political narrative on social media


On March 10th, for example, the President personally attacked a journalist from the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo who was investigating his son, Flàvio Bolsonaro, a senator from Rio de Janiero. #EstadãoMentiu (“Estado lied”) quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, forcing the journalist to leave social media after receiving threats. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism and the Brazilian Bar Association denounced the incident because the President was using “a position of power to try and intimidate media vehicles and journalists.”

Although this approach was extremely successful during the election, an increasing share of his more moderate supporters seem to be growing unappreciative of such an aggressive style of communication.

According to an analysis carried out by Estado, of Bolsonaro’s 515 tweets between January and March, only five were about the pension reform the President is proposing. Ninety-five tweets congratulated friends and allies, 51 were ideological, 31 criticized the press and 30 counterbalanced critics. The question here is if Bolsonaro’s social media strategy is either useful or successful to promote his reform plans and rally people to support his projects.

If social media work perfectly to embrace and address people’s anger, they may be not the right medium to broach and politically sell complicated and, sometimes, unpopular reforms.

The first 100 days in office: a balance

There is widespread consensus that Bolsonaro’s top priority is to reform the country’s pension system. In the current imbalanced system, pensions account for around a third of public spending – 4% of Brazil’s GDP. Without a change, the federal pension bill will increase to 19.5% of GDP by 2040, due to the population ageing.

The government’s proposal is expected to yield savings up to 1.2 trillion reis in the next decade, by increasing the minimum retirement age for both public and private sector employees from early 50s to 65 for men and 62 for women. In addition, a new contribution system will be implemented, requiring employees to set aside a share of their salary in individual saving accounts which will be managed by public and private entities. The new rules would phase in over 14 years.

Apart from pension reforms, the plan also includes limits on collecting more than one benefit and a – negligible – increase of taxes for higher incomes. This effort, however, does not seem to sufficiently mitigate the structural imbalances of a very unequal system. With the current rules, for example, the top 10% normally pays a fifth of their income in taxes, while the bottom 10% pays in a third.

Although in a recent interview Vice-President Hamilton Mourao declared that the reform will be approved by August, the proposal will most likely be weakened in parliament, forcing the government to make concessions. The government will indeed need to gain the support of at least three-fifths of the lower house, or 308 of its 513 members, and the same proportion in the 81-seat senate, as the proposal requires changes to Brazil’s Constitution. The rating agency Moody’s believes that even in the case the proposal will be modified, reducing public savings to 600-800 billion reis, investors would nevertheless appreciate the effort.

Paulo Guedes, Brazil’s Minister of the Economy, is also claiming that there are further reforms awaiting Brazil. Important steps towards tax code simplification and lower import tariffs should be taken in the coming months. However, a privatization campaign following market demand is will likely not happen in the short term. Guedes will have the difficult job of persuading key members of the government – in particular the army interest group of Bolsonaro’s party – to privatize strategic assets such as Petrobras, Brazil’s semi-public petrol multinational company.

In the meantime, on April 11th, the government approved a new package of reforms which, interestingly, included the implementation of an end-year bonus for Bolsa Familia beneficiaries. This act was surprising as Guedes strongly criticized the cash transfer programme introduced by former President Lula during the electoral campaign, advocating drastic reductions in term of beneficiaries and amounts.

Inequality in urban areas is among Brazil’s main issues


One the first acts of Bolsonaro’s office was to loosen regulatory restrictions on gun possession – as promised in the electoral campaign – reforming the 2003 Statute of Disarmament. The law acknowledges that some groups – such as military officers or people living in rural areas or in violent urban areas – have the necessity (efetiva necessidade) to own a gun at home or at their places of work. Today, Brazilians belonging to these groups who are older than 25 years can purchase a gun without having the legal requirement to prove why they need it. The permit term is also raised from five to ten years. However, the reform does not change the carry permit regulations. Whether the new framework improves public security and safety remains to be seen.

On another front, Bolsonaro’s struggle against corruption seems to be going through some difficulties. There is an ongoing investigation on bank transactions involving Flàvio Bolsonaro. In December, federal police found suspicious transfers – worth 1.2 million reis – from a bank account owned by Fabrício Queiroz, at the time Flavio Bolsonaro’s driver. Some payments were also addressed to Michelle Bolsonaro, the Brazilian first lady. These anomalous bank transactions could hide an illegal practice of hiring no-show employees and retaining a large part of their salary.

In addition, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo recently wrote an article accusing Bolsonaro’s party, the Social Liberal Party, of enlisting fake candidates to fulfil gender quotas and receive public campaign funds. As a result of this report, the President fired the former Chairman of the party, Gustavo Bebianno, from his cabinet position.

Investors and international companies are closely observing the pension bill’s passage as a test of Bolsonaro’s power to implement his broader reform agenda. After 100 days in office, Bolsonaro still needs to show to his electors, opposition and international actors in which direction he will lead the country.