Brazil‘s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, is yet to complete his first month in office and cracks have started appearing in his eclectic electoral base.
Bolsonaro, a former military officer who was a member of the Brazilian Congress for nearly three decades without leaving a legislative trace, rose to prominence last year after securing significant support from discordant right-wing groups.
From the free market-loving members of the Free Brazil Movement (MBL) to religious fundamentalists, from the followers of the far-right “philosopher” and astrologer Olavo de Carvalho to the traditionally conservative, promilitary interventionists, almost all of Brazil’s prominent right-wing activists united behind the populist politician. Even Integralistas, a fascist movement founded in Brazil in the 1930s, and the monarchists declared their support for “Bolsonarism”.
Bolsonaro managed to unite groups with such diverse political, economic and social objectives by promising to fight corruption, “gender ideology” and “cultural Marxism”. He pledged to deliver a right-wing utopia – defined by machismo, nationalism, Christian fundamentalism and aggressive capitalism – but refrained from disclosing exactly how he was going to bring about this transformation.
Throughout his election campaign, the populist politician never put forward a detailed economic or foreign policy agenda or explained how he would fulfil the largely contradictory expectations of the groups that made his presidency possible.
Now, 30 days into his first term, Bolsonaro still doesn’t seem to have a clear plan of action that would allow him to maintain his popularity, keep all his supporters happy and change the fortunes of Latin America’s largest economy. As a result, despite favourable opinion polls and a stock index reaching record highs, the united right-wing base that gave Bolsonaro the presidency appears to be slowly disintegrating.
After taking office, Bolsonaro immediately made a series of cabinet appointments to please all the groups that supported his candidacy.
The president made anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro his justice minister to satisfy those who voted for him with the hope he would end corruption. He appointed liberal banker Paulo Guedes the economy minister in line with the demands of the big business lobby.
Bolsonaro gave evangelical pastor Damares Alves the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights to please his most conservative supporters. He also had right-wing scholar Ricardo Velez Rodriguez take up the position of minister of education and Ernesto Araujo, a diplomat who believes he is fighting a crusade in defence of Christianity, become foreign minister to please various other conservative groups, including de Carvalho’s followers.
However, even these strategic appointments could not stop his electoral base from fracturing and some of his allies from questioning the president’s ability to deliver on his promises.
The business circles in Brazil put their support behind the far-right politician mainly because he promised to revive the country’s “sluggish” economy, pass business-friendly reforms, downsize the public sector, reduce the fiscal deficit and tackle its unsustainably expensive pension system.
However, a month into his term, Bolsonaro still has not presented any details of his proposed economic reforms and policies, which has caused jitters in the market and a sense of alarm within the president’s inner circle. Moreover, he continues to make controversial and contradictory statements, leading many to question his commitment to making Brazil “business friendly”.
Only three days after taking office, for example, Bolsonaro said that he would increase the minimum retirement age to 62 for men and 57 for women – numbers significantly lower than the ones promised by his predecessor – signalling that he is planning to water down his campaign promises on radical pension reform.
On the same day, the president also announced that he has reservations about the planned sale of a stake in local jet-maker Embraer to US aircraft maker Boeing, causing the value of its stock to plunge by five percent. Days later, however, his government approved the sale.
In mid-January, Bolsonaro faced a mini ideological crisis. An official visit of MPs from Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party to China angered some of his supporters. While doing business with China is good for the big capitalists backing the government, de Carvalho, his supporters and many others saw that business trip to a communist country as a “betrayal”.
They emphasised the fact that many right-wing Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro because they believed he would pursue an anti-communist, right-wing agenda. The president had indeed made his anti-communist stance a major speaking point during his election campaign, even declaring that he is supporting US President Donald Trump’s trade war against China.
Yet, as much as Bolsonaro admires Trumpism and hates communism, he can’t do away with the fact that China is Brazil’s top trading partner, importing more than twice as much Brazilian goods as the US does. How the Brazilian president is going to keep his anti-commie and pro-business supporters happy at the same time is anyone’s guess.
Losing the war on corruption before waging it
The widespread public disenchantment over a series of mega corruption scandals that tarnished two Workers’ Party governments was a major factor that contributed to Bolsonaro’s election victory in October.
However, in his first month in office, the new president has failed to make much progress in the fight against corruption. On the contrary, Bolsonaro and his family have faced a series of corruption scandals, leaving many of his supporters disturbed and disillusioned.
An investigation by the Financial Activities Control Council (COAF) recently unearthed suspicious financial transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars made to the bank accounts of the president’s oldest son and elected Senator, Flavio Bolsonaro, and the first lady, Michelle. The payments were made by Flavio’s former driver Fabricio Queiroz, who claimed that he obtained the money he transferred to the president’s family legally, by selling used cars.
Another series of suspicious cash transfers worth nearly $30,000 were also made to Flavio’s bank account. The COAF report on these payments showed that 48 payments of 2,000 reais ($531) each were deposited into his bank account between June and July 2017, when he was a Rio de Janeiro state legislator.
The report said the origin of the money was unclear, but the fact that all transfers were made at a bank at Rio’s state legislative assembly, where Flavio worked, made them suspicious. The senator defended himself by saying the money he deposited was from “the sale of an apartment”.
A ‘lower clergy’ politician
In light of the corruption scandals surrounding the Bolsonaro family, the MPs’ “ill-advised” trip to China and the president’s apparent lack of vision regarding the future of Brazil’s economy, some of his supporters appear a bit less enthusiastic about his presidency now.
Many of those who had been vocal on social media previously are staying silent about these mishaps. Some are even saying that they are ashamed of their vote.
For those of us who saw through Bolsonaro’s act last year, neither the corruption scandals, nor his lack of vision and consistency seems surprising. After all, he has long been a textbook case of what is known in Brazil as “lower clergy” (baixo clero): politicians with little power, vision or clout, motivated not by a desire to influence the future of the country, but by a determination to stay in office at any cost so as to line their pockets.
Last year, Bolsonaro took advantage of the people’s search for an alternative to mainstream politicians and the rise of far-right populism across the globe and managed to catapult himself to the front line of Brazilian politics. However, now that he is president, he has nothing to offer to the nation other than corruption, hate speech and empty rhetoric.
Perhaps the fact that he has already started shedding supporters might spring him into action and get him to finally come up with an actual plan of how to govern the country and restart the economy. Or perhaps he’ll keep going with his “lower clergy” ways until 2022 or until the country collapses.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.