We knew South America’s left-wing ‘Pink Tide’ was in retreat, but the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is the highest watermark so far for the still incoming right-wing ‘Blue Tide.’
President Elect Bolsonaro takes office on January 1st. This businessman, son of an army officer, openly pines for the bygone days of military dictatorship. His speeches are often condemned for being racist, misogynistic, and homophobic. He appears to be part Trump, part Duterte and while that puts off many people, 55% of the voting electorate thought otherwise.
His first priority? He wants to get tough on crime. One policy suggestion is to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. He says he will ramp up the abilities of the army and police to take on the gangs partially responsible for one of the highest homicide rates in the world. When Duterte first came to power in the Philippines he threatened to simply shoot drug dealers and not bother with trials. Not everyone took him seriously, but that is what has been happening, and although the rule of law has been thrown out of the window by the police death squads, the policy still has support from large sections of Filipino society. Bolsonaro has watched that with interest.
He also intends to weaken protections for the Amazon rainforest to help grow the economy, enforce greater scrutiny of Chinese investment in Brazil, and increase free trade. He’s even left the door open for a military intervention in neighbouring Venezuela which is slowly collapsing. No wonder President Trump hailed the coming to power of what might be the most right-wing leader elected this century. He called Bolsonaro to congratulate him and tweeted they had agreed to work closely together on “trade, military and everything else”.
The new man’s influence is likely radiate out from the world’s 8th largest economy to the entire region. If he makes a success of his term in office he looks destined to be the figurehead of the ‘Blue Tide’ which was years in the making.
In the mid 2000s, the South American political map was very different. The left-wing ‘Pink Tide’ included Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. This encompassed three-quarters of South America’s population. Now, just the first 3 remain in the pink camp if not in the pink. Uruguay has a liberal centrist government, but the rest have fallen to the right, and in the case of Brazil, the extreme right.
There are many reasons why. Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela is not regarded as an inspiring model for socialism and if military intervention comes, several countries, including Colombia may support it. Despite the ‘Pink Tide’ having some success in reducing poverty, unemployment levels across the region remained high, and rampant inequality continued, indeed continues, to plague South America. Also, the left-wing governments were mired in corruption scandals. Remember Brazil’s President Lula? — he’s in jail for accepting bribes. Argentina’s former President Kirchner? She’s just been indicted on bribery charges. A generation of ‘socialist’ politicians proved to enjoy the riches of office as much as the right wingers who proceeded them.
Specific to Brazil is another factor. With a population of 211 million people, it remains the worlds largest Catholic nation. However, 30% of people now identify as evangelical Protestants – up from 10% just thirty years ago, and they mostly backed Bolsonaro.
On top of this South America is not immune from the crisis of representation fuelling right-wing populism across the globe. As in the United States, the EU, and elsewhere, anxieties over globalisation and the mass movement of peoples has led to a decrease in support for mainstream politicians.
Bolsonaro is the latest of the so-called ‘strong men’ to stride into that gap bringing with him the usual promises to clean out the sewers and restore traditional Christian values. In a continent of believers most Latin American leaders play the God card. To this day Lula sits in his prison cell clutching a crucifix and praying with visitors that if the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away then it’s about time he giveth to Lulu once more and let him out.
That won’t happen if Bolsonaro has God’s ear. One of the first things he did after his victory speech was hold a televised prayer meeting with supporters from his home. His campaign slogan had been ‘Brazil above Everything – God above everyone’. At the prayer meeting, he quoted St John ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’. He knows one truth – in the Kingdom of the Corrupt, the populist can be King.