Brazil’s presidential election resulted in the victory of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to crush rampant crime and corruption with an iron fist. But the president-elect may find his lofty campaign pledges difficult to fulfill.
Bolsonaro, a former soldier turned long-time congressman from Rio de Janeiro, easily swept to victory in the October 28 run-off vote, defeating his leftist opponent Fernando Haddad by a ten percent margin.
The president-elect put public security at the forefront of his campaign. He called for giving security forces and civilians freer rein to use deadly force against suspected criminals, and advocated for tougher penalties for convicts.
Bolsonaro also linked rising levels of crime and violence nationwide to Brazil’s deeply embedded corruption.
“The evils and harms of corruption affect the population in every way,” he tweeted recently. “This is what we want to stop. A corrupt government stimulates crime in all areas.”
But Bolsonaro’s plans for public security are based on flawed premises and don’t directly address the underworld dynamics driving much of the violence in Brazil.
Moreover, the president-elect’s pledge to root out corruption is likely to face significant political and practical obstacles that could hinder — or even derail — efforts to fight graft.
Bolsonaro used the presidential campaign to double down on his self-styled image as a tough-on-crime politician. He even said police who kill suspects in the line of duty should not be scrutinized, but instead should be given awards.
However, many of the president-elect’s security proposals — like loosening gun laws, providing more resources to security forces, and reducing the age at which juveniles can be criminally charged as adults — would require congressional approval. The controversial nature of many of these initiatives could mean that the legislature will stall or water down their implementation.
In addition, Bolsonaro and his team haven’t indicated possible candidates for some top security posts in the new administration, such as the chief of the federal police or the head of the Security Ministry, raising questions about who will be tasked with realizing the president-elect’s agenda.
And even if Bolsonaro manages to implement his plans, they aren’t likely to succeed. As analyst Daniel Cerqueira pointed out in a recent article, the president-elect’s main security proposals are seriously flawed.
“I don’t think he has a plan, at least not in the security realm,” Cerqueira told InSight Crime. “He only has some sparse, ideologically motivated ideas, which now need to be matured.”
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Ironically, during the campaign, Bolsonaro largely avoided talking about Brazil’s main criminal threat, the prison gang known as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). But his security platform could be a boon for the group.
Toughening criminal penalties wouldn’t address the fact that most crimes in Brazil aren’t even investigated, much less prosecuted. And it would contribute to the country’s already swollen prison population, which is a major source of gang recruitment.
Loosening gun restrictions would not only put more potential for deadly force in the hands of a society that already sees more murders every year than any other country in the world, but it would also aid the expansion of the black market for firearms, which is a source of illicit revenue for the PCC.
Additionally, giving police free rein to kill criminal suspects could spur criminal groups to fight back against the state, and could reduce civilian trust in security forces even further, making day-to-day policing even harder.
Cerqueira said Bolsonaro’s plan to fight crime head-on could backfire.
“I don’t doubt that it will cause an increase in violence,” he told InSight Crime. “This is Brazil’s history for the last 40 years.”
Corruption was another major theme of this year’s election, and Bolsonaro predictably promised that he would pursue a no-holds-barred offensive to root out graft.
“There won’t be any more space for corruption,” he said shortly before the election. “The clean-up now will be much broader.”
But again, Bolsonaro’s agenda faces substantial obstacles.
His main anti-graft proposal is the implementation of what are known as the “10 measures against corruption,” a list of proposals originally put forth in 2015 by the Attorney General’s Office. However, legislation codifying the provisions has been working its way through Congress, which has seemed intent on watering it down in order to protect the interests of the scores of legislators suspected of corruption and other crimes.
Matthew Taylor, a professor at American University, said Bolsonaro will have a tough time garnering support for his anti-corruption plans, especially since he has promised to end the practice of handing out appointments to important government positions as a means of political horse-trading.
“He’s signaled that he’s going to take a hard line, but the problem is that the coalition that he wants to back him in Congress is going to demand political appointments and is going to push back against efforts to shrink the state,” Taylor told InSight Crime.
“The political coalition that he has is not really strong enough to overcome opposition in Congress, and the proposed measures are not really realistic,” he added.
Taylor also said Bolsonaro may be pressured to focus on problems other than corruption.
“There are going to be a thousand demands on him by the time he takes office,” he said. “I think corruption is important, but it’s not going to be a central issue. Public security will probably be more pressing.”
Photo: Silva Izquierdo/AP