Order and progress? Bolsonaro’s election and the prospects for Brazil and its relationship with the world from 2019

The Brazilian flag is marked by the motto “order and progress”, inspired by Comte’s positivist thoughts. The country’s next president, Jair Bolsonaro not only has used “order and progress” as one of his mottos (as seen in his Strategic Plan)(1), he has also claimed the colors of the Brazilian flag as his own. With a strong antagonistic rhetoric towards his opponent and a promise of saving the flag from becoming “communist-red”, Bolsonaro won 55% of the valid votes and was elected president of Brazil on October 28th 2018.  

Bolsonaro, from the Social Liberal Party (PSL), is a retired Army captain who has been a congressman for the last 27 years. During campaign, he described himself as an ‘outsider’, and as the only one who could truly fight the establishment. His extreme conservative rhetoric resonated among Brazilians who had been facing years of recession, political instability and corruption scandals. According to Bolsonaro and his followers, the ones to blame for the chaos were the ones disputing the presidency against him: the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT). PT was the head of the executive for four consecutive mandates – the last one cut short by a process of impeachment. This widespread dissatisfaction and the finding of a ‘culprit’ resulted in a conservative turn evidenced also by the new composition of the National Congress. Traditional parties from the center of the political spectrum have all lost seats and the Congress has now become more fragmented and leaning towards the right. Bolsonaro’s party alone (which he joined in 2018, solely to launch his presidential campaign) is a good example of such transformation. In 2014, it held only one seat in the lower house, while in 2018 it was able to grab 52 of them. Likewise, the number of PSL senators has jumped from zero to four (2).  In such scenario, how is Bolsonaro’s administration expected to look like? 


The words “Brasil above everything and God above all” which open Bolsonaro’s Strategic Plan are evidence of the nationalist and Christian-oriented tone of his political project. According to the document, Bolsonaro’s administration will treat the private property and the family as sacred institutions; will combat corruption fiercely; and will free Brazil from “the perverse ideology of cultural Marxism, which has ruined the values of the family and the nation”.  The document states that any form of ‘differentiation’ among Brazilians will be not accepted and that education will be focused on the promotion of entrepreneurship instead of the ‘current leftist indoctrination’ and ‘sexualization’ of children. More flexible gun-laws and the reduction of the age of criminal liability (from 18 to 16 years-old) are also foreseen in Bolsonaro’s administration. The political project is promised to be executed with full protection of the freedom of speech and press and with absolute respect for the Constitution.

Bolsonaro’s economy program – developed by Paulo Guedes, an economist trained at the University of Chicago (who is likely to become Bolsonaro’s Minister of Finance) – claims that policies will be guided by the tenants of economic liberalism “for the first time since the foundation of the Republic”. The document highlights as its main goals: the reduction of bureaucracy; privatizations; the simplification and reduction of taxes; openness to foreign investments; and the cutting of state expenditure (mainly with the reduction of the number of ministries). 

Considering the new composition of the National Congress, though Bolsonaro is expected to be challenged by its fragmentation, he is still likely to find more favorable forces than antagonist ones. It is reasonable to expect that the new president’s project will slowly take off.


Despite the alleged commitment to the Constitution, in a recent visit to Brazil, the political scientist Steven Levitsky, one of the authors of “How Democracies Die” (3), claimed that Bolsonaro has enough of the features necessary to be labeled as a potential authoritarian leader (4). According to Levitsky, Bolsonaro, throughout all his political career, has rejected the democratic rules of the game, encouraged violence, and sought to delegitimize or eliminate opposition. In the 90s, soon after the end of the military regime that ran Brazil from 1964 till 1985, Bolsonaro repeatedly called for the return of the military rule; openly stated being ‘in favor of a dictatorship’; and strongly supported the closure of the National Congress (5). During his presidential campaign, he has manifested the interest in raising the number of seats in the Supreme Court from 11 to 21 – giving himself room to pack it with loyalists (6) – and has also questioned the legitimacy of the electoral system – claiming that the electronic voting machines are ‘rigged’ and he would not accept any results other than his victory (7). 

Bolsonaro’s statements also carry a strong encouragement of violence. In 1999 he claimed that things would only change in Brazil if the country would undergo a civil war which would do ‘what the military failed to do: kill thirty thousand’. He has repeatedly claimed to be “in favor of torture” and in 2016, in front of his fellow congressmen and national television, paid tribute to Col. Ustra, one of the most famous torturers of the military regime. When later questioned, Bolsonaro reinforced his position by stating that “the only mistake [of the military rule] was to have tortured instead of killing” (8). In his Strategic Plan, Bolsonaro now proposes that the killings performed by police officers in duty should be exempt from any judicial investigation.

In regards to his opponents, Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied their legitimacy (for example by refusing to debate them) (9), and has also shown explicit willingness to curtail their civil liberties. He has claimed, for example, that in his government “all kinds of activism will be extinct” (10) and called, in his Strategic Plan, for activities of social movements such as the Landless Workers’ Movement to be taken as terrorist activities. A few days before his victory, Bolsonaro told a rally that the members of the Workers’ Party would be “wiped off the map” and given two options: jail or exile (11). His positions regarding political minorities go along the same line. According to Bolsonaro, they either adapt or leave. In addition to being openly hostile to LGBT and women’s movements, he has claimed that in his government, not a single inch of land will be reserved for indigenous people and that all affirmative-action programs for racial equality will be reduced (12). 

While some political scientists – like Francis Fukuyama – agree with Levitsky, others – like Christopher Garman – say that despite his “tough personality”, Bolsonaro does not represent an actual threat to Brazilian democracy, as the country has quite strong, independent and well-established institutions which would be able to tame him (13). Regardless of the future of its democracy, Brazil is sure to expect an avalanche of internal changes and challenges. Likewise, Brazilian foreign policy and key international alliances are expected to undergo reforms. 


In his government Strategic Plan, Jair Bolsonaro entitled the section dedicated to foreign policy “the New Itamaraty” (14) (Itamaraty is the name given to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Based on his policy plan as well as on his statements in regards to international issues, we can expect a period of change in Brazilian foreign policy.

The first issue that indicates change is in relation to the country’s position regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Jair Bolsonaro has said that one of the things he intends to do as a president is to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasília, as he does not recognize it as being a state. It is expected that he will also transfer the Brazilian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, since he argued in 2017 that he finds Trump’s decision to move the American embassy appropriate and that he would do the same as president. Brazil has recognized the State of Palestine in 2010, and it has historically aligned its position to the recommendations coming from agreements taken at the United Nations (UN) level as well as to the positioning of other Latin American countries. Until now, what has been stressed is that the right of self-determination of the people needs to be recognized and that the international community must seek to reach a long-term solution to the conflict in which the two states live in peace and security, within internationally recognized and mutually agreed borders (15). 

Moreover, as Trump, Jair Bolsonaro tries to delegitimize the UN. For him, the UN is a “communist body with no purpose”. He went as far as to say that if elected, Brazil may leave the organization. He claimed “If I become president, I will leave the UN. This institution is of no use. […] It is a gathering place for communists and people who have no commitment to South America, at least” (16). We personally do not think he would go that far. It is important to stress that Brazil has been very active in the UN, since its creation, as a founding member. In 1947, a Brazilian diplomat named Oswaldo Aranha presided over the assembly that led, in 1948, to the creation of the State of Israel. The diplomat was considered fundamental to the UN’s decision to create the Jewish state in 1948. Since then, Brazil also opens the speeches’ round at the General Assembly meeting every year; this has certainly a symbolic aspect that places the country in a respected position within the organization. The country has also been regularly elected as non-permanent member for the United Nations Security Council and, in a possible reform, the country has already been considered by many countries as a legitimate candidate to become a permanent member. We believe these ties between Brazil and the UN and its bodies are too strong to be cut by any political articulation of the new president. However, he can still shift Brazil’s position and take a step backwards in relation to human rights and in relation to environmental issues. For Bolsonaro, Human Rights serve mainly the purpose of protecting criminals. He claimed that “only by transforming the culture of the defense of human rights – which [currently] defends only the right of those who were not to have such excessive representation – we will begin true social and economic development in our country” (17). In relation to environmental issues, Bolsonaro has already declared he is considering a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (18).  


Foreign policy in Lula da Silva’s government (2003 – 2010) and, to a lesser extent, in Dilma Rousseff’s government (2011 – 2016) was marked by a strong attention given to the strengthening of the relations among the Latin American countries, and the affirmation of Brazil as a geopolitical leader in the region. The American hegemony in the continent was put into question but at the same time, Brazil managed to keep good relations with the U.S. while acting as an alternative pole of influence. The Lula years were the times in which Brazil showed its greatest presence in the international scenario. With Dilma, the strategy varied: Brazilian presence in the international scenario became more modest and less priority was given to foreign policy. Moreover, even if there were some strategical changes in foreign policy from Lula to Dilma, cooperation with South American countries were kept in a position of priority in the Brazilian foreign policy agenda.(19) 

We need to bear in mind that during the majority of Lula and Dilma administration, Latin American countries were under left-wing governments. Jair Bolsonaro relies on that to argue that Brazilian foreign policy has had a strong ideological bias. For him, both Lula and Dilma have acted to support “communist dictatorships”. He argues that the days of a foreign policy led by strong ideological biases are to be soon over. His Strategic Plan, put forward during the electoral campaign, states that “in addition to deepening our integration with all Latin American brothers who are free of dictatorships, we need to redirect our partnership axis” (20). What is likely to happen is a shift in the ideological spectrum. We will very likely experience a strengthening of the relations with Paraguay, Chile, and Argentina, all of which are under right-wing governments with liberal economic policies and a conservative positioning on the social sphere. 

Finally, the path to be followed by Brazilian foreign policy from January 2019 will be also highly influenced by who will hold the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Even though Bolsonaro has already defined some of his ministers still during his campaign, the post of the Minister of Foreign Affairs is not yet known by the public. There are speculations pointing to the name of the career diplomat Ernesto Fraga Araújo. Fraga Araújo is currently the head of the department for the U.S., Canada, and Interamerican affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has, recently, published an essay entitled “Trump and the West” (21) in which he praises the American president’s discourse and argues that Trump, by defending nationalism and Christian values, is the current weapon against cultural Marxism and post-modern values. He further argues that Brazil shares nationalist and Christian values and it is, therefore, located in the West. But for him, the “West” is not a geopolitical concept, it is “a cultural-spiritual plan […] where the world’s destiny is being defined” (22); committing to “Western” values is aligning with Donald Trump. 

Hence, like in Bolsonaro’s domestic policies, we expect to see a foreign policy in which nationalism, conservativism, and liberal economic policies are to be highlighted. Bolsonaro’s enthusiasm with president Trump will be likely reflected on foreign policy and may even affect the choice of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.


What should we expect from Bolsonaro’s presidency? Order and progress? For the reasons outlined above, we see Bolsonaro’s government with caution. Brazil is living under a deep political and economic crisis and the polarization – which started with the massive protests in 2013, continued throughout Dilma’s impeachment in 2016, and reached its apex in the latest election campaign – is likely to continue increasing. In face of such reality, ‘order’ seems hard to be achieved in the short term of a four-year presidency. Likewise, Bolsonaro’s nostalgia for the country’s military dictatorship and willingness to curtail rights from workers and minorities looks much more like a promise of retrogression than of ‘progress’. When it comes to foreign policy, Brazil may also take a step backwards: moving away from the south-south tradition – in which Brazil plays a leading role in the conduction of Latin American relation and in the cooperation with emerging countries – to an approximation with the politics of Trump’s America – in which Brazil would only play a secondary role.

Camila Schiffl and Clarissa Tabosa

Camila Schiffl and Clarissa Tabosa, both Brazilians, are PhD candidates at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations (IESIR), Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava. 



(1) Jair Bolsonaro’s Strategic Plan. O Caminho da Prosperidade – Propostas de Plano de Governo. Available at: https://static.cdn.pleno.news/2018/08/Jair-Bolsonaro-proposta_PSC.pdf 

(2) Pugliero, F. (Oct 2018). Renovação deixa Congresso mais fragmentado e à direita. UOL. goo.gl/gNq9Yf

(3) Levitsky, S. & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

(4) Levitsky, S. (2018). Como morrem as democracias? Fundação FHC. Available at: goo.gl/DzD66S

(5) Ruffato, L. (Jan 2018). Bolsonaro: é isso que queremos? El País. Available at: goo.gl/44aJyx

(6) Felício, C. (Jul 2018) Bolsonaro quer ampliar composição do Supremo de 11 para 21 ministros. Valor. Available at: goo.gl/wcMitm

(7)  Soares, J. (Sep 2018) ‘Não aceito resultado diferente da minha eleição’, diz Bolsonaro. O Globo. Available at: goo.gl/krhfTS

(8) All three quotes from this paragraph can be found in Ruffato, L. (Jan 2018)

(9)  VEJA (Oct 2018). Por estratégia, Bolsonaro admite possibilidade de não ir a debates. At: goo.gl/Q2DrNT

(10)  Magalhães, M. (Oct 2018). Bolsonaro ameaça acabar com todos os ativismos. The Intercept. goo.gl/LjUZ2h

(11)  Leahy, J. & Schipani A. (Oct 2018). Opponents fear ‘wrecking ball’ Bolsonaro poses threat to Brazilian democracy. Financial Times. At: goo.gl/qvaDE6

(12)  Ruffato, L. (Jan 2018)

(13) Leahy, J. & Schipani A. (Oct 2018)

(14) Jair Bolsonaro’s Strategic Plan.

(15) Planalto (Sep 2017). Na ONU, Temer convida presidente palestino e primeiro-ministro israelense ao Brasil. Available at: goo.gl/g9U7qX

(16)  Istoé (Aug 2018).  “Se eu for presidente, saio da ONU”, diz Bolsonaro. Available at: goo.gl/oZRgWw

(17)  IG (Oct 2018).  Jair Bolsonaro diz que violência ‘passou da linha do absurdo’. At: goo.gl/KPkTJg

(18) Terra (Sep 2018). Bolsonaro diz que pode retirar Brasil do Acordo de Paris. At: goo.gl/sdMLh2

(19) Oliveira, G. Z. and Silveira, I.L. (2015) De Lula a Dilma: Mudança ou Continuidade na Política Externa Brasileira para a America do Sul? Revista de Estudos Internacionais (REI), ISSN 2236-4811, Vol. 6 (2), 2015. 

(20) Jair Bolsonaro’s Strategic Plan.

(21) Fraga Araújo, E. (2017). Trump e o Ocidente. In: Cadernos de Politica Exterior. Ano III, Numero 6, IPRI. Available at: funag.gov.br/loja/download/CADERNOS-DO-IPRI-N-6.pdf 

(22) Ibid, 354. 


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