- - Sunday, January 27, 2019

BUENOS AIRES — An inauguration fraught with controversy. Executive actions to limit immigration. A Cabinet filled with generals. Judging just by his first three weeks as president, Jair Bolsonaro was right to embrace his moniker as “Brazil’s Trump.”

Although few were surprised that the maverick former army captain’s iconoclastic style and decision-making have carried over into his presidency, a markedly chaotic kickoff has observers wondering whether he will be able to effectively govern South America’s most populous nation.

The longtime political outsider has carried out a few presidential duties with aplomb, delivering the keynote address at last week’s tony global economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, and joining the U.S. and other nations in the coordinated regionwide challenge to the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

But the domestic headlines in Brazil since Mr. Bolsonaro’s Jan. 1 swearing-in have been dominated by contradictory statements from Cabinet members — and the president — on topics including tax policy and a proposed U.S. military base on Brazilian territory.

“One says one thing, the other denies it; one announces a given administration intention, the other disavows it,” said Jornal do Brasil Editor Clovis Saint-Clair. “It’s clear that [Mr. Bolsonaro] wasn’t elected on a political project; there was no governing plan.”

Given that Mr. Bolsonaro’s seven terms in Congress were marked more by his often inflammatory rhetoric than his legislative achievements, his administration’s growing pains are unsurprising, said Mr. Saint-Clair, the author of one of the few book-length profiles of the new president.

“He was a second-tier politician: His performance in Congress was very limited,” he said. “And now he holds government’s most important office.”

Still, Mr. Bolsonaro can point to at least two key campaign promises on which he delivered within days of taking charge: He took a hard line on immigration by joining the Trump administration in pulling out of an ambitious United Nations global pact on migration on Jan. 9 and, a week later, decreed relaxed rules on gun ownership in a country wracked by soaring crime rates.

“For a long time, it was up to the government to determine who had or didn’t have the right to defend himself, his family and his property. Today we return the freedom to decide to Brazilian citizens,” he beamed on Twitter.

Although gun laws had long been a pet project, analysts predicted that Mr. Bolsonaro’s lack of a congressional majority, the uneven makeup of his governing team and the clashing ideologies inside his coalition all could spell trouble ahead.

“He went and kept his promise. But, I believe, on other issues he will find difficulties,” Mr. Saint-Clair said. “He has people who, in general, never held important positions in government and don’t fully dominate the political realm, which, after all, has its own bureaucracy.”

To call his Cabinet — which includes three generals, an evangelical pastor and an astronaut — a “team of rivals” might be an understatement.

“[Mr. Bolsonaro] is a political adventurer who won an election atypical in Brazil’s history because it was an election decided by the negative vote,” said political scientist Valter Duarte. “That’s why we find ourselves with a Cabinet not seeking any harmonization with the legislature.”

Seeking a way forward

Having defied the political establishment and virtually every respected pundit to rise to the top of government, Mr. Bolsonaro now seems to be unsure of what to do with it, said Mr. Duarte, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.

“He has no integration among the ministers for all of them to do things within a clearly defined line,” he said. “And that’s why things are [marked by] uncertainty and, at the same time, jokes, because the opposition is already taking advantage.”

The joking, it turns out, has been a real thorn for Mr. Bolsonaro, whose legitimacy was questioned even before he was elected and whose relationship with the press has been so tense that he once imitated President Trump by blocking a journalist on Twitter.

Starting on inauguration day, traditionally a rather laid-back New Year’s Day affair, grumbling reporters took to newspaper columns and social media to make light of what they viewed as exaggerated security measures imposed after a knife attack injured Mr. Bolsonaro during the campaign.

One prominent Brazilian columnist gleefully relayed how she was told to cut her lunch apple into pieces lest she be tempted to throw the whole fruit at the incoming head of state.

Just one day into his administration, Mr. Bolsonaro’s family minister, Baptist pastor Damares Alves, raised eyebrows when she heralded a “new era” for Brazil.

“Boys wear blue and girls wear pink,” a jubilant Ms. Alves, dressed in white, proclaimed in a viral video widely ridiculed on social media.

But tongue-in-cheek commentary about his social conservatism is less of a worry for Mr. Bolsonaro than his relationship with Congress, where his once-fringe Social Liberal Party controls just 52 of 513 House and four of 81 Senate seats, analysts noted.

Mr. Duarte said the president had taken helpful first steps by toning down his vitriol — his son Eduardo, also a congressman, last year noted that “a soldier and a corporal” could shut down the legislature — and by making a deal to re-elect House Speaker Rodrigo Maia.

But his chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, lacks a good rapport with lawmakers, said Marcio Pochmann, who heads the Perseu Abramo Foundation. The foundation is linked to the Workers’ Party (PT) of former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, the longtime ruling leftist party that Mr. Bolsonaro ousted in last year’s election.

In the minority

The dangers of a minority government were illustrated in Ms. Rousseff’s truncated second term, which culminated in her impeachment and removal in August 2016, Mr. Pochmann said. Mr. Bolsonaro’s critics are not likely to give him much space to maneuver, he added.

“There are parties [inclined] to wait three months, 100 days to build an opposition movement from there, on the basis of concrete actions taken,” he said. “And there are parties already taking immediate, direct action, playing the opposition role from the first day on, as is the case of the PT.”

The result, Mr. Pochmann said, could well be gridlock in the face of a fragile economy that has not fully recovered from years of crisis and uncertainty.

“In a way, it would be similar to what we see happening in the United States, with the Trump administration, and with [Prime Minister Theresa May’s] government in England,” he said. “The Trump administration is paralyzed and needs common ground with [Congress]. And in England, [Brexit] created a condition of paralysis.”

But such gridlock would be particularly toxic for Mr. Bolsonaro, whose fiercely loyal base is small compared with that of his American counterpart.

“There was low turnout — and there were also many blank and void votes that paved his way to power,” Mr. Saint-Clair said.

How long those who simply wanted to deal a blow to the governing PT and Brazil’s corruption-riddled political establishment will stick with Mr. Bolsonaro if he cannot deliver remains an open question, the writer said. After a peculiar election and an unorthodox government kickoff, though, he was not willing to wager a guess.

“We’re at a moment when Brazil is back debating Darwin’s theory of evolution, whether the Earth is flat, if boys and girls must wear blue and pink,” he said. “We’re headed toward a new and completely crazy world.”

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