The script has become familiar in this global season of far-right politics: A fringe politician peddling vitriol and promising order catches the mood of a nation yearning for change, any change, and rides it to the presidential palace.
A year ago, anyone who said Jair Bolsonaro could be elected president of Brazil would have been dismissed as a comic. A former artillery captain turned politician, Bolsonaro spent 27 years as an obscure congressman opposed to everything left-wing. In the campaign, he came to be best known for his outrageously offensive comments about gays, blacks, indigenous people and women and for defending the old military dictatorship, torture and guns.
His campaign platform, such as it was, was mostly about going backward — pulling out of the Paris climate accord, using strong-arm tactics with criminals (his favorite motto is said to be, “A good criminal is a dead criminal”), giving industry what it wants.
Yet his angry rants caught the mood of a Brazilian electorate sick of an endless corruption scandal that has reached to the far corners of the establishment, rampant street violence and economic dislocation, all of it indiscriminately and often unfairly blamed by many Brazilians on the left-wing Workers’ Party, known as PT. The eagerness to repudiate anything PT — and the political class as a whole — overrode all other considerations, like Bolsonaro’s total lack of preparation. He came in first in the first round and got a resounding 55 percent of the vote in the second.
Not surprisingly, President Donald Trump, with whom Bolsonaro shares views on many issues ranging from gun rights to China, was among the first to proffer warm congratulations along with a cheery tweet (“Excellent call, wished him congrats!”).
Bolsonaro poses a danger to Brazil’s democracy. Like Trump, he is a polarizing force — he was seriously wounded by a would-be assassin during the campaign, and even before the election Brazilian media reported that police were staging raids in universities, purportedly to stop illegal electioneering. He is expected to name several former generals to his Cabinet, a troubling move in a nation with a dark history of military control.
Yet in the immediate wake of the election, Bolsonaro pledged to respect democratic rules. “This government will defend the constitution, democracy and liberty,” he declared. “This is a promise not of a party, not the empty words of a man; it’s an oath before God.”
So far so good. And if he does manage to bring Brazil out of economic crisis, a task likely to be handed to the University of Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes, and to bring the crime rate and corruption under control without undermining the rule of law, so much the better. The initial reaction of Brazilian financial markets was a frenzy of stock-buying in the anticipation of policies like selling off inefficient state companies, deregulation and a cut in social spending.
The question is whether Brazil’s still adolescent democratic institutions can withstand a far-right assault. Most of the measures Bolsonaro might attempt — whether expanding the authority to carry arms or classifying the movement of landless people as “terrorists” — would require either a law, which needs a simple majority in the legislature, or a constitutional amendment, which needs three-fifths. The new Congress is full of untried deputies, but, despite serious losses, the opposition Workers’ Party is still the largest party in the lower house, with the potential to block Bolsonaro’s more undemocratic initiatives.
Brazil’s left is badly wounded, with the once-wildly popular former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in prison. But the opposition would do best to recognize the election of Bolsonaro as a cry of desperation rather than a declaration of war, and to support those actions that address the wrongs while blocking those that endanger democracy.
Angela Merkel announced Monday that she would step off the political stage when her term as Germany’s chancellor ends in 2021. It may happen sooner if elections are called before that, but in any case it leaves plenty of time “to get ready for the time after me,” as Merkel put it — to check out potential successors and future challenges. This is the time to look back at one of the most remarkable Western leaders of our time.
It is not charisma, daring or eloquence that have made her remarkable. Like her mentor and predecessor as chancellor, Helmut Kohl, Merkel is rather bland in speech and demeanor. Her slogan in the last election — “For a Germany where life is good and we enjoy it” — about summed up the comforting combination of moderation, stability, centrism and decency that have rallied voters behind “Mutti” (Mommy). In her 13 years at the helm, Germany has been a fairly calm and prosperous place, despite some political storms.
But it was precisely in that calm, consistency and decency, at a time when populists were rising in many corners of Europe, when Vladimir Putin was reviving a hostile Russia, President Donald Trump was ceding America’s leadership role and Britain was trying to quit the European Union, that Merkel made her mark and assumed a role as the de facto “leader of the free world.”
The title may be an exaggeration; it may be more accurate that she became aware of the need to manage a leaderless free world. Yet it is Merkel, trained as a scientist in East Germany and the first woman to serve as German chancellor, who has stood up to Trump and Putin, who nobly — some now say foolishly — opened Germany’s doors to refugees and who agreed to three bailouts to save Greece from bankruptcy. All that was done without drama, without a lot of words and often without rush (“merkeln” has come to mean “to dither”).
Many of Merkel’s decisions have garnered as much criticism as praise. Her insistence on austerity when Greece was on the ropes was widely denounced as excessive. The opening of Germany’s border to refugees has been blamed for the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party and the decline of Merkel’s popularity, which was on display in the poor showing by her Christian Democrats in Hesse state elections on Sunday. Yet Merkel’s principled action, so different from the nativist opposition to immigrants trumpeted by European populists and Trump, also exemplifies the moral precepts, forged growing up in a Lutheran home in East Germany, that are behind Merkel’s instincts and style. Her typically understated plea to Germans during the refugee crisis was simply, “Wir schaffen das” — We’ll manage it.
That’s what Merkel, now 64, has done for 13 years, listening more to the “inner compass” of her Lutheran faith rather than any ideology, against which she was inoculated by her years behind the Iron Curtain; preferring blandness and ambiguity to stridency, caution to expediency. “I’m a bit liberal, a bit Christian-social, a bit conservative,” she said in 2009, an approach she demonstrated in her handling of same-sex marriage last year, when she allowed a vote on the issue in the Bundestag while joining the minority in voting “no.”
In foreign affairs, Merkel has been a strong champion of the European Union, NATO and protecting a rules-based international order. Under her, Germany has increased its role in international security, and Merkel has made a commitment to raising military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product. A Pew Research Center survey of 25 countries found that 52 percent of respondents had confidence in Merkel, more than the leaders of France, Russia, China and the United States. (Seventy percent lacked confidence in Trump.)
That’s a tough act for Merkel’s successor to follow, and major challenges lie ahead: reshaping a European Union without Britain, strengthening institutions that govern the euro, clashes with the Trump administration and neighboring populists, dealing with Russia.
But Merkel is doing the right thing in stepping down. “I don’t want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics,” she said before she became chancellor, and of late she and her coalition have looked tired. Her polls have fallen, and 13-plus years are more than enough for any political leader. And the best leaders are those who know when it’s time to exit.
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