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Commentary: 'We first', from Brazil to Bosnia, the divisive politics of confrontation

Commentary: 'We first', from Brazil to Bosnia, the divisive politics of confrontation

Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro is pictured during a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil October 11, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)

WASHINGTON: The next president of Brazil, Latin America’s giant, is all but certain to be former army captain Jair Bolsonaro – who was relatively unknown, even in his own country, just a few months ago, but who now has a very large public profile all round the world.

At 63, he has spent years in public life, leaving a mark – but not a large one – as a man of the far right, ready with insults for women who oppose him, and approving of the military government that killed and tortured leftists between 1964 and 1985.

In the first round of the presidential election earlier this week, this obscure man nearly won outright, with 46 per cent of the vote - compared to the 29 per cent secured by Fernando Haddad, a minister in the Workers’ Party government which had ruled Brazil for 13 years and whose time now seems to be up.

Halfway around the world from Brazil, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, its 3.5 million population a mere 60th of Brazil’s 211 million, another strongly nationalist politician, Milorad Dodik, won the election this week to the three-person presidency which has governed the tiny state since the 1995 Dayton Accords ended its three-year internecine war.

Dodik is a threat to the delicate and now precarious balance of powers in this sliver of the former Yugoslavia – tiny, but with the potential to fan to life the animosities which had been suppressed.

For his part, Bolsonaro will soon have the power, and perhaps the inclination, to revive the gruesome divisions of the past and to force a great state to turn inward, to be again consumed with the animosity and fear it seemed to have left behind.

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These are very different men in quite diverse societies. What unites them, beyond their victories in this past week, is that they respond to, and amplify, the beat of a drum which grows louder across the globe.

It beats out an imperative rhythm of “we first”: We the nation; we the ethnic group; we the people who are victims, and not beneficiaries, of globalisation; we who want simple solutions, and not endless debate, who are prepared to trade that for order, and a strong hand.

In Brazil in the first decade of the new century, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), a working-class radical socialist, followed the market-friendly course of the previous government when he took power in 2003. In his eight years as president he steered Brazil towards the world’s first division.

Former Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (Photo: AFP/Heuler Andrey)

The country was democratic, with ambitious anti-poverty programmes, but with IMF-approved economic policies, a state whose progress in the economy and in the general esteem of the world’s elites allowed Lula to play a part on the world stage, notably in mediating Latin American disputes.

A sign of Brazilian times: Lula is now in prison, serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. 

Many of his supporters at home and abroad believe him to be innocent – and he tried to make a comeback in this month’s presidential election – but a Brazilian court ruled that he could not run. 


Haddad will pick up some votes from supporters of Ciro Gomes, a 60-year old centrist politician who came third with 12 per cent of the vote. However, securing the 20-plus percent he needs to clinch the presidency, against the 4 per cent Bolsonaro needs, is likely too steep a climb.

It will be the more so, since Haddad’s reputation is not that of a strong leader, in a country which seems disposed to select one.

Bolsonaro has invited comparisons with President Donald Trump and with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines – comparisons which are, within limits, illuminating.

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Duterte reached a large mass of people who had felt neglected, even despised, by liberals in power – and at the mercy of drug gangs and corrupt politicians and police.

His ruthlessness in encouraging police to confront and kill gangsters, and to diminish or ignore human rights have been accepted, by most, as the price of greater security.

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Bolsonaro seems likely to emulate some of that. His backing comes from a broad swath of Brazilians, with support from the middle and upper classes who opposed Lula’s efforts to help the poor, as well as some of the poor who are victims of the country’s gangs and drug lords.

Most damaging for the Workers’ Party, most helpful to Bolsonaro, a vast enquiry into corruption – known as Operation Car Wash – revealed over the past few years corruption in every party, including the ruling Workers Party. Both Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff, were implicated.

Rousseff was impeached and removed from office, and Lula was sent to jail. Bolsonaro, with no previous office, has no charges of corruption against him.

Workers' Party candidate Fernando Haddad has pressed for televised debates against Bolsonaro ahead of an October 28 run-off to decide the presidency (Photo: AFP/NELSON ALMEIDA)


Back in Central Europe Dodik has, since 2006, run the Serbian part of the state, the Republika Srpska. A Croat and a Bosnian Muslim represent the two other main ethnic groups in the Croat-Muslim federation.

Dodik is keen to split up the country, so that the Serbs cease to be required to cooperate with Muslims and Croats, enemies during the war in which 100,000 died. He enjoys a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and is deeply opposed to NATO and the European Union.

Dodik’s is the more immediately consequential election, even if on a narrow ground. His win prompts fears that the elaborate compromise, which has kept the peace in Bosnia for 23 years, will now unravel, and hatreds, damped down but not rooted out, will again flare into conflict.

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In Latin America’s leading economy and in the cockpit of Europe’s still-smouldering hostilities, one man has been elected and another all but certainly will be elected, both of whom have a stake not in compromise, but in confrontation.

Branding liberals and peacemakers as ineffectual, rousing popular support to right old wrongs, real or imaginary, putting their part of the people first, last and always, means that the elections of this week are bad news for a strained world.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

Source: Reuters/nr


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