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COMMENTARY

Why Brazil's reputation is on the ballot this week

BRAZIL, the largest and most influential country in South America, goes to the polls on Sunday. The landmark presidential election could see controversial right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro win big.

Yet, it is not just the conservative firebrand and his leftist opponent Fernando Haddad on the ballot. For it is Brazil's reputation as a key emerging market and modern, vibrant and stable democracy that is also on the line.

Around 2011, the country - which encompasses around half of South America's land area and population - had just experienced what now appears a golden decade of solid growth and strong income redistribution. As a key G20 state, the economy was booming and the country enjoying enhanced international prestige within the so-called Brics group of nations with China, India, Russia and South Africa.

Finally, the nation seemed ready to look to a prosperous future after the legacy of brutal military rule from 1964 to 1989. Yet, with Sunday's election fast approaching, the country is reflecting, again, very much on its past and may be at a major crossroads as a fledging democracy.

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This is symbolised by former army captain Mr Bolsonaro's riding of a popular wave of support with a platform that includes nostalgia for the previous military dictatorship. And this alongside a host of policy positions controversial with many domestically and internationally, including relaxing gun laws and shredding environment legislation, including Brazil's commitment to the Paris climate change treaty.

The reason why this matters for Brazil, at large, is that the nation is competing with other countries for the attention of key stakeholders like media, investors and tourists. It is here that national reputation can be a prized asset, or a big liability, with a direct effect on future political, economic and social fortunes. Hence the reason why boosting country reputation is an ever common ambition of nations in what is an overcrowded global information marketplace.

The choice facing the country on Sunday is particularly important in this context, and also the currently dented political and economic self-confidence of the South American giant. The economy has endured the worst recession for decades after the Chinese economy began to decelerate around 2011 with Brazilian commodities losing significant value in international markets. By early 2016, the country had shed about 1.5 million formal jobs, and had double-digit inflation with its debt downgraded to junk status by major credit ratings agencies.

Indeed, 2016 turned out to be an annus horribilis for many in Brazil with the last elected president, Dilma Roussef, being forced from office, becoming the first democratically-elected female president in the world to be impeached. And this amid a series of wider corruption revelations, including billions stolen from state oil giant Petrobras by private construction firms and politicians.

Also that same year, Rio de Janeiro became the first South American city to host the Olympics which proved to be a troubled affair. Not only did the Brazilian government have to make significant spending cuts to the Games budget given the financial downturn, the Zika health outbreak led to more than 100 prominent doctors and professors writing to the World Health Organization asking for the Games to be postponed or moved from Brazil "in the name of public health".

POLARISED ATMOSPHERE

Ultimately, Zika proved to be the worst health crisis to face Brazil since at least 1918, according to the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a leading health institution in Rio. In 2016, the government estimated that up to 1.5 million Brazilians may have been infected with the microcephaly problems that can cause babies to develop abnormally small heads and other neurological problems.

Amid this malaise, the nation's next president will be decided on Sunday. After winning over 46 per cent of the vote in the first round, and almost 50 million votes, Mr Bolsonaro is the clear favourite, and this is concerning many in the country, and internationally too.

Much media reporting has made comparisons between him and US President Donald Trump, given their record of ill-judged, controversial statements. Yet, beyond this, there is the former Army captain's troubling yearning for a return to the values of Brazil's former military dictatorship.

In 1993, for instance, he declared himself "in favour of dictatorship". Moreover, in 1999 he asserted "I'm in favour of torture ... voting won't change anything in this country. Nothing! Things will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn't do. Killing some 30,000 people, and starting with FHC [referring to then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party]. If some innocents die, that's just fine".

In the current tense, polarised election atmosphere, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has registered more than 60 physical attacks on reporters. There have also been a reported string of linked violent attacks, including one case being treated as political murder by a supporter of Mr Bolsonaro, and the election front runner himself was stabbed last month, requiring intensive care.

Taken overall, this underlines that the election cauldron the country is facing into means it is at a potentially pivotal crossroads. Should Mr Bolsonaro be elected, the nation's international reputation could nosedive at a time when Brazil badly needs to move on from, not add to, the political and economic troubles of the past decade.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.