Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate with the Social Liberal Party, waves after voting in the presidential runoff election in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. Bolsonaro is running against leftist candidate Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party. (AP Photo/Silvia izquierdo)
The new captain of Brazil’s ship, the far right-wing Jair Bolsonaro, might very well steer his vessel right out of the BRICS harbour if his rhetoric is anything to go by. In his campaign, he promised to “liberate Brazil from the ideology of its international relations that it subjected Brazil to in recent years.” If anything Bolsonaro is an even darker version of Trump, and is clearly singing off the song sheet of Trump’s alter ego Steve Bannon, who is still hard at work boosting the fortunes of the alt-right globally.

It is truly disconcerting that Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential elections by such a decisive margin, as his policies are the virtual antithesis of the trajectory BRICS as a grouping was moving towards. BRICS has sought to challenge US hegemony and find alternative trade partnerships and financing mechanisms, and is committed to social transformation. Having Bolsonaro Chair BRICS next year is akin to the insertion of Steve Bannon into the BRICS forum with his blatant fascism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, Sino-phobia anti-environmental stance, and romanticism about military dictatorships. 

How will BRICS ever pursue its common political agenda under such circumstances? Or will it merely revert to its initial focus on promoting greater intra-BRICS trade and investment?

BRICS did survive the inclusion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who comes from the far right, with long-standing ties to the neo-fascist RSS. But even Modi would think twice before openly advocating torture, massacres, and replacing politicians with military generals. That would be just too extreme for Indian mainstream politics, which makes it all the more shocking that Brazil has supported such a candidate when it was not that long ago that former left-wing Brazilian President Lula da Silva had captured the nation’s imagination.

Bolsonaro’s foreign policy platform makes him almost seem like a manchurian candidate, and by that I mean a politician being used as a puppet by another power. Everything Steve Bannon pushed in the White House in terms of foreign policy is what Bolsonaro is sprouting - most notably his declaration that Brazil must engage in the global cultural battle to restore the Judeo-Christian tradition by aligning with the US, Israel and Italy, and that Brazil must become a bulwark of Judeo-Christendom against Communism. This was not only the worldview of Brazil’s military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985, but it is also the current line that Bannon has been pushing within the western alt-right movement. This is all part and parcel of Bannon’s fervent belief in the great clash of civilizations and the coming war between Judeo-Christendom and the Muslims, as well as China. 

It was very strategic for Bannon to tutor Bolsonaro in successful electoral campaigning given the strategic importance of Brazil, and the threat BRICS poses to the alt-right agenda. After all, Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, with 40% of the region’s population and a roughly equal share of its GDP. For Brazil to join the alt-right fold was a massive coup for Bannon, with enormous ramifications for international relations on many different levels. 

Bolsonaro has set himself and possibly the Brazilian government on a collision course with China, having openly criticised Brazil’s largest trading partner, and reached out to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea on a strategic visit to the region last year. He has also said he will decisively counter China’s economic advances and prefers to court business from the OECD countries. This is all very Trumpian if one looks at Trump’s own rhetoric on China.

On the Israeli/Palestinian issue, Bolsonaro has taken the side of the pro-Zionist Christian Pentecostals who strongly back Israel, which is why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so quick to congratulate him on his electoral victory. Israel has long cultivated this strand of conservative Christianity in Brazil, hoping to change the orientation of Brazilian foreign policy. 

The Workers’ Party governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff had been firm defenders of Palestinian self-determination. But Bolsonaro will carry Trump’s torch for Israel - he has already promised to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, and move the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Most recently Bolsonaro announced that he will close down the Palestinian representative office in Brazil.

The big question now is how will BRICS function under the leadership of such a political leader come 2019?