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Mark S. Langevin

Edmund Ruge

March 1st, 2019

Wilderness to wildest dreams: the remarkable rise of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party in Brazil

2 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Mark S. Langevin

Edmund Ruge

March 1st, 2019

Wilderness to wildest dreams: the remarkable rise of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party in Brazil

2 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The same disruptive tactics that swept the PSL and Bolsonaro into power may also undermine their capacity to formulate and negotiate the president’s ambitious legislative agenda, write Mark S. Langevin (George Mason University) and Edmund Ruge in the first of a two-part series on the roots and the role of the Partido Liberal Social.

Brazil’s conservative-nationalist political realignment splashed on to the global scene with the election of president Jair Bolsonaro in October of 2018, but his adopted political party has largely gone unnoticed.

Bolsonaro has attracted huge attention, but what about those behind him? (Marcos Brandão/Senado FederalCC BY 2.0)

In a single year, the president’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) has gone from being a small liberal-oriented political faction to become a real rival to the Workers Party (PT) as the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies. The PSL rode the Bolsonaro bandwagon all the way to an electoral victory that may well change the course of Brazilian democracy for a generation and will certainly disrupt Brasilia in the short run. President Bolsonaro will attract all the attention, but his political party may well decide the final outcome of Brazil’s remarkable political realignment.

But for now the president and his party are at the center of a campaign-donation scandal that threatens Bolsonaro’s political partnership with Gustavo Bebianno: the former General Secretary of the Presidency and architect of the president’s alliance with the PSL was recently fired by the president and dispatched to a distant diplomatic posting. This along with the corruption scandal engulfing the president’s son Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, now looms large over Brasilia.

It may be that same disruptive tactics which swept the PSL and Bolsonaro into power may also undermine their capacity to formulate and negotiate the president’s ambitious legislative agenda.

Luciano Bivar and the birth of the Social Liberal Party

It was ultra-liberal Luciano Bivar from the state of Pernambuco who founded the PSL in 1994, though it was legally registered in 1998. Bivar had been a perennial candidate for mayor in Recife but ultimately entered the Chamber of Deputies in 1998 as the PSL’s sole representative. In 2002, Lincoln Portela of Minas Gerais (now a deputy of the Republic Party) replaced him as the sole PSL member in congress.

Bivar ran for president in 2006 as a staunch liberal voice, and the party made very modest electoral gains at the state and municipal levels. His platform included a federal 3.4 per cent flat tax, the deployment of the armed forces into the country’s poorest neighborhoods, and a constitutional amendment permitting the death penalty. He is a consistent critic of bureaucratic politics and even warned that a president could be held hostage by what he refers to as the bureaustocracy”.

His political outlook and policy priorities were framed by his notable wealth and the kidnapping of his son in 2000. He combined liberal economic prescriptions with a forceful offensive against violent crime, a framing that continues to define the PSL’s strategic alliance with Bolsonaro.

Party for hire

Following Bivar’s failed presidential bid in 2006, the PSL continued to scratch out its survival in the political desert, operating as a “party for hire” and Bivar’s personal mouthpiece. Its state and local representation was limited and concentrated in the North and Northeast regions.

The PSL could only muster enough votes to elect one federal deputy in 2010 and 2014. During the 2014 elections the PSL aligned with the Brazilian Socialist Party to hitch a ride on the coattails of Marina Silva’s upcoming presidential campaign, but when she lost in the first round, the party was forced to find another route to political survival.

Bivar defended its liberal bent and provided for the party financially, but he needed something bigger than his wallet to take both the party and his ideological vision to a nationwide audience. The party needed a lightning rod to galvanise the electorate and disrupt the perennial rivalry between the PT and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB).

Bivar and his junior political operative Julian Lemos circled the wagons in 2015 to reaffirm their commitment to economic liberalism while also preaching law and order amidst the Lava Jato corruption scandal. They reached out to a new generation of right-wing activists eager to impeach then-president Dilma Rousseff and launch full-throated attacks on the PT and the broader social democratic establishment. Bivar and Lemos also continued to rent out the party registration to opportunistic candidates across the board. Yet, they also understood that the party and the cause of economic liberalism needed a big bang. Then came Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro: the embodiment of a fragmented party system

Bolsonaro is the architect of Brazil’s conservative-nationalist political realignment, but he has never built a political organisation. Rather, he is a party-crasher who spent most of his congressional tenure as a brash but inconsequential backbencher, switching party seven times during his three decades in the Chamber.

He launched his political career with the Christian Democratic Party in 1988 when he won election to the city council of Rio de Janeiro before going on to have political affairs with the former Liberal Front Party (now the Democratas or DEM), the Brazilian Labour Party, the Brazilian Progressive Reform Party, and twice with the Progressive Party (1993, 2005-2016). Most recently, he was a member of the Social Christian Party before he and Bebbiano made a deal with Bivar and joined the PSL in early 2018.

In short, Bolsonaro is the very embodiment of Brazil’s fragmented party system.

Bolsonaro partnered with Bivar in exchange for influence over party spending and the appointment of Bebbiano as PSL president (at Bivar’s expense). Bivar argues that Bolsonaro and the PSL share more similarities than differences, but the partnership triggered the departure of the PSL’s “Livres” faction, which advocated for party modernisation and full transparency.

The PSL offered Bolsonaro just enough organisational capacity to coordinate the embryonic conservative-nationalist movement, swing open the doors to thousands of party affiliations, and register hundreds of candidacies for federal and state elections. The PSL ran more candidates for federal deputy than any other party except the Socialism and Liberty Party.

In 2018, the PSL was able to elect four senators (including Jair’s son Flávio in Rio de Janeiro), 52 federal deputies (including Bivar, Julian Lemos, and Jair’s son Eduardo in São Paulo), and three governors in. It rivals the PT in the lower chamber and could yet become the largest party in congress as senators and deputies migrate to the president’s party in order to curry favour.

Bivar may have founded the PSL, but it is Bolsonaro’s party now.

The PSL (outlined) now constitutes the largest block in Brazil’s highly fragmented Chamber of Deputies (public domain)

The who and how of the Social Liberal Party’s success in 2018

If the PSL is the driving force of Brazil’s conservative-nationalist movement, then most of the propulsion comes from the Chamber of Deputies, where the party elected 52 members and has since added another three. Newly elected federal deputies Bia Kicis and Pastor Gildenemyr left their original parties to affiliate with the PSL in the past month. Federal deputy Onyx Lorenzoni (DEM) also vacated his seat to serve as Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, which left his seat to Marcelo Brum of the PSL. The PSL now holds 55 seats in the lower house (as illustrated above), but this number could grow in the coming months.

The PSL’s delegation is distributed across 19 of Brazil’s 26 states and single federal district, which speaks to the party’s transformation from a regional faction to a national political party, albeit that its anchor remains in Bolsonaro’s home state of Rio de Janeiro. That said, there are three clear geographical centres to PSL representation in the Chamber:

  • Rio de Janeiro – 12 members (23% of the total delegation)
  • São Paulo – 10 members (19.2%)
  • Minas Gerais – 6 members (11.5%)

Like all Brazilian political parties the PSL is disproportionately male. Even so, the PSL went beyond the Chamber of Deputy’s 15 per cent female benchmark by electing ten women (19.2%). Five female deputies received substantial financial support through public party and electoral funds. Unlike most traditional conservative political organisations in Brazil, the PSL also made a concerted effort to recruit and finance female candidates, especially those from the ranks of the military and law enforcement.

Overall, the PSL enjoyed much less public financing for congressional candidates than did its electoral adversaries. The party was more reliant on bombastic social-media posts and networked WhatsApp messaging than expensive, highbrow media consultants.

Globo reports that political parties distributed an average of 40 million Reais (roughly $10.6 million USD) to federal and state candidates in 2018. Former president Michel Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement party distributed over 200 million while the PT doled out 90 million. The PSL distributed a paltry four million, with over 70 per cent going to federal-deputy candidates compared to an average of 50 per cent across all parties.

The PSL’s financing strategy favoured a big push to rapidly increase its presence in the lower chamber despite its modest public financing. Accordingly, the party spent only 6.5 per cent of its electoral funds on the presidential campaign. Bolsonaro’s rant-and-rave campaign via social media freed up scarce resources to recruit and elect candidates with few resources and little campaign experience.

The party’s extraordinary 2018 electoral achievement was enabled by low-cost campaigns across the country that took advantage of Bolsonaro’s magnetic messaging. In 2014, the average spend for a federal-deputy campaign was R$126,000, dropping to R$103,000 in 2018. Yet, the average spend for elected federal deputies in 2018 was over a million Reais. Incredibly, 25 of the PSL’s 52-member delegation spent less than R$100,000, and many of these candidates relied on their own resources or those of family and friends.

Parliamentary candidates like Luiz Ovando used Bolsonaro’s messaging alongside their own resources (Dr Luiz Ovando)

For example, Dr Luiz Ovando of Mato Grosso spent a meagre R$21,000, with most of the total coming from his own pocket. The PSL and its candidates used their modest resources to maximise the number of votes and attain the lowest vote-to-outlay ratio of any party in the 2018 elections. This efficiency was matched by the cohesive messaging campaign led by Bolsonaro and echoed online by PSL candidates and their followers.

Cohesion around criminality

The party’s cohesion stems from members’ vehement opposition to the PT and fervent support for law enforcement, which extends as far as tacit support for extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals by police and citizens. All of the party’s 52 elected federal deputies joined the controversial yet growing bullet caucus in congress, officially known as the Parliamentary Front for Public Security. At least 16 of the 52 PSL federal deputies have significant professional experience in the Brazilian armed forces or law enforcement.

President Bolsonaro and his party promised to fight crime by encouraging citizens to rely on guns for self-defence, and restrictions on gun ownership and open-carrying were relaxed accordingly. More than any other campaign pledge or policy prescription it is this banner of fighting crime that unites the party membership and frames its approach to governance. Few in the party can voice an articulated defence of Luciano Bivar’s vision of Brazilian economic liberalism, but on crime they all sing from the same hymn sheet: the PSL’s unifying refrain remains “a good criminal is a dead criminal“.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, PSL federal deputy and the president’s son, received more votes in the state of São Paulo than any other federal-deputy candidate in history by openly brandishing his own weapon, advocating for the liberalisation of gun ownership, and celebrating extrajudicial killings.

A Brazilian firearms instructor discharges his weapon at the shooting range (Edilson Rodrigues/Agência SenadoCC BY 2.0)

The PSL and its allies publicly applauded the recent execution of 13 suspected criminals by the Rio de Janeiro military police in the Fallet–Fogueteiro community. Eyewitnesses allege that innocent by-standers and suspects were gunned down even after they attempted to surrender. The police operation came after gun battles between the rival drug gangs Comando Vermelho (Red Command) and the Terceiro Comando Puro (Third Pure Command). Rather than investigate the killings, PSL state deputy Rodrigo Amorim introduced a resolution in the Rio de Janeiro state assembly to honour the officers involved in the operation.

When force is not enough

The party’s no-holds-barred approach to violent crime resonated with voters everywhere, especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro, but this policy orientation alone is unlikely to produce sustainable results. Applauding dubious law-enforcement practices and gun ownership will not address the country’s economic downturn, its widening federal budget gap, or the institutional paralysis undermining good governance and political accountability.

If the party is serious about governing, it will need to collaborate with deputies and senators throughout Brazil’s fragmented system of 21 parties in the Senate and 30 in the Chamber. The urgent need to settle on a governing majority in congress has already led the president to support the re-election of the Chamber of Deputies president Rodrigo Maia (DEM), who enjoys formal and discreet support on all sides. In the senate, the PSL eventually threw its support behind the insurgent presidential candidacy of Davi Alcolumbre (DEM) from the state of Amapá, a close associate of Bolsonaro’s chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni (DEM). This move consolidated the governing alliance between the PSL and DEM, making social-security reform and fiscal adjustment more feasible.

That said, it remains uncertain whether the president’s party can maintain cohesive legislative support in the face of the rising tide of scandals now engulfing the Bolsonaro clan, with the key figure of Bebbiano already having been ejected from the inner circle. Part of the answer to his question will be depend on the PSL’s congressional delegation from Rio de Janeiro, which represents the very heart and soul of the president’s party.

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About the author

Mark S. Langevin

Mark S. Langevin is Senior Fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, and Director of Brazilworks.

Edmund Ruge

Edmund Ruge is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Rio de Janeiro. He holds a Master's Degree in International Economics and Latin American Studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Follow him on Twitter at @edmundruge or contact him via

Posted In: Bolsonaro's Brazil | Democracy