January 22, 2019 / 7:44 PM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Brazil’s Bolsonaro clears low Davos bar

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks as he attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters Breakingviews) - Jair Bolsonaro cleared a low bar at Davos. In his first overseas appearance since taking office, Brazil’s new president on Tuesday made a brief and vague sales pitch for a “new Brazil”. Business optimism about the country is running high, and modest changes can help deliver early wins. The longer term, however, is another matter.

At a World Economic Forum gathering that lacks the usual big-name headliners among world leaders, the ex-army captain and his team of ministers have been the ones to catch. Bolsonaro made his name as a far-right firebrand, but he has also promised to tackle corruption, privatise state assets and tackle an unsustainably expensive pension system – all music to the ears of investors, who have flocked to hear the man himself.

Leaders use Davos to tout their countries as investment destinations, and Bolsonaro was no exception. Brazil, he said, was at an inflection point: It would emerge to be among the top 50 countries in which to do business by the time his term in office ends. Currently, it is ranked 109 of 190 countries assessed by the World Bank, below Papua New Guinea.

Like U.S. President Donald Trump, who addressed the same gathering last year, he struck a moderate tone for his audience of global elites, even if he could not resist a reference to his win against the odds with “eight seconds of air time”.

Yet his address was visibly scripted, and he never appeared entirely at ease. He provided almost no specifics and did not touch on pensions, the single biggest problem his administration will have to tackle. His ministers, he made clear, would drive the detail.

Still, the crowd seemed largely sympathetic. Chief executives, perhaps allowing hope to triumph over experience, say they see real change on the ground, after a deep recession and years of corruption. Permits may be unblocked, and key concessions put up for tender.

Bolsonaro, of course, is only a few weeks in. For now, opinion polls are rosy and Brazil’s benchmark stock index is close to record highs. Challenges ranging from restoring fiscal prudence to overcoming his own and allies’ worst instincts lie ahead. He’ll need more than happy Davos talk to make the good feeling last.

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