Report: Bolsonaro And Brazil’s Democracy

On Thursday August 11th, the University of São Paulo’s law school was filled with choruses of pro-democracy chants as thousands gathered to hear the reading of two letters in defense of Brazil’s democratic institutions. While the letters did not mention him directly by name, the two pro-democracy documents were written by legal experts to protest presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s accusations of fraud against the nation’s electronic voting system. Critics fear Bolsonaro’s unfounded claims serve merely to lay the groundwork for coup-like behavior following October’s election which polls suggest he will lose. The two letters are intentionally reminiscent of a 1977 letter defending Brazilian democracy in the face of a military dictatorship. The first manifesto is signed by nearly a million citizens from former president and current candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to popstar Anitta, while the second contains endorsements from associations representing hundreds of companies in sectors such as banking, oil and construction. “We are living through a moment of immense danger for democratic normality,” the first letter reads,“There is no room for authoritarian backsliding in today’s Brazil. Dictatorship and torture belong to the past.” While Bolsonaro denies the accusations against him, the far-right president has repeatedly undermined the nation’s democratic institutions through his harsh rhetoric, leaving many concerned for the future of Brazil’s democracy as the election approaches. 

Through Bolsonaro’s stint as president, the distant yet familiar reek of democratic erosion has triggered protest and outcry from many condemning the president and his actions. José Carlos Dias, a former justice minister who co-authored the 1977 letter and the two recent letters, told the Associated Press he fears the nation is at risk of a coup and called on civil society to “stand up and fight against that to guarantee democracy.” The Head of Brazil’s electoral court Justice Edson Fachin announced that the electoral justice is “prepared and will carry out the 2022 election in a clean, transparent and auditable way.” He too expressed a deep concern for Bolsonaro’s accusation of fraud, which he declares are baseless and “very serious.” 

Outside the circles of politicians and justices, thousands have taken to the streets in an uproar against Bolsonaro’s actions. 43-year-old Carlos Silveira marches because “it is riskier not to do anything.” “Bolsonaro has suggested a big anti-democratic act before the election, and the military has remained on his side, it seems. We want to show them we are the majority, and that our quest for democracy will win,” he told the Associated Press. Fellow protestor Arminio Fraga, a prominent asset manager and former central bank chief, shares this vision: “I am here today … with such a diverse group that sometimes fought on opposite sides, doing all we can now to preserve what is sacred to us all. That’s our democracy.” 

Bolsonaro is “both a symptom and a cause of Brazil’s democratic malaise,” rightly referred to as such by Oliver Stuenkel, an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo. While Bolsonaro has taken significant swings at the world’s fourth-largest democracy, the potential energy for democratic decline began accumulating long before the inauguration of the former army paratrooper. Brazil is a nation whose history contains the dark shadow of dictatorship, one that the nation has struggled to confront. In 1964, Brazil’s military seized power in a coup, initiating almost two decades of brutal repression before elections were held once again in 1985. While the beginning of the 21st century brought significant attempts to reign in military influence, the armed forces have regained considerable influence in recent years with a sharp increase during the Bolsonaro administration which contains nearly 6,000 military personnel

This increase in military might is only one arrow of Bolsonaro’s quiver as he targets Brazil’s political structure. He has twisted the demands of external powers on the topic of climate change as an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty, allowing him to tap into nationalist sentiments and “depict himself as the last protector of Brazil’s sovereignty,” Stuenkel explains. The president has also launched attacks against the two main checks of his power: the Supreme Court and Congress. Earlier this year, Bolsonaro took pages from the populist playbook with unsubstantiated claims that lawmakers were bribed to vote against his bill and attacks on the Supreme Court as a “communist dictatorship of the judicial authorities.” A concoction of increased military power and erosion on checks and balances, stirred by a president who has corroded political norms and threatened democratic institutions with a “Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone” rhetoric, can become a potentially lethal poison for Brazil’s two-decades of democracy. 

The antidote to this authoritarian poison will require a significant measure of external support. With an emerging regional anti-democratic trend in countries such as El Salavador, with Nayid Burkele’s purging of the judiciary, and Nicaragua, with Daniel Ortega’s imprisonment of presidential candidates, a regional reaction to Bolsonaro’s tactics will not likely be strong enough. Other democracies throughout the world must engage by expressing their confidence in Brazil’s democratic institutions and making it clear that any further actions to erode democracy will be met with economic consequences. Stuenkel recommends tactics such as the downgrading of military ties between the U.S. and Europe, halting of the Mercosur-EU trade deal, and freezing of Brazil’s admissions process to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

While statements of support from other nation’s could help mitigate the damage, the real power against Bolsonaro comes from within. Protests and manifestos such as those on Thursday 11th August took place across the country and show a promising ray of hope for the protection of democracy. Civil society groups from across the political spectrum are uniting to defend their institutions and freedoms, and this unite-to-fight tactic has proven successful in countries such as the Czech Republic against populist Andrej Babis. Even corporate Brazil, which has traditionally remained far removed from the realms of politics, has intervened. Copious companies and even Brazil’s largest labor union are included as signees of Thursday’s manifestos, and these organizations must make it clear that there will be economic consequences for an authoritarian-esque attack. While they are faced with a strong faction of Bolsonaro supporters, those in support of democracy must ignore Bolsonaro’s siren-song promises to check his own behavior and continue to unite across differences, curb disinformation and protest anti-democratic actions. 

The October election will serve as a critical point for Brazilian democracy. A Bolsonaro win could accelerate democratic backsliding, further decrease already faltering trust in Brazil’s still young democracy and lead to deeper illiberalism within the Brazilian government with both humanitarian and economic consequences. A loss would most likely lead to the triggering of the fraud trap Bolsonaro has so aggressively laid. This would deepen national divides and could result in an outbreak of violence that may increase military presence and lead to violent crackdowns, both of which are dangerous precursors for authoritarian consolidation. 

Unfortunately, Bolsonaro’s attack on democracy is not unique to Brazil. The president has joined the far-right ranks of leaders in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Italy and the United States as part of an alarming populist trend. In fact, threats to democracy have increasingly come from within, initiated by leaders who seek to weaken democratic institutions in order to replace their rivals in government and rewrite the rules in a way that erodes checks and balances. Disenfranchisement and repression often follow as rule is consolidated and the system which prioritizes the people and their rights is stripped away. Democracy comes with norms that protect and defend the rights and freedoms of individuals. It is a system that provides a voice to the people, and holds leaders accountable for their actions. Regardless of who occupies the Palácio da Alvorada, there is an uphill battle ahead for citizens of South America’s largest nation who must be on high alert in defense of their democracy both for themselves, the future of Brazil and democracy itself. 

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