Will Bolsonaro Put Brazil’s Democracy At Risk?

After President Jair Bolsonaro’s consistent attacks on the validity of Brazil’s all-electronic voting in recent months, the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) of Brazil has declared the system not fraudulent and opened an investigation into Bolsonaro’s unfounded allegations as dissemination of false information. With popular criticism of the far-right president’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro’s reelection chances are not looking good for the upcoming presidential race in 2022, in which Bolsonaro will face up against the leftist former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro’s attacks could be an attempt to rally support for an eventual rejection of fair election results and a power grab.

“Threatening the realization of an election represents anti-democratic behaviour,” stated Luís Roberto Barroso, the president of the TSE. “Polluting the public debate with disinformation, lies, hatred and conspiracy theories represents anti-democratic behaviour.”

In January of 2021, Bolsonaro invoked the United States’ election controversies, telling his supporters, “If we don’t have a printed vote in 2022, a way to audit the vote, we’re going to have a worse problem than the United States… there, people voted and boosted the vote by mail because of the pandemic and there were people there who voted three, four times, dead people who voted.” Bolsonaro is an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who also worked to undermine confidence in election results when faced with a probable loss in 2020, and made unsubstantiated claims of fraud. 

Bolsonaro proposed a constitutional amendment that would require electronic votes to be printed and recounted manually in case of fraud, but a congressional committee voted against the amendment on August 5th. The judges of the TSE have posited that counting paper ballots would make the voting system more susceptible to fraud, contradictory to Bolsonaro’s insistent claims of the opposite.

As it stands, Bolsonaro’s chances of winning the 2022 election are getting slimmer. A June poll by Inteligência em Pesquisa e Consultoria (IPEC) found 49% of respondents favored Lula while only 23% favored the incumbent Bolsonaro. Elected as a populist with strong support from the military in 2018, Bolsonaro is now being met with demands for his impeachment and investigations into corruption focused on him, his family, and close allies. Denialism and incompetence in response to the coronavirus pandemic, bringing Brazil to second place in COVID-19 deaths out of all nations, has soured the Brazilian public to Bolsonaro.

Now facing a situation similar to Trump’s during the 2020 elections, Bolsonaro has been employing some of the former U.S. president’s same strategies to hold onto power. However, where Trump failed, some fear there is a greater chance for Bolsonaro to succeed. The president’s most fervent supporters are heavily armed as a result of Bolsonaro’s policies loosening gun restrictions, and would likely be willing to carry out Brazil’s equivalent of the January 6th insurrection in the United States. Bolsonaro also has strong connections with Brazil’s military, which played a role in his 2018 election and which has become embedded into government institutions since. If Bolsonaro decides to hold onto power illegally, the police and military will have to weigh all the benefits and positions of power they have been granted under his administration against their duty to uphold the law and Brazil’s democracy.

Bolsonaro has a streak of unashamed anti-democratic behavior. It will be crucial to keep watch of the military and whether they decide to support the president in his undermining of democracy in Brazil. Despite concerns, it seems unlikely that the military will be unquestioningly loyal to Bolsonaro — the involvement of the military in the health ministry during the pandemic, as well as the poor results of their efforts to protect the Amazon, have made association with Bolsonaro deliver blows to the military’s reputation. Bolsonaro’s dismissal of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva and the resulting chain of resignations in the military during the height of the pandemic in March 2021 signal that relations between the president and the military are not infallibly positive.

In the time leading up to Brazil’s next presidential election, the world and the United States, in particular, should be watching to ensure Brazilian democracy is not threatened. America has seen this situation unfold before in 2020, and the nation can help the people of Brazil recognize the tactics of Bolsonaro as he prepares to maintain his power despite majority disapproval. It is essential to be prepared for some conflict if Bolsonaro loses this election, as the warning signs show that the Brazilian president intends to follow in Trump’s footsteps. Nations across the world should encourage continued investigations into Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic actions.