As defined by political scientists, democratic backsliding is the gradual breakdown of democratic institutions within a country. With the rise of populism and nationalism being reflected in various governments, democratic backsliding is becoming seemingly more prevalent. Throughout this course, however, I have been stuck on why the elections of certain figures and their cabinets are considered cases of problematic democratic backsliding. Morally, it is easy to answer why. Populist candidates tend to garner support from displeased majorities and fringe groups with extreme beliefs that generally threaten the quality of life for minority groups in a given country. Said candidates then go on to undermine certain procedural practices established by a past democratic legacy. But when speaking fundamentally about the democratic nature of these elections and appointments, are they not democratic? Is it not the majority of a constituency voicing their opinion via vote and selecting someone that best represents their interest? Is this not democracy in one of its purest modern forms?
I want to clarify that I do not advocate for the election of questionably moral populists but simply want to interrogate the norm of democracy that we have come to accept and expect of countries.
To answer these questions, I look to the case of Brazil’s 2018 presidential election. The center stage adversaries of this race were Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT) and Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL). Haddad was the front runner of the traditionally left Workers’ Party in control of Brazil for the past 14 years despite condoning much government corruption. Bolsonaro became the front runner for the Social Liberal Party which is traditionally conservative, finding value in nationalism and militarism. Bolsonaro’s bid for candidacy was one surrounded by much concern for his ultra conservative stance on domestic and foreign policies and the rhetoric garnered by his supporters. According to ElectionGuide, Bolsonaro won over a majority of voters, walking away with 55.13% of the vote. This election is a direct result of democratic institutions working within a polity; his election is a direct result of voters practicing their democratic right.
Bolsonaro is known for his politically incorrect candor regarding gays, women, and minority communities such as indigenous people and those of African descent.The president-elect essentially ran on the platform of making Brazil great again. With steadily increasing crime and unemployment paired with stagnant wages and a decreasing trust in government, the people of Brazil perceived Bolsonaro committed to draining the political swamp, creating jobs and reducing crime. Brazil is also facing an immigration crisis as Venezuelans are fleeing their country in hopes of escaping the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.Brazilians are uneasy about the influx of foreigners entering their borders and possibly shaping the future of Brazil, culturally and economically. Some say that Bolsonaro’s aspirations for Brazil and the means by which he plans to execute them are reminiscent of the authoritarian military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. Those who share this sentiment are divided: some did not mind the dictatorial reign because they witnessed peace and low rates of crime; others are disappointed that Brazilians do not or cannot, because of their young age, remember the political and social suppression fostered.
So, can his election to office really be the commencement of another round of democratic backsliding in Brazil? I am not convinced. To be more accurate, I think his presidency may be the beginning of an illiberal democracy with executive aggrandizement features as defined by Bermeo in her “On DemocraticBacksliding,” in which Brazilians are okay with a portion of the population losing rights if it means reducing crime and corruption along with improving the economy. Alternatively, Brazil maybe another example of a “pseudodemocracy,” defined as “formally democratic political institutions, such as multiparty electoral competition, [masking](often, in part, to legitimate) the reality of authoritarian domination” inLarry Diamond’s “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.”
I cannot undoubtedly say Jair Bolsonaro’s election is a solid case of democratic backsliding if the Brazilian people chose him, at least fundamentally speaking.“We are still far from consensus on what constitutes ‘democracy,’” says Diamond. Those who vote for populist figures using nationalism as a means to amplify their platform appeal to those who feel their nation is under attack culturally, politically and economically. Bolsonaro’s Brazil will indeed be a departure from liberal democracy, which has traditionally found favor amongst many political scientists internationally, but a democracy nonetheless. Maybe populist presidencies are the new wave of democracy political scientists should come to accept or maybe the rise of these presidencies will revive the determination to pursue and instill liberal democracies.