The global rise of nationalism in recent years has given rise to far-right movements across the globe, but its effects have been contained primarily in the United States, and the West (think Germany, and the UK). That is, contained until the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s rise begs the question: how frail is Brazil’s democracy? In late October 2018, Brazil elected far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro president; he led a popular nationalist movement in a similar style to U.S. President Donald Trump’s, promising to push conservative reforms and drain the political swamp in Brazil. The latter is particularly important for Brazil, as there were ongoing corruption cases against former presidents Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. This context is crucial to understanding how Bolsonaro came to power as a perceived political outsider, even though he had served as a representative for the state of Rio de Janeiro for almost 20 years. He was able to quickly distance himself from this role in his campaign.
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die” provides an ideal framework for understanding Bolsonaro’s rise to power in Brazil. Of particular interest is Bolsonaro’s tolerance for violence directed towards criminals, as Levitsky and Ziblatt would categorize this tolerance representative of an authoritarian politician. Furthermore, Bolsonaro has called for a purge of the opposition party, threatening his opponents that “either they go overseas, or they go to jail.” These two primary indicators suggest that Bolsonaro has high likelihood of being an authoritarian leader. If he is an authoritarian, how much can he potentially alter institutions to his advantage?
While Brazil’s democracy is relatively young (founded in 1985), many of the institutions within the country are well insulated from its executive. The National Congress provides a strong and diverse check on the whim of the executive, as the upper chamber has 19 different parties represented. The current coalition government has a minority of Bolsonaro’s Social Democratic Party represented in both the Senate and the lower chamber, forcing Bolsonaro to have to cross party lines. In addition, Brazil’s congress is known as being one of the least productive in all of Latin America; many bills end up gridlocked in debate without ever being passed. And while disgust with the rampant corruption in the upper echelons of government gave rise to Bolsonaro, this same corruption has emboldened the judiciary to act independently of the executive for what is pretty much the first time in the democracy’s history.
With both the congressional and judicial branches of government appearing difficult for Bolsonaro to control for pushing his agenda, he may have to rely on his own cabinet as well as appeal to his core voters. However, in the few weeks since Bolsonaro took office, he has clashed heavily with members of his own administration on a wide range of issues but particularly with his economic minister on taxes and retirement age. In this same vein Bolsonaro’s off the cuff remarks have already the support of some of his base, as he has discussed increasing taxes (against his primary campaign promises) on lower income brackets to help prop-up struggling Brazilian companies. These actions show that Bolsonaro is playing a dangerous game with an already fragmented congress; he might find it near impossible to pass legislation through political institutions without popular support. Unlike Trump and other similar leaders, Bolsonaro does not have a favorable congress and has already seen some of his base supporters become disillusioned with his promises of “cleaning up” Brazilian politics.
It is easy for those in the United States to overreact to events overseas, as the US media tends to sensationalize developments without fully describing the political moment in full. It is also easy to forget that Brazil is the world’s fourth largest democracy, and possesses a vibrant civil society not unlike that of the United States. While many have described Bolsonaro as the Trump of Latin America, it is unlikely that he will be able to easily complete his agenda in his first term; Brazil’s political system has shown surprising resilience in the aftermath of major scandals. Although the Brazilian people may have lost faith in established politicians, there are no signs that point to a loss of faith in democracy or of the democracy itself.
Photo by US State Department (Flickr), Creative Commons Zero license