Brazil’s recently elected 38th president, Jair Bolsonaro, has spread his name globally through his offensive comments and provocative far-right political views. While these things have earned him the nickname ‘Brazilian Trump,’ they have also called into question his dedication to democracy. Though it is simply far too soon to call Bolsonaro any kind of autocrat, his election into office does create the need to examine his words for any signs of dangerous, anti-democratic tendencies. Upon examination of these famous quotes, it is clear from the nature of his statements that his political solutions can often lie in anti-democratic forms of governance and power. Particularly, when one looks at his comments regarding past Latin American dictatorships we see an attitude that could imply deeper authoritarian sentiments. To put it in terms of the indicators detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, Bolsanaro’s declarations of admiration contain proof of his “weak commitment to democratic rules of the game” as well as his desire to encourage violence.
Consider, for instance, a 1993 interview with Bolsanaro that was published in The New York Times. This interview features a candid statement from Bolsanaro where he explains his desire for a new Brazilian dictatorship. The language of the statement illustrates his disillusionment with democracy, as he calls the Brazilian democracy ‘irresponsible’ and explains that the solution to “-serious national problems-” lays in authoritarianism. Obviously, this statement reflects the fact that, at least at one time, Bolsanaro did not feel committed to democracy as a means for bettering Brazil as a country. His words speak to his willingness to turn to anti-democratic means to solve problems, demonstrating a concerning lack of faith in democratic institutions. However, the desire for a dictatorship does not make someone a dictator and, thus, says little about how a leader might envision the consolidation of executive power. This is why we turn to his comments regarding Alberto Fujimori.
Alberto Fujimori’s time as Peru’s president was colored by a myriad of authoritarian acts. The 1992 Peruvian Constitutional Crisis was one of the most significant, as Fujimori dissolved both the legislature and judiciary, absorbing their power and sending the military to harass legislators. To this act, Bolsanaro expressed sympathy for Fujimori, detailing his own desire to dissolve the Brazilian legislature, which would allow a president to “-rule by decree,” citing ‘corruption’ and ‘inflation’ as motivations. Bolsanaro highlights the benefits of eroding basic institutions, revealing three things about himself with this statement: his contempt for the legislature, his willingness to derail the regime, and his fondness for consolidated executive power. These traits are consistent with his status as a populist and political outsider, but these anti-establishment traits contain a clear disdain for democratic norms. Bolsanaro finds inspiration in Peruvian authoritarianism, discovering solutions to ethical and economic problems in bolstered executive power. This clearly demonstrates Bolsanaro’s lack of commitment to democratic rules while suggesting how he may go about consolidating power while in office. However, it doesn’t say nearly enough about his commitment to violence.
Over the course of his political career, Bolsanaro has been an extremely vocal proponent of torture as well as an admirer of the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985. While he has made a myriad of comments regarding both of these things, one stands out amongst the many. After declaring the superiority of the past dictatorship, Bolsanaro has been famously quoted as saying that the regime’s great failure was to “torture and not kill”. Not only is he endorsing past political violence, but he wishes to surpass it. He views violence as an essential aspect of maintaining order, stressing the severity of this violence by criticizing the old regime.
Furthermore, consider the way Bolsanaro views the dictatorship. He admires it and longs for the ‘period of prosperity’ it brought to Brazil. We are once again seeing him attempt to find a solution outside of the realm of democracy. He views modern Brazil as a place of economic trouble and widespread corruption, and he looks to the past for a ‘better time,’ disregarding the harm of authoritarianism in favor of the ‘prosperity’ he feels it brought his country. When coupled with the aforementioned statements, this suggests autocratic tendencies that could result in this president potentially eroding Brazilian democracy simply to solve economic and ethical issues. His leadership should be watched cautiously, especially at such a tumultuous point in Brazilian political history, as Bolsanaro does not view democracy as part of the solution to democratic Brazil’s problems.
*Photo by Mauro Pimente. “Jair Bolsonaro waves to the crowd after voting in Rio de Janeiro on October 28.” (AFP), Getty Images.”