On October 28, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party was elected President of Brazil. Despite the party’s name, politically Bolsonaro can be categorized as espousing several authoritarian beliefs, such as increased latitude for the police/military and vastly increased intolerance for political dissent. He has a long track record of incendiary statements about various minorities, about his perceived solutions to Brazil’s crime issues, and about his political opponents. He has also openly expressed admiration for Brazil’s former military dictatorship (1964-1985). Given the structure of Brazil’s democracy, the events of the recent past, and Bolsonaro’s rhetoric that also portrays him as acting constitutionally, it is possible for Bolsonaro to engage in fairly severe democratic backsliding without exceeding the bounds of the law/the constitution, even if his rhetoric routinely exceeds those bounds.
Bolsonaro was elected in a political climate that included massive public furor at political corruption, an economy that hasn’t recovered from a recent recession, and an extensive and severe crime problem. The political corruption was exposed in a massive sweep called Operation Car Wash, in which millions of dollars of kickbacks and corrupt money was uncovered in a web tying together politicians like Dilma Rouseff and Lula da Silva with companies such as Petrobras. While the corruption uncovered was undoubtedly massive and the cleanup of Brazil’s politics is presumably the right move, there is room for accusations of the investigation being potentially politically motivated with some of its targets. Bolsonaro has appointed the judge who effectively led Operation Car Wash (which targeted just about every political opponent of Bolsonaro) as his justice minister. This unfortunately sets a precedent where Bolsonaro can call in a massive investigation of any of his political opponents to preclude them from running against him or forming a viable opposition and because it is conducted under the flag of anti-corruption, it will enjoy a fairly large popular mandate.
Bolsonaro has called for the expansion of police and military authority with regards to crime, by calling for increased latitude in terms of the authority with which force is used, getting the police and military to essentially act as judge, jury and executioner. Traditionally, such expansions of the use of force by the state tend to manifest themselves as an increase in a spate of extrajudicial killings (which already admittedly occur in Brazil frequently) and disappearances but Bolsonaro has been advocating for this expansion via legislation, which serves as a legal means of degrading people’s rights under a democratic state. There is already precedent for this type of action since the Brazilian military has been deployed to Rio de Janeiro to augment/replace the police from February 2018 onward under a clause in the constitution that allows for deployment of the military in the case of a serious threat to public order. From March to September, almost 1 in 4 people killed in Rio de Janeiro have been killed by the state, a trend which looks to expand under Bolsonaro.
With regards to governmental function itself, Bolsonaro has appointed a very high amount of military/former military personnel to his cabinet, which does not bode well for democracy in a country that has had military dictatorships in its past. Bolsonaro did not seem to engage in blatant vote manipulation or gain power via a coup, reflecting the trends shown by Bermeo that democratic erosion is moving away from blatant flouting of democratic institutions to situations where backsliding occurs subtly and via legal/constitutional means, in the manner of the stealth authoritarianism described by Varol. Reinforcing this is that Bolsonaro’s allies have been elected to lead both chambers of the Brazilian legislature which will help get many of Bolsonaro’s illiberal ideas codified into legislation and turned into law. This combination of factors show that democratic backsliding need not leave the bounds of the law or the Brazilian constitution to occur in Brazil, because there would be measures to implement an undemocratic level of repression on the population which disproportionately affects sectors of the population already disadvantaged and discriminated against (which undermines the democratic principle of equal rights) and measures to ensure that the opposition has a much more difficult time being politically viable and impedes a successful nonviolent transition of power (necessary for a healthy democracy).
1) Nancy Bermeo. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed April 21, 2019).
2) Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-1742