Brazil is the fifth largest democracy in the world, it is also currently one of the most fragile. While President Jair Bolsonaro often claims to defend “democracy”, contradictorily, he has put Brazil’s democracy further at risk. He has done this by limiting the freedom of the press, spreading misinformation, and attempting to take power away from the judicial branch in order to consolidate more power for himself.
Delegitimizing Elections Through Baseless Claims of Fraud
President Jair Bolsonaro claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system is rigged and maintains that the last two presidential elections were tainted by fraud. Since 1996, Brazil has used electronic voting machines, which do not have access to the internet. President Bolsonaro would like the voting machines to print a paper receipt of the vote, which would then be placed into a physical ballot box, in an attempt to prevent fraud. His claims of electoral fraud have not been proven or supported by any evidence. Luis Barroso, the Superior Electoral Tribunal president, states that Bolsonaro’s proposal is “a risky solution to a problem that does not exist”. Barroso also suggests that this could actually help facilitate fraud that Brazil previously experienced with paper ballots. The President has hinted at cancelling the 2022 election altogether if his proposal does not go through, warning that Brazilians “could not permit the existing electoral system to remain in place and that there could not be elections that create doubts among voters” (https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/15/brazil-bolsonaro-threatens-democratic-rule#). The electoral tribunal has dismissed Bolsonaro’s claims as ‘disinformation’. In a bid to hold him accountable, they have gone as far to open investigations against him regarding his allegations of fraud within the election system (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-58479028). The attack on the election system is merely a way to undermine citizens’ fundamental rights and democratic institutions in Brazil. If President Bolsonaro is not re-elected, these baseless claims of electoral fraud set up a platform for him to contest the will of the people if he loses.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the severity of the virus. Brazil has the world’s second highest toll in terms of COVID-19-related deaths. In March 2020, Bolsonaro stated the effect of the virus was similar to a minor cold (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/project-authoritarian-bolsonaro-pandemic-erosion-democracy-brazil-en/). However, the President has capitalized on the virus in terms of acquiring greater power and adopting a more authoritarian leadership style. At the beginning of the global outbreak, Bolsonaro fired Brazil’s health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who strictly followed the World Health Organization’s public guidelines. A week later, Sergio Moro’s resignation as the Brazilian justice minister created an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis. Moro accused President Bolsonaro of interfering with Brazil’s Federal Police. The President appointed Alexandre Ramagem, who was formerly the head of Brazil’s intelligence agency, as the new federal police director (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/project-authoritarian-bolsonaro-pandemic-erosion-democracy-brazil-en/). It is important to note that the Bolsonaro family also has personal ties to Ramagem. As a result, Justice Alexandre de Moraes vetoed his appointment. In response, President Bolsonaro encouraged his supporters to protest against Congress and the Supreme Court. Many of these protests turned violent and resulted in journalists suffering physical assaults.
As the pandemic worsened in 2020, Bolsonaro fired another health minister, Dr. Nelson Teich, due to conflicting views on how to respond to the pandemic. Dr. Teich was replaced by Eduardo Pazuello, a former army general with no medical training. Pazuello joined more than six thousand military personnel currently working under President Bolsonaro’s administration, suggesting an increase in militarization (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/brazil/2021-11-01/democracy-dying-brazil?utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20211130).
Conflict with the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court and Congress have had a hard time checking Bolsonaro’s actions and power. The president utilizes the spread of misinformation and threats to intimidate the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is currently in charge of investigations into Bolsonaro’s behavior. Supreme Court Justice Moraes oversees the federal police investigation into whether Bolsonaro interfered with “internal federal police appointments to further his personal interests” (https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/15/brazil-bolsonaro-threatens-democratic-rule#). This investigation is specifically looking into Bolsonaro’s appointment of Alexandre Ramagem. On September 7, 2021, President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he would not support any decision by Justice Moraes. Bolsonaro also instructed Justice Moraes to close the investigations involving his conduct and told the Chief Justice, Luiz Fux, “the justice system can suffer something we don’t want to happen” if Moraes is not punished. On September 8, 2021, Chief Justice Fux stated that “insulting justices and inciting non-compliance with judicial decisions are anti-democratic, illegal, and intolerable practices” (https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/15/brazil-bolsonaro-threatens-democratic-rule#).