As long as now-infamous leader Jair Bolsonaro has been in power, both Brazilian and foreign experts have warned of the threat he and his administration pose to the world’s fifth largest democracy. Almost immediately after coming into power, Bolsonaro started displaying concerning signs that he may be a threat to the health of Brazilian democracy. Now, almost three years later, he has continued down this dangerous road, sparking fears that the erosion of Brazil’s democracy is nearing the point of no return. Some of the more shocking aspects of Bolsonaro’s presidency have been his widespread militarization of the Brazilian government, closure of numerous local and federal courts, and refusal to accept the outcome of Brazilian Supreme Court verdicts.
As the 2022 Brazilian presidential election creeps ever closer, there is growing concern over whether or not Bolsonaro and his supporters will concede defeat in the election, should the results fall against their favor. Most notably, Bolsonaro himself recently cited Brazil’s electronic vote counting system as valid reason for him to object to the results, taking after his personal champion, Donald Trump. Considering Bolsonaro continues to slip further down in the polls, many Brazilians are bracing for potential political turmoil, and potentially more serious societal side effects from what is turning out to be the most polarized Brazilian election since the establishment of their democracy in 1985. As discussed by Acemoglu and Robinson, young democracies like Brazil are often most vulnerable to democratic erosion, especially when a divisive figure like Bolsonaro with an anti-democratic agenda comes into power. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that these figures frequently rise to political prominence during times of widespread public displeasure with the sitting government and Brazil has faced no short of such instability over the past decade or so, and similarly to Trump, Bolsonaro gained a lot of support for promising to ‘drain the swamp’ and end decades of deep-rooted political corruption. He has even gone as far as to repeatedly call for the jailing of his liberal opponent, bringing to memory Trump’s chants of “lock her up” that defined his 2016 presidential campaign.
But many would argue that Bolsonaro poses a much larger threat to his country’s democracy than Trump, as the extent to which he has gone to limit the freedom of the Brazilian press is beyond concerning. Similar to Trump, Bolsonaro makes major political and policy announcements on his social media accounts. Unlike Trump however, he has turned his social media feed into a way of projecting a pristine public image, blocking those who do not support his announcements and who publicly oppose him on social media. These people, who include journalists, congressmen, and members of the public, are deprived of arguably the most important stream of Brazilian political news available to the world. On the other hand, Bolsonaro claims that he is the one who is in fact having his right to free speech taken away from him, as numerous posts on his account have been taken down and removed on the grounds of “spreading misinformation”.
As the 2022 election date continues to grow closer, it is difficult to ignore the dire situation that is ongoing in Brazil, as the warning signs for political turmoil and violence to occur are all there. If Bolsonaro were to lose the election like the polls suggest, he has repeatedly stated that he and his supporters are unlikely to accept the results, while seemingly making vague suggestions that the Brazilian Armed Forces Commanders should support him, and suggesting that he may cancel the election entirely if the voting system is not changed. Bolsonaro is not only exhibiting the same signs that he will follow in Trump’s footsteps, he is taking more extreme measures to ensure his political future, steps that are undoubtedly contributing to Brazil’s rapid democratic erosion. Given the recent events at the US capitol, and the multiple deaths that took place that day, and the months following, Brazilians should approach the situation with extreme caution and concern.
Hi Jonathan! I found your article to be fascinating! I definitely agree with your claims that the situation in Brazil is becoming more and more dire and that the international community needs to approach this issue with caution. One area I found particularly interesting was your writing on Bolsonaro’s handling of social media, in particular as Bolsonaro has started to address this issue with legislative power, essentially limiting the ability of social media companies to enforce their regulation policies, in my opinion, likely to protect himself from any consequences Trump suffered after he promoted misinformation in some similar ways to how Bolsonaro seems to want to. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-58470093) As such, in conjunction with your description of Bolsonaro’s treatment of the electoral system and consolidation of power, I think it’s fair to characterize Bolsonaro’s actions as promoting democratic erosion in the form of executive aggrandizement as described by Dr. Nancy Bermeo in her work “On Democratic Backsliding” as Bolsonaro is making institutional changes in regards to how Brazil treats social media regulation, and in doing so he is weakening the ability of others to have a check on his power and prevent him from using popular platforms as propaganda networks, as you seem to describe the current state of Bolsonaro’s account to be. As such, I believe your concern that Bolsonaro is promoting democratic backsliding is true and we can identify the exact variety he’s attempting to pull off. Dr. Bermeo also described the variety of strategic election interference and how authoritarians often work far in advance of election day to start messing with their election results, it will be interesting to see if Bolsonaro is emboldened, or becomes desperate enough, to take after this style, more aggressively than he already is in how he is drawing doubt on the validity of the election.