In August of 2016, Brazil’s Senate successfully impeached President Dilma Rousseff based on charges of corruption. This was an impressive effort; however, does this mean that Brazil’s safeguards for democracy are strong enough to outlast the rise of the populist demagogue, Jair Bolsonaro?
Bolsonaro has long ticked off all the warning signs for an authoritarian politician—with flying colors. Despite the lack of effort in disguising his extremist tendencies, Bolsonaro obtained 55.2% of votes in the free and fair elections of 2018.
So, this is old news, right? Bolsonaro has been in power for three years now, and his relentless jabs at gay people, Brazilians of color, and democratic institutions have been rendered clear to the entire globe. His aggressive conservative politics, weak response to Covid-19, and blatant disrespect for democracy have led his approval rating to plummet, with two-thirds of Brazilian citizens rejecting him as of September 2021.
From this data, Bolsonaro’s re-election seems dubious, however, there has been growing concern regarding his recent attitudes. Bolsonaro has repeatedly underscored his adherence to the cookie-cutter mold of an extremist demagogue, and this has caused uncertainty over the next election cycle. As emphasized in How Democracies Die, by Levitsky and Ziblatt, one of the main sources of democratic backsliding is the rise of a political outsider, which can be identified through four main behaviors.
The first of which is “rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game”. This has been repeatedly observed with Bolsonaro, however, he has emboldened this behavior in a harrowing manner over the last year. Concerned over his growing unpopularity, Bolsonaro has begun setting the stage for election fraud claims. Just last month, the Human Rights Watch director in Brazil, Maria Canineu stated: “President Bolsonaro tried to weaken the pillars of democracy, attacking the judiciary and repeating baseless allegations of electoral fraud”. He has made several strides to restrict the 2022 elections, including by limiting voting solely to paper ballots. This came after unfounded claims that the electronic machines were compromised. Evidently, Bolsonaro is gearing up to contest the 2022 election results, as his left-wing opponent, former President Da Silva, is racking up almost twice as many supporters in the early polls. Instilling mistrust in the election process constitutes a very serious threat to democracy, as free-and-fair elections are widely considered to be one of the most important features of a stable democracy.
The second key indicator of authoritarian behavior outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt is: “denies the legitimacy of opponents”. In January of 2021, most of Bolsonaro’s preferred candidates such as Gomes and Marcelo were battered in the first rounds of the municipal races. As a result, Bolsonaro began questioning the integrity of his party’s opposition, and in general, their elections. Additionally, he organized several rallies, notably on September 7th, where he attacked the Supreme Court and Congress, institutions run by his opposition, for overstepping their power and being incompetent. Undermining the legitimacy of one’s opponents and encouraging supporters to follow suit is an extremely serious threat; a system cannot effectively be considered a democracy without the mutual toleration of competing parties.
The third key indicator for authoritarian behavior is “tolerates or encourages violence”. Bolsonaro’s aggressive mannerisms when it comes to political gains have always been salient. In the Fall 2021 rallies, he deplored the fact that Brazil’s military dictatorship didn’t kill at least 30,000 people, and described Colonel Ustra, the head of a torture center in the 1970s, as a hero. He even went as far as stating: “I am in favor of torture- you know that. And the people are in favor of it, too”. Not only is he encouraging violence in a system that is supposed to be based on cooperation, but he is decreeing the will of the people to be violent.
The last criterion outlined by Levitsky and Ziblatt is “indicates a willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media”. Bolsonaro made perhaps the boldest statement on this account last October during a rally in São Paolo. He stated, in reference to his political opponents: “This group, if they want to stay, they will have to abide by our laws. Either they stay out or they will go to jail”. This indicates a complete disregard of his opponent’s authority, and the laws that protect their power. Not only is Bolsonaro indifferent to the democratic rules of the game, but he would use extrajudicial and violent means to bring down his competition.
So, are Brazil’s safeguards against democratic erosion strong enough to keep Bolsonaro away from the presidential podium?
As outlined by several experts, including Levitzy and Ziblatt, in order to avoid democratic erosion via a populist demagogue, political elites must adamantly refuse to align with his agenda and unify to keep him off mainstream party tickets. There have been some notable attempts from political elites at protecting Brazilian democracy from Bolsonaro. For example, in August of 2021, Brazil’s electoral authority, the TSE, announced that they would launch an investigation into Bolsonaro’s potentially criminal dispersion of false voter-fraud claims. Additionally, that same month, Supreme Court Justice de Moraes approved an investigation into Bolsonaro’s unfounded claims of the electronic voting system being fraudulent.
These measures from potent political elites are a step in the right direction: they are taking collective action against Bolsonaro’s jabs at Brazilian democracy. However, the battle is far from over: Bolsonaro is continuously undermining democracy and is not afraid to act outside the bounds of the law. For example, his response to De Moraes’ investigation, which he claimed as unconstitutional, was: “the antidote to this is also not within the bounds of the constitution”.
Bolsonaro’s disregard for his opponent’s legitimacy, his indifference towards breaking the law, and his propagation of misinformation and violence are what make him such a notable threat to Brazilian democracy. There must be a sustained effort to prevent Bolsonaro’s distortion of the 2022 elections—if not, this may be the end of democracy in Brazil for the foreseeable future.