Brazil is one of the world’s largest democracies. In 2018, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, President. Since then, he has been undermining their democracy. By using populist rhetoric to get elected and advance his political agenda, Bolsonaro threatens Brazil’s democracy with constitutional retrogression, stealth authoritarianism, and potentially a promissory coup.
Populism is a thin-centered ideology which separates society into two groups: the people and the corrupt elite. A populist claims to acting as the will of the people. The true people. Pluralism is key to democracy, but the populist approach is anti-pluralism. Populists’ rhetoric delegitimize the opposition. Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign strategy was rooted in populism. Brazil’s political history and climate made this easy. Brazil also has a history of populist leaders from Getúlio Vargas back in 1930, to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (Lula) in the early 2000s. Additionally, corruption in Brazil is nothing new. The car wash scandal resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and implicated the President before her, Lula, and made it easy for Bolsonaro to paint the image of “us the people vs them the corrupt political elite.”
Paired with the recession, the mass corruption in government led to polarization and distrust of established politicians and their parties. The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the workers’ party, received the majority of the blame since they had been the party in power. This was the perfect climate for Bolsonaro to run as a populist. He was both anti-establishment and opposed to the PT. It is clear why this approach worked in Brazil. Populist leaders can be an attractive option for voters who feel their government has been failing them. With so much focus on the corruption of the political elite in Brazil, even before Bolsonaro ran for president, it was easy for him to step in as a populist and a strongman.
While in office, his rhetoric against the establishment and Brazil’s democratic institutions has not slowed down. In speeches during September of last year, Bolsonaro attacked the Supreme Court and Brazil’s election systems. His rhetoric attacking the institutions of democracy is key to his populism. Since he is the true will of the people, his attacks on the institutions paint them as against the people. By sowing the seeds of mistrust in institutions and the elections system specifically, he is setting himself up to target them further.
His discussion of elections are of particular concern since competitive elections are a key staple of democracy and electoral procedures are one of the main targets for authoritarian leaders to undermine. Bolsonaro has claimed that both the 2014 and 2018 presidential elections were fraudulent, even though he won the 2018 election. Similarly to former President Donald Trump, he claimed that he got more votes than the official count. Bolsonaro has pushed for new voting machines while Luís Barroso, Supreme Court Justice and current Superior Electoral Tribunal President, argues there has never been fraud and that Bolsonaro’s proposal “is a risky solution to a problem that does not exist.” To make matters worse, Bolsonaro has signland he migt not accept the results of the 2022 election unless Brazil switches to the voting system he wants. Additionally he is behind former President Lula, who is running for president again, in the polls. A key mechanism of stealth authoritarianism is changing electoral laws so that they benefit those already in power.
Tied in with the concerns over the upcoming 2022 presidential election, Bolsonaro has strong military ties. Not only did he use to serve in Brazil’s army, but he has often defended and celebrated the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985. Bolsonaro’s service was also during the time of the dictatorship. He also stated in a 2016 interview that “the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture but not kill.” While in office, he has flooded the federal government with over 6,000 current and retired members of the military, including cabinet positions. Bolsonaro has also made sure he is in good standing with the military through funding. Out of a $19 billion budget, $5 billion was allocated to armed forces and police budgets. Additionally he also ensured that they would see an increase in their salries. With the military so closely aligned with Bolsonaro, his comments from before his presidency and while in office are of great concern. Two decades ago, Bolsonaro said he would stage a coup if he were president. In January 2021, Bolsonaro said “It is the Armed Forces who decide whether a people will live in a democracy or a dictatorship. There is no dictatorship where the Armed Forces do not support. In Brazil, we still have freedom. If we do not recognize the value of these men and women who are there, everything can change.” The combination of Bolsonaro’s attacks on Brazil’s electoral system while being behind in the race with his strong backing and threats of military force should not be ignored. Bolsonaro could very well be setting himself up to hold onto power if he is not the winner of the 2022 election. This is certainly an extreme, but it is important to recognize signs of a potential promissory coup.
Bolsonaro has also recently clashed with the Supreme Court yet again, this time undermining their decision. A lawmaker was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison for inciting violence against the justices on the Court saying; “May the people enter the Supreme Court, grab Alexandre de Moraes by his collar, shake his egghead and throw him in a garbage can.” The day after the Court’s decision, Bolsonaro pardoned the lawmaker. While the President of Brazil does have the power to pardon those who are convicted, it normally comes at the end of the year and is not for specific political allies. It is just another example of Bolsonaro using his executive authority for constitutional retrogression by weakening the Court.
Considering his rhetoric, his interactions with the courts, his wish for a new voting system, and ties with the military, Bolsonaro poses a real threat to Brazil’s democracy. Because of his populist rhetoric, he has put himself in a position of being the moral will of the people which he can use to justify any action. If he loses the 2022 election he can use that moral authority to justify a coup. Bolsonaro’s methods of stealth authoritarianism and constitutional retrogression at the very least pose a significant threat to democratic norms and institutions in Brazil. At the very worst, they could lead to an end to Brazil being a democratic nation.