Two parties, two charismatic leaders, and a history of struggling to maintain democracy is the backdrop to this story. The Federative Republic of Brazil has been governing Brazil since 1988 after the last military regime was ended and the newest form of Brazilian democracy began. Brazil is the second-largest democracy in the western hemisphere and the fourth-largest democracy in the world with a population of over 217 million people. Given this history and the importance of the Brazilian government in the greater region, analyzing their democracy is necessary. Democracy in Brazil today faces several challenges including polarization, populist leaders, and corruption from both sides.
An organized anti-corruption movement began in Brazil in 2014 when Magistrate Sergio Moro began Lava Jato, or in English, Operation Car Wash. This operation sought to organize the judicial system to expose corrupt politicians, return stolen finances to the government, and reset the democracy without the high levels of corruption it had seen. The reason this movement began was largely to investigate the Petrobras Scandal where several high-level officials in the state-owned oil company laundered millions of dollars through inflated contracts for various political reasons. The movement reached its peak in prominence when ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was arrested in April of 2018. The significance of this arrest culminated in the election of, a conservative former military officer, President Jair Bolsonaro without his largest rival President Lula to run against him. At first, Operation Car Wash was hailed as the largest and most successful anti-corruption movement in the world, but after a few years to look at the effects and methods the water becomes murkier.
Prosecutors in Lava Jato exclaim their success through statistics where the reports show 1,450 arrest warrants, 179 criminal proceedings, and 174 prison sentences. This success, however, came through methods not necessarily just or in some cases even legal. Using plea-bargains, Magistrate Moro, pushed corruption cases through the court as quickly as possible without a true due process. Furthermore, it was later leaked that a phone messaging app was used to backchannel and strategize so that certain charges would stick. By doing this Moro violated legal principles in Brazil that prevent someone from acting as a prosecutor and a judge. The irony of Operation Car Wash is the corrupt methods they used to convict as many people as they possibly could, especially former President Lula. While these actions were certainly corrupt, the Workers Party fought hard and dirty to protect Lula and others. During this operation, the sitting President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, attempted to appoint Lula as Chief of Staff. At first, it seemed that Dilma was using Lula and his popularity to boost her administration. It was later realized that this was a ploy to protect Lula from prosecution since Brazilian law prevents the Chief of Staff from being prosecuted or tried by anyone other than the Supreme Court. This move only increased distrust in Dilma’s administration, and eventually, the legislature of Brazil found reason to impeach President Rousseff. This further tarnished the Workers Party and the government.
Conservative elements in the Brazilian government including sitting President Bolsonaro have increasingly thrown corruption accusations at their adversaries and used an anti-corruption stance to rally their supporters. Using their anti-corruption stance and populist rhetoric the Liberal Party of Brazil has increased polarization in the country. Using his slogan, “Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone,” Bolsonaro has untied a strong base with approval ratings steadily around 40%. The people behind Bolsonaro share a common interest in a strong-armed government that can truly combat the corruption and political unrest in the country. In fact, parts of the community supporting him even call him, “the Messiah.” With this sort of support and a thin anti-establishment ideology, Bolsonaro is the perfect leader for a growing nationalist and populist movement in Brazil. Movements like these do not always result in catastrophe, but given the history of Brazil, there is definitely a reason for fear.
In the past, two different conservative military dictatorships have excused a coup de tat to make regime change for the “National Security” of Brazil. These dictatorships limited free speech, imprisoned dissenters, and killed some of its citizens. Unlike other Latin American countries that also experienced military dictatorships in the past, Brazil did little to no investigation or prosecution of any members of this crime committing government. What this means for the Brazilian people is a living legacy of a past that hurt so many people. The national narrative around these dictatorships is mixed, and even President Bolsonaro has expressed nostalgia for this authoritarian past. To make things seem worse, after the events that occurred in the United States on January 6th Bolsonaro’s son was quoted saying that with better planning the insurrectionist would have had more success and even, “killing all the police inside or the congressmen they all hate.” Other rhetoric that gives increasing reason for fear of this populist movement was when Bolsonaro claimed that only God could take the upcoming election away from him.
On top of all of this, a curveball was thrown at the Brazilian political landscape when the arguably most popular politician ever in Brazil was released from prison. Just last year, the charges against former President Lula were annulled. By annulling these charges, one judge completely changed the 2022 Presidential election in Brazil. President Lula has reunited the Workers Party against the Liberal Party’s populist wing in order to attempt to win the Presidency. With his popularity and experience in politics and despite the stain of corruption and mal-governance, President Lula stands a great chance of fighting back against the dangerous rhetoric of Bolsonaro and his followers. The scariest part is, that there is no guarantee that there will be a peaceful transition of power should Bolsonaro lose especially after being encouraged by the U.S.’s January 6th incident. Lula has been imprisoned once by the last military dictatorship and once by the current and corrupt government. It seems this election is a popular referendum of the choice between an imperfect democracy or a potential autocracy.