Three years ago, former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, stood behind bars, with his best years seemingly behind him. After being released in 2019 due to a Supreme Court ruling on imprisonment procedures, Lula has been the subject of what is perhaps the most spectacular political comeback since Napoleon’s return from exile in 1815. Against all odds, Lula went from prisoner to president; and defeated political rival and incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, and now stands as the president-elect of Brazil.
Following the result of the contentious election, tens of thousands of supporters of far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, have taken to the streets declaring that the election was fraudulent. Disturbingly, crowds have gathered near army bases, demanding that the military forcibly intervene to overturn the outcome of the election. Much like in the United States, the political climate of Brazil is intensely polarized, and the overwhelming majority of constituents, believe that the government is deeply corrupt. According to Nara Pavão, an Assistant Professor of political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco, sentiments similar to “all politicians are the same: they all steal; they are all dishonest” were commonplace among a Brazilian focus group polled on their views of corruption in politics. The anti-government sentiment and polarization shared between the electorates of the United States and Brazil is made even more concerning in light of recent events in both nations; where a far-right demagogue with a cult-like following failed to win reelection, refused to concede, and had thousands of their devoted supporters march through the streets in protest. In the case of the United States, these events culminated in the now infamous January 6th attack targeting the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.
In Brazil, Lula’s margin of victory was razor thin: the former president scraped by to win the election, garnering just 50.9 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent. By comparison, President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 over then incumbent Donald Trump was far more decisive; each candidate collected 51.3 and 46.8 percent of the vote respectively, with the remaining votes cast for third parties. Though the United States doesn’t employ the popular vote to elect the president, the margin was still close enough for Trump to claim that the election was stolen, and to encourage his supporters to attack the nation’s democratic institutions. With even thinner margins defining his defeat, Bolsonaro, should he follow in Trump’s footsteps, could propose a stronger objection to the results of the election. As of November 5th, 2022, Bolsonaro has neither accepted nor rejected the outcome of the vote. Most crucially, though, on November 2nd, three days after the votes had been tallied, the outgoing president made his first public appearance since the election. In his speech, he did not encourage his supporters to stand down, signaling that he may be open to challenging the result of the election in the coming weeks leading up to Lula’s inauguration in January.
Thin margins are not the only factor pointing to the vulnerability of Brazilian democracy, though. According to Vox, fervent anti-corruption sentiment across Latin America has led the nations of the region down a path of selective prosecution and has opened the door to politicians dismantling the rule of law to protect their preexisting power. Specifically, corruption investigations stemming from the Earth-shattering scandal known as “Operation Car Wash”, pose a potent threat to the stability of the nations involved. The “Operation Car Wash” money laundering scheme, exposed in 2014, centers on a gas station and laundromat in Brasília. According to Vox, the exposure of the scandal has led to “a sprawling web of allegations, indictments, and convictions that implicate top companies, businesspeople, and politicians throughout Latin America”. While exposure of corruption, and the subsequent prosecutions of the powerful people involved usually indicates that a society’s democratic institutions are healthy, and that no one is above the law, in the case of Latin American countries, the ripples of the scandal are having the opposite effect: According to Vox, the wave of anti-corruption action has prompted incumbent politicians to defend their way of life by dismantling efforts to hold them to account. In Brazil, conservative politicians succeeded in using the corruption scandal as a pretext to steal power away from the left-wing government. In 2016, Dilma Rousseff, then President of Brazil, was impeached based on a flimsy assertion that her fiscal mismanagement was tied to a broader corruption scandal, even though she herself was never implicated. Her impeachment, and the subsequent remainder of her term, served by her unpopular successor, Michel Temer, directly facilitated the rise of Jair Bolsonaro.
In addition to the dubious circumstances under which conservatives sabotaged the reputation of Brazil’s left-wing government, Bolsonaro’s track record indicates that he may very well choose to act against the will of the Brazilian people to cling on to power. In 2018, Lula was imprisoned, and subsequently barred by the Supreme Court from challenging Bolsonaro in the presidential election that same year. It was later revealed that the judge in Lula’s corruption case, Sergio Moro, who was later promoted to become Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice, and the prosecution had collaborated to convict the former president as a means to ensure Bolsonaro’s victory in the 2018 Presidential Election. The outgoing president reportedly hoped that Lula would “rot in prison”. Seeing that the President holds such disdain for his political rival and has no misgivings using every tool available to him to suppress Lula’s electoral challenges, it would come as no surprise should he decide to contest the election. With a history scarred by military dictatorship and political instability, the future of Brazil’s democratic institutions depends on how events unfold in the coming weeks.