Researchers posit that increases in certain types of political violence can encourage democratic erosion. Indeed, the analysis of one research study concludes that state-sponsored (or condoned) political violence is one of the greatest risk factors precipitating democratic erosion, on par with the presence of populist parties and previous failed attempts at erosion (Hill et. al, 2018). This issue is particularly salient in Brazil where, over the last several years, government condoned political violence has threatened democracy by validating violence against poor and marginalized communities; condoning violence against human rights advocates and local politicians; and encouraging “modernized” forms of violence such as austerity measures and hateful rhetoric (Desimone, 2019).
State-sponsored (or condoned) political violence has stifled political activism in poor urban communities throughout Brazil; communities that have been othered by Bolsonaro. Traditional views hold that increased rates of violence in Brazil over the last 30 years resulted from poverty combined with a failed state. However, new research suggests that rather than being caused by a failed state, increased violence on a country wide scale is in large part due to condoning and legitimizing violence against the poor (Benoit, 2021). Such violence is often committed in the name of security and results in a chain of bloody reactions. Indeed, Bolsonaro was in favor of decreasing the age to legally try youth as adults, enacting more brutal sentences, and increasing use of deadly force by police. Many human rights advocates argued that such policies specifically target black youths from underprivileged areas (Human Rights, 2019). The “war on drugs” also constitutes a prominent example of political violence which disproportionately affects the black urban poor (Benoit, 2021).
The political participation (or lack thereof) of the urban poor of Brazil is marked by fear exacerbated by the state and its “war on drugs” (Iglesias, 2022). Indeed, researchers posit that campaigns such as the war on drugs or violent persecution of leftist groups by the state lead to another form of political expression: gangs (Benoit, 2021). They argue that the fear engendered by state sponsored violence and/ or oppression (indeed, oppression can be a form of violence against a social group en masse) may induce the urban poor to flock to gangs; organizations that allow for some form of political expression when traditional civil liberties and political rights are not protected (Benoit, 2021). Civil liberties and political freedoms, important aspects of a strong democracy, erode quickly when faced with state-sponsored or mass violence.
In Brazil, one facet of state-sponsored political violence has been the failure to take seriously violence against human rights advocates and local politicians. The politicization of crime and the subsequent painting of human rights advocates as defenders of criminals is part of this issue. Such attitudes have generated a narrative that justifies state-sponsored or public violence towards human rights advocates. The bloody assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman and human rights advocate Marielle Franco is a testament to this. The fact that this happened almost five years ago, and sufficient effort has not been poured into finding justice is telling. However, Marielle Franco is not alone (Benoit, 2021). Sixteen human rights advocates were also assassinated in Brazil in 2020 (Ramirez, 2022). Aside from human rights advocates, political assassinations in general are sadly commonplace in Brazil. Between 2001 and 2017 there were 2,241 local politicians assassinated in Brazil (Carvalho, 2021). Political violence is not merely used to affect elections, but also to “solve political disputes over control of the spoils associated with the administrative control of the state” by corrupt politicians (Carvalho, 2021). Violence also allows for the evasion of accountability and culpability on the part of the government (Iglesias, 2022). A major sign of democratic erosion is when political entities violently attack others (Hill et. al, 2018). In addition, governments that condone (or at least do not seriously prosecute) extrajudicial killings create an atmosphere of fear for vulnerable social groups. This fear may prevent the “othered” part of the population from truthfully expressing their public opinions and active political participation, thus also weakening democracy (Iglesias & Cheng, 2022).
State sponsored violence, however, does not have to take the “traditional” form of killings and disappearances. It would seem like Bolsonaro, at least in some respects, followed a more “modernized” strategy; “the use of media and financial creative destruction – ‘austerity’” to perpetrate violence against Brazilian citizens (Desimone, 2019). Austerity fiscal measures often disproportionately affect the poorest members of society, who bear the heaviest burdens of privatization and cuts in social programming and education. Such measures only further marginalize and inhibit the political participation of the poor, thus ensuring that Brazil’s democracy remains in the hands of elites. Some also argue that inflammatory, divisive and hate filled rhetoric by political leaders is a form of verbal political violence that precipitates physical violence in the populace. For example, it is likely that Bolsonaro’s intensely hateful rhetoric towards the LGBTQA+ population had a hand in the killing of 152 LGBTQA+ persons between September 2019 to September 2020, which by the way, was the highest total in the world for that period (Ramirez, 2022). This type of rhetoric purposely persecutes and instills fear in specific sectors of the population thereby hindering their full political participation and speech in the public sphere. Such state-sponsored (or condoned) political violence poses a serious threat to democracy and can be a forerunner of democratic erosion.
Benoit, D. (2021). The politics of criminal violence in Brazil: State violence, gang and the plebs. Crime, Law and Social Change, 76(5), 525-541.
Carvalho, M. (2021, July 12). Why are there so many political assassinations in Brazil? Political Violence at a Glance. Retrieved February 27, 2023.
Desimone, A. (2019, May 13). Brazil’s failed war on drugs revisited. openDemocracy. Retrieved February 27, 2023.
Hill, C., Reuschhoff, K., Neto, S., Teng, J., & Watson, B. (2018). Democratic Erosion: An Empirical Approach (thesis). Texas A&M University.
Human Rights Measurement Initiative. (2019). The Future of Human Rights in Brazil. Human Rights Measurement Initiative. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from
Iglesias, S. (2022). Violence and Impunity: Democratic Backsliding in the Philippines and the 2022 Elections. Pacific Affairs, Suppl.Special Issue, 95(3), 575-593.
Iglesias, S., & Cheng, C.-Y. (2022, October). Does State-Sponsored Violence lead to Democratic Erosion? Evidence from a list Experiment in the Phillipines. London School Of Economics, Southeast Asia.
Ramírez, E. (2022, January 11). Democracy and human rights in Latin America Is democratic erosion gathering pace? Think Tank European Parliament.