Bolsonaro and Brazilian Democracy – The Organization for World Peace
On Thursday, August 11, the Faculty of Law at the University of São Paulo was filled with choirs of pro-democracy chants as thousands of people gathered to hear the reading of two letters in defense of Brazil’s democratic institutions. Although the letters do not directly mention him by name, the two pro-democracy documents were written by legal experts to protest against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s accusations of fraud against the country’s electronic voting system. Critics fear Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated claims only serve to lay the groundwork for coup-like behavior after the October election that polls suggest he will lose. Both letters deliberately recall a 1977 letter defending Brazilian democracy in the face of a military dictatorship. The first manifesto is signed by nearly a million citizens, from former president and current candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to pop star Anitta, while the second contains endorsements from associations representing hundreds of businesses in sectors such as banking, oil and construction. “We live in a moment of immense danger for democratic normality,” the first letter reads, “There is no room for authoritarian backsliding in today’s Brazil. Dictatorship and torture are a thing of the past. While Bolsonaro deny charges against him, the far-right president has repeatedly undermined the country’s democratic institutions with his harsh rhetoric, leaving many worried about the future of Brazilian democracy as elections approach.
During Bolsonaro’s tenure as president, the distant but familiar stench of democratic erosion sparked protests and outcry from many condemning the president and his actions. José Carlos Dias, a former justice minister who co-wrote the 1977 letter and the two recent letters, told The Associated Press he feared the country was at risk of a coup and called on the civil society to “stand up and fight against this to guarantee democracy.” The head of Brazil’s electoral court, Judge Edson Fachin, announced that the electoral justice is “prepared and will conduct the 2022 elections in a clean, transparent and verifiable manner”. He, too, expressed deep concern over Bolsonaro’s accusation of fraud, which he declared are unfounded and “very serious”.
Outside the circles of politicians and judges, thousands took to the streets to protest Bolsonaro’s actions. Carlos Silveira, 43, parades because “it’s more risky to do nothing”. “Bolsonaro suggested a big anti-democratic act before the election, and the military stayed on his side, it seems. We want to show them that we are the majority and that our quest for democracy will win,” a- he told the Associated Press. Another protester, prominent asset manager and former central bank chief, Arminio Fraga, shares this vision: “I am here today…with such a diverse group that has sometimes fought on opposite sides, doing all we can now to preserve what is sacred to all of us.. This is our democracy.
Bolsonaro is “both a symptom and a cause of Brazil’s democratic malaise”, aptly named as such by Oliver Stuenkel, associate professor of international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo. As Bolsonaro made significant turns in the world’s fourth-largest democracy, the potential energy for democratic decline began to build long before the former army paratrooper’s inauguration. Brazil is a nation whose history contains the dark shadow of dictatorship, a shadow that the nation has struggled to face. In 1964, the Brazilian military seized power in a coup, triggering nearly two decades of brutal repression before elections were held again in 1985. As the start of the 21st century brought significant attempts to reign over military influence, the armed forces regained considerable influence. in recent years with a sharp increase under the Bolsonaro administration which contains nearly 6,000 soldiers.
This increase in military might is just one arrow in Bolsonaro’s quiver as he targets Brazil’s political structure. He distorted the demands of external powers on the subject of climate change as an attack on Brazil’s sovereignty, allowing it to tap into nationalist sentiments and “present itself as the last protector of Brazil’s sovereignty”, Stuenkel Explain. The president has also launched attacks on the two main checks on his power: the Supreme Court and Congress. Earlier this year, Bolsonaro took pages from the populist playbook with unsubstantiated claims that lawmakers were bribed to vote against his bill and attacks the Supreme Court as a “communist dictatorship of the judiciary”. A concoction of increased military power and eroding checks and balances, stirred up by a president who has corroded political norms and threatened democratic institutions with rhetoric of “Brazil above all, God above all can become potentially deadly poison for Brazil’s two decades of democracy.
The antidote to this authoritarian poison will require significant outside support. With a regional anti-democratic trend emerging in countries like El Salvador, with the purge of the judicial system by Nayid Burkele, and Nicaragua, with the imprisonment of presidential candidates by Daniel Ortega, a regional reaction to Bolsonaro’s tactics will not probably won’t be strong enough. Other democracies around the world must step up by expressing their confidence in Brazil’s democratic institutions and making it clear that any further action to erode democracy will have economic consequences. Stuenkel recommended tactics such as downgrading military ties between the United States and Europe, halting the Mercosur-EU trade deal, and freezing Brazil’s admission process to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development .
While statements of support from other nations could help mitigate the damage, the real power against Bolsonaro comes from within. Demonstrations and manifestos such as those on Thursday August 11 have taken place across the country and show a promising glimmer of hope for the protection of democracy. Civil society groups from all political backgrounds are uniting to defend their institutions and freedoms, and this uniting to fight tactic has proven effective in countries like the Czech Republic against populist Andrej Babis. Even Brazilian companies, which have traditionally stayed away from political spheres, have intervened. Many companies and even Brazil’s largest labor union are included among the signers of Thursday’s manifestos, and those organizations must make it clear that there will be economic consequences to an authoritarian attack. As they face a strong faction of Bolsonaro supporters, those who support democracy must ignore Bolsonaro’s siren-song promises to control his own behavior and continue to unite across differences, to rein in disinformation and to protest anti-democratic actions.
The October election will serve as a critical point for Brazilian democracy. A victory for Bolsonaro could accelerate democratic backsliding, further diminish already shaky faith in Brazil’s still-young democracy, and lead to deeper illiberalism within the Brazilian government with both humanitarian and economic consequences. A loss would most likely lead to the triggering of the fraudulent trap that Bolsonaro has laid so aggressively. This would deepen national divisions and could lead to an outbreak of violence that could increase military presence and lead to violent repressions, both of which are dangerous precursors to authoritarian consolidation.
Unfortunately, Bolsonaro’s attack on democracy is not unique to Brazil. The president has joined the ranks of far-right leaders in countries including Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Italy and the United States in an alarming populist trend. In fact, threats to democracy increasingly come from within, initiated by leaders who seek to weaken democratic institutions in order to replace their rivals in government and rewrite the rules in a way that erodes the checks and balances counterweight. Disenfranchisement and repression often ensue as power is consolidated and the system that puts people and their rights first is removed. Democracy is accompanied by norms that protect and defend the rights and freedoms of individuals. It is a system that gives voice to the people and holds leaders accountable for their actions. No matter who occupies the Palácio da Alvorada, there is an uphill battle ahead for the citizens of South America’s largest nation who must be on high alert to defend their democracy both for themselves, for the future of Brazil and for democracy itself.