Brazilian Democracy on the Edge

Published: Oct 28, 2022  |  

Professor at the Department of Sociology based in Porto Alegre, Brazil

This Sunday, Brazilian voters will head again to the ballot boxes for the second round of the arguably most important presidential elections since the country’s redemocratization in the late 1980’s. They will choose between former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores–PT) and the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, currently a member of the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal–PL). In the first round, Lula had 48.4% of the valid votes against 43.2% of Bolsonaro. Recent polls have been favorable to the former left-wing president, but within a margin that makes the outcome of the upcoming elections unpredictable.

Lula and Bolsonaro come from sharply distinct political backgrounds. Lula was projected to the national political landscape during the 1980s as one of the most prominent leaders of the massive union strikes that confronted the legitimacy of the ruling military dictatorship in the country. After being defeated at the first three direct presidential elections that succeeded the authoritarian regime, Lula was finally elected president in 2002 and reelected in 2006. During his and his successor’s Dilma Rousseff (PT) terms, Brazil experienced an intense decrease in its poverty and hunger rates as well as an unprecedented expansion and democratization of its higher education institutions to mention a few examples.

Those governments were interrupted in 2016, when Dilma suffered a controversial impeachment process. In 2018, Lula was arrested on the charge of corruption, a imprisonment that prevented him from running against Bolsonaro in that year’s elections. In 2021, Lula’s sentences were overturned by the country’s Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal–STF). Months earlier, a series of reports had shown how Sergio Moro, the judge who first condemned Lula and later became minister of the Bolsonaro government, had been acting in partnership with the prosecution task force. The Supreme Court then decided that Moro’s court was not only an unsuitable venue for the process, but also that the judge had been biased in his ruling against Lula.

If Lula was one of the most prominent opponents of the military dictatorship, Bolsonaro has been one of its most vocal defenders. He had served as a Congressman in the Brazilian lower house for 28 years between 1991 and 2018. During this period, he achieved national prominence with his authoritarian and misogynistic statements, which earned him constant media coverage. He had once stated, for example, that the military dictatorship should have executed “around 30,000 more.” And, during the Congressional session in which Dilma’s impeachment was voted upon, he offered his position in favor of her impeachment as a tribute to the military man that had tortured her during the authoritarian regime. 

In the 2018 elections, Bolsonaro ran as a symbol of the anti-PT feeling that grew out of the corruption investigations supported by Judge Moro. He forged an alliance with ultraconservative factions of the Catholic and evangelical churches in Brazil, neoliberal economists and businessmen, and factions of the military forces. During the pandemic crisis, Bolsonaro refused to admit the gravity of the situation, spoke out against social distancing measures, defended ineffective treatments for the disease, and initially refused to buy vaccines, wrongfully arguing that they were not scientifically tested.

His actions put Brazil on the path of de-democratization. Bolsonaro stimulated his constituency to provide massive demonstrations of support to the government. During these demonstrations, many attacked institutions that opposed Bolsonaro’s policies explicitly, calling for a coup. Political violence increased. Last September, a Bolsonaro supporter invaded a party decorated with pictures of Lula and shot to death Marcelo Arruda, a treasurer of PT who was celebrating his 50th birthday. On October 23, a week before the second round of presidential elections, Roberto Jefferson, a Congressional ally of Bolsonaro, shot and threw grenades at police officers who tried to arrest him when he violated a house arrest sentence he was placed under because of his involvement in antidemocratic demonstrations.

But the Brazilian de-democratization process could have gone much further during the past four years if it wasn’t for the work of many institutional and civil society actors who opposed and defied his negationist and authoritarian decisions. In the judiciary system, the Brazilian Supreme Court has conducted an inquiry on the spread of misinformation by the government and its allies, as well as on the organization of demonstrations in which protesters openly called for a coup. It was a decision of the Supreme Court that assured that mayors and governors could adopt social distancing strategies during the pandemic despite the negationist approach of the federal government. The Court also ruled that the opposition in Congress could launch an inquiry on the government’s dangerous actions during the pandemic.

In the legislative arena, on the one hand, the far-right president forged alliances with a large faction of Congress by transferring many allocation decisions to budget amendments controlled by the Speaker of the lower-house, a Bolsonaro’s ally. This strategy became known as the “secret budget.” Nevertheless, the opposition forces in Congress managed to question Bolsonaro’s actions during the pandemic. In the Senate, opposition leaders installed a parliamentary inquiry on the actions of the federal government, unveiling its initial unwillingness to buy vaccines and their efforts to build a network of misinformation about the pandemic..

Subnational governments also imposed checks on the actions of the far-right federal administration. Governors from different ideological orientations adopted effective measures against the pandemic despite the negationist orientations of Bolsonaro’s government. The beginning of mass vaccination itself can be interpreted as an indirect outcome of the action of subnational governments. While trying to reshape his political image (strongly associated with Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections), the former governor of São Paulo João Doria (PSDB) supported the development of vaccines by the renowned Brazilian scientific institution Instituto Butantan, pushing the far-right president to buy and distribute them once Doria was his putative adversary in the 2022 presidential elections.

Nevertheless, in a possible second term in office, Bolsonaro might have a chance to act without many of those institutional controls. One of the most important outcomes of the first round of the 2022 elections was the sharp decrease of the traditional center-right parties in Brazil. PSDB, once was the strongest adversary of PT in the federal level, has elected only 13 out of 513 members of the lower house. It has also lost a 28-year control over the most populated state in Brazil, São Paulo. Far-right politicians have largely assumed the positions that were once controlled by center-right parties. In the Senate, five former ministers of Bolsonaro’s government (including Moro), as well as his former vice-president, were elected. Governors aligned with Bolsonaro were also elected such as in Rio de Janeiro and others have good prospects of victory in many other states, including São Paulo.

In the judiciary, during his first term, Bolsonaro appointed two conservative judges among the eleven that form the country’s Supreme Court, including the “terribly evangelical” André Mendonça. A second term would grant him the ability to nominate two other judges. Nevertheless, many fear that with a favorable composition of the Congress, Bolsonaro might propose to increase the number of STF judges to reach a majority of ultraconservative members. Although the far-right president has denied this intention during his campaign, the constant attacks to the country’s Supreme Court voiced by Bolsonaro throughout his presideny send a very different message.

If the founders of contemporary representative systems are correct and “checks and balances” lie at the heart of a functioning democracy, we should worry about next Sunday’s elections in Brazil. A second term in the current scenario could enable Bolsonaro to implement his authoritarian project without the supervision of many institutional actors that curbed his powers during the past years. Sunday’s elections might not only define the Brazilian federal government during the next four years, but also lead the country’s de-democratization march past a point of no return.

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