“Tropical Trump”? Bolsonaro's Threat to Brazilian Democracy

“Tropical Trump”? Bolsonaro's Threat to Brazilian Democracy

. 7 min read

Pedro Paulo Weizenmann. Originally published in the HIR Winter 2019 Issue.

There is a tendency among voters, politicians, and some political analysts to portray every election as a country’s turning point. Most of the time, this approach is wrong—it cannot hold true election after election. However, when it comes to Brazil in 2018, it is fair to say that the country's general elections constituted the most consequential cycle since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 and the beginning of Brazil’s “New Republic”.

Brazil is the newest member of a collection of countries led by far-right populists, joining Orban's Hungary, Salvini's Italy, and arguably Trump's United States. The president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, could be the most extreme of the bunch. His discourse is both overwhelmingly illiberal and openly authoritarian, constituting a direct threat to Brazilian democracy. “I can’t think of a more extremist leader in the history of democratic elections in Latin America who has been elected,” remarked Scott Mainwaring, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who studies Brazil.

In their 2018 book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democracies today fail in novel ways. The military coups and violent power grabs of the past are rare. Now, the backsliding begins at the ballot box, where leaders with clear authoritarian tendencies win democratically. It is elected governments that gradually subvert democratic institutions, as under Chavez in Venezuela, Fujimori in Peru, and Erdogan in Turkey. Based on the work of political scientist Juan Linz, Levitsky and Ziblatt developed a litmus test consisting of four warning signs that citizens can use to identify an authoritarian candidate. Bolsonaro scores highly on the test—even higher than Chavez, Erdogan, and Fujimori would have scored. Brazilians failed to protect their country's democratic regime by granting Bolsonaro a foothold; as Levitsky noted in a speech in Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro used this opening in four pernicious ways.

1) Rejection of the democratic rules of the game. Bolsonaro exalted Brazil's military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 and contested the legitimacy of New Republic institutions. In a 1999 interview, he said “there is no doubt” that he would shut Brazil’s congress if given the opportunity, adding, “I would perform a coup on the same day … Let's go straight to the dictatorship.” More recently, he declared that the 1964 military takeover was not actually a coup, promised to pack the Supreme Court, and questioned the legitimacy of Brazil's electoral system.

2) Toleration or encouragement of violence. Besides publicly endorsing torture, Bolsonaro stated, in 1998, that the military should have killed 30,000 people, including former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Bolsonaro has also encouraged extrajudicial police killing of unsuspected criminals, embraced death squads in Rio de Janeiro, and justified the extrajudicial killing of 19 farm workers in Pará in 1996.”

3) Denial of rivals’ legitimacy. Bolsonaro rejected the authority of former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio, affiliated with the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party and the center-left Workers' Party respectively. “He called Cardoso a corrupt who should have been killed during dictatorship; he calls Lula a criminal, wants to imprison him and says that, if he is in government, will treat the MST (Landless Workers' Movement) as terrorists” expanded Levitsky.

4) Curtailing civil liberties. At a rally in Sao Paulo one week before the election run-off, Bolsonaro promised to sweep the “communist threat” out of Brazil and offered two options for his political opponents once he assumed power: “Either they stay out or they will go to jail.”

This is enough to demonstrate that Bolsonaro is a different breed. According to Levitsky, even hotheaded, aggressive, or corrupt politicians, as other Brazilian candidates were, “do not generally threaten democracy.” Linz supplements that Brazilian elites should have resisted Bolsonaro at all costs; as he notes, “political and economic elites … may be forced to choose between their short-term political policy goals and the long-term defense of democratic institutions.” The elites (as well as 55 percent of the population) failed the test of noblesse oblige, accepting Bolsonaro’s simplistic answers to their immediate concerns about long-term regime stability.

One could argue the results were predictable: Brazil has suffered a series of crises that created a perfect storm. After an economic boom based in rising commodity prices under Lula's presidency, the country faces the deepest recession of its history. The unemployment rate is at 12 percent, while GDP per capita shrank by 10 percent between 2014 and 2016. Violence is also an issue, as the country suffered a record of 63,880 homicides in 2017 (up by 3 percent from 2016). But perhaps most importantly, political elites have been disgraced by corruption investigations known as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”). This highly publicized operation has secured over 150 convictions and recovered more than US$12 billion. President Michel Temer himself barely avoided trial through a congressional vote. Former President Lula, the longtime front-runner in the election and the only viable alternative to Bolsonaro, was disqualified after being imprisoned in April.

Any one of these three crises could have produced extremist demagoguery on their own. Taken together, dire economic circumstances, rising violence, and political delegitimization make Bolsonaro’s rise much less surprising. Since his rise to power, he has readily blamed the political establishment for the country’s recession and uncontrolled violence. He has presented himself as an outsider, a renegade in Trump’s image who will “drain the swamp” in the national capital and push for “more Brazil, less Brasília.” After the election, Bolsonaro selected the judge who convicted Lula to be his minister of justice, prompting some on the left to question the neutrality of the Lava Jato operation.

Like many populists, Bolsonaro provides oversimplified answers to complex structural problems. That is especially damaging in a country with a history of stopgap solutions. Notably, he promises to lift restrictions on gun possession in Brazil, vows to increase the militarization of government and society by appointing military officials to his cabinet, and has no plan to map or target the heads of organized crime in Brazil. But to the average voter, none of that matters—he has vowed to deliver, which is more than recent leaders can say.

Still, Brazilians have a lot to lose under a Bolsonaro presidency. Many expect loosened rules on hate speech to be particularly damaging for minority populations. Like Trump, Bolsonaro used social media to target political minorities and beneficiaries of Workers’ Party social programs, which empowered millions of black, gay, and female Brazilians. Additionally, Bolsonaro calls Human Rights Day the “day of losers” and condemns human rights activists for standing by criminals in Brazilian society. He stated he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son,” that he “would not rape” a congresswoman because she “is very ugly” and does “not deserve it,” and that the descendants of runaway slaves “do not do anything”. This rhetoric produced violent consequences. The night of the election, a man shooting his gun in celebration of the electoral results struck and killed a child in Paraná. Likewise, the police brutally assaulted protestors in Salvador and Curitiba while the military celebrated in the streets.

Not all of Bolsonaro’s supporters take such reprehensible stances. Most are just tired of economic stagnation and the Workers’ Party’s huge corruption scandals. Bolsonaro promises a break with the past on both fronts. He calls for the adoption of conservative economic policies to address the legitimate problems brought by years of Workers' Party interventionism. His solutions involve reforms to the country's broken pension system, reductions to the size of government, limits on social benefits, and a restructuring of the country's taxation system. Some of these policies, however, have been deemed especially harsh for the poor even by the center-right candidate Geraldo Alckmin, who was backed by most groups of the financial sector in the first round. On the corruption side, by approving anti-corruption laws and ensuring the independence of the judiciary, the Workers’ Party ironically precipitated the convictions of its own members.

Given Bolsonaro's economic policies, it is telling that he won in 97 percent of the 1,000 richest cities in Brazil. Meanwhile, his opponent, Fernando Haddad (who substituted in for Lula), won in 98 percent of the 1,000 poorest cities in the country. Unfortunately, this distribution feeds into the narrative that the middle classes are taxed to sustain lazy people who live on the Workers’ Party’s social benefits. But Bolsonaro’s critiques do not reflect reality. It is true that taxation in Brazil puts most of the burden on the middle-class, but the beneficiaries are the super-rich, not the poor. Even in the context of corruption, the Workers’ Party’s social programs have been praised by international think-tanks as effective and productive mechanisms that lift people out of poverty. Most of the economic elites and financial sectors, however, endorsed Bolsonaro in the runoff, expecting a more conservative economic platform. These factions were critical to his success; Bolsonaro has been accused of illegally benefitting from a fake news service organized by 156 businessmen who allegedly bankrolled a campaign to bombard WhatsApp users with lies about Haddad.

None of this is to say Bolsonaro had an assured path to victory. Even if a figure like Bolsonaro always had an edge, the specific candidates in the runoff were up in the air until two weeks before the election. At that point, the Supreme Federal Court confirmed that former president Lula would be ineligible for the 2018 election; in his stead, the Workers' Party substituted in Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo. Up until then, it was likely that Bolsonaro would go to the second round, since he was leading the polls with around 30 percent of the intention vote, but some political scientists would have bet that Geraldo Alckmin would reclaim the traditional voters of the center-right. When Lula publicly endorsed Haddad, however, Haddad went from polling around 5 percent to more than 20 percent, reinforcing the extreme polarization of the Workers' Party and Bolsonaro while hindering the path for an alternative like Alckmin. Even before the first round, so few options and such strong anti-Workers’ Party sentiment made Bolsonaro’s eventual victory very likely.

What few predicted, however, was Bolsonaro’s tour de force in the first round. He amassed an impressive 46 percent of the vote to Haddad’s 29 percent. Perhaps more consequentially though, Bolsonaro carried a great number of like-minded federal deputies and senators. Candidates from traditional parties like the Workers' Party and the Social Democrats tanked, while Bolsonaro-aligned candidates racked up seats in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Bolsonaro's Social Liberal Party, for example, shot from one federal deputy to 52, forming the second largest presence in the Chamber after the Workers' Party. Gubernatorial results tell a similar story: the governors of the three largest states in both population and GDP (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais) all strongly endorsed Bolsonaro. All of this is to say that Bolsonaro will not feel particularly constrained by Brazilian institutions. And given the fragmented makeup of Brazil’s congress, it should not be difficult for Bolsonaro to overcome deadlock. Of the over 30 parties represented in the Chamber, many share Bolsonaro's views and illiberal and authoritarian tendencies.

Ultimately, the spotlight is on Bolsonaro, but the bigger story may be the radical far-right shift of the fifth largest country in the world. This is the majority’s response to the country’s severe and multifaceted economic, political, and security crises. However, this response only produces a new victim of the crisis: democracy itself.