Brazil Under Bolsonaro: Democracy at Risk?

In the face of rabid political partisanship, perhaps the only thing that Brazilians can agree upon is the importance of their ongoing presidential race. The incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro and the challenger, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are well supported by their ideological camps. Political engagement is to be welcomed; however, the current climate of hyper-polarization does not bode well for the future of democracy.

Simply put, Brazil is facing a democratic backslide. Global think tanks and research institutes like Freedom House or V-Dem prove that this decline is real. V-Dem currently ranks Brazil’s Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) at 0.51 (scale from 0.00 to 1.00). For comparison, back in 2011, its LDI was just under 0.8. Despite all its potential, why is Latin America’s most prominent power a failing electoral democracy? Many claim that incumbent Jair Bolsonaro is a primary cause for this worsening crisis, with critics citing his brand of populism for increased factionalism by exploiting race, religious and economic fault lines in Brazilian society.

His attacks on the supreme court, academic freedoms, inflammatory rhetoric and calls for violence are all well documented. To note, Bolsonaro is part of a long line of Brazilian presidents, including Lula, who denationalized the economy, reversed social achievements, cut funding to education and science, privatized public assets, and deindustrialized the economy. Successive presidencies have created conditions which have led to the current problem. In this regard, scholars Gouvea and Castelo Brano claim that Brazil’s democracy has failed to adequately channel “the frustrations of the population, to alleviate their fears and to promote hopes.”

With that said, Bolsonaro is distinct in his political norm-breaking. Scholars Levitsky and Way believe Bolsonaro to be in breach of mutual toleration and forbearance. Competing parties must accept each other as legitimate rivals; likewise, politicians should exercise some restraint to avoid alienating the other side. Throughout the election, Bolsonaro has labelled Lula as a “thief, gang leader, ex-convict,” and so on. On top of deeming the election process as fraudulent, Bolsonaro remains distinctive from previous Brazilian presidents in that he has refused to step down from office, claiming only God could remove him.

Under his watch, the military held more top governmental positions than during the military regime from 1964 to 1985. The re-emergence of the military does not signal a coup in the near future. Nevertheless, considering Brazil’s dictatorial past, it raises concern about what role it plays and how it can be prevented from exerting too much influence. Too often, Bolsonaro has isolated himself from Congress; he used the military to support his own government cabinet instead. In turn, the military has seen its influence grow, making them effectively immune from ongoing human rights prosecutions and budget cuts. Though the relationship may be mutually beneficial, the military has already proven that they are not tied to Bolsonaro. As his popularity waned during the height of the pandemic, the military sought to distance itself from Bolsonaro’s mismanagement, repeatedly confirming its duty to the state and constitution. While the military assumed this power without stepping outside of legal bounds and slowly re-integrated, this sort of stealth intervention can threaten democratic quality as it represents an unknown quantity.

The question remains, how will the military react to a post-Bolsonaro government? Post-1985, Brazil tried to contain military power; this has seemingly been reversed in the past few years. With the army ingratiated in the upper echelons of government, will they be able to outlast Bolsonaro, and how does that bode for democracy going forward in Brazil? Bolsonaro’s anti-institutionalism seems to have caused him to seek support from a volatile political force he cannot control.

Military containment represented a political norm, and with Bolsonaro repeatedly in contempt of this, he has opened Brazil to the potential threat of a promissory coup. Scholar Nancy Bermeo uses this term to describe a regime that replaces an elected government on the promise of holding elections and restoring democracy. With the military already backing Bolsonaro on his claims of voter fraud, how will the military behave if there are attempts to curtail their power?

Looking past the results of the second-round election, it is clear that Bolsonaro has weakened Brazil’s democracy through executive aggrandizement. Bermeo calls this the process of an elected executive undermining institutions and checks and balances through legislative means. Brazilian society and its lack of moderation is primarily a result of several successive unsatisfactory presidencies, with Bolsonaro’s perhaps being the most detrimental. Having accepted this, we can suggest that it might be better to understand Brazil through a different lens.

Democratic backsliding is already a reality in Brazil, moreover, the effects of polarization in its society are likely to continue irrespective of the result on October 30th. Is our understanding of Brazil’s institutions better captured by what Levitsky and Way call competitive authoritarianism? Formal democratic institutions exist, but they are undermined to such an extent that they do not meet the requirement for liberal democracies. It is a form of a hybrid regime. Indeed, Brazil’s LDI score would suggest this regime type is starting to take hold.

The four definitive categories for this mixed regime are as follows: (1) Bitterly fought elections with instances of state or media abuse; (2) undermined or weak legislatures; (3) a contested judicial branch; (4) an independent but threatened media.

The ongoing elections and the previous four years of Bolsonaro’s seem to be sufficiently summarized by the aforementioned list. Will this hold true in the years to come – only time will tell.