Is Brazil about to Have Its Last Democratic Election?

AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a campaign rally in Brasilia's Ceilandia neighborhood.

A founding election, according to studies of democratization, is the crucial first election after the end of an authoritarian regime. So what shall we call the opposite—elections where the voters decide whether they will put an end to democracy and turn to authoritarianism? A “shutdown election” might be an apt term.

Brazil is having a shutdown election on October 28, the second round of the presidential race between the candidate of the far right, Jair Bolsonaro, who received 46 percent of the vote in the first round, and the candidate of the left-wing Workers’ Party, Fernando Haddad, who received 28 percent. Most observers consider it nearly certain that Bolsonaro will receive the additional support he needs to take power.

Bolsonaro, a congressman and former army captain, is not just a “populist conservative,” as some news reports characterize him. “Fascist” seems like an entirely accurate description. He has called for killing political opponents, praised the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, and said that he would not accept the results of this election if he is not the winner and that the army might support him. To deal with Brazil’s rampant crime, he favors giving the police carte blanche to hunt down and kill whomever they suspect. He has referred to indigenous peoples as “parasites,” and is open in his contempt for Afro-Brazilians and gays. He famously said to a woman also serving in the Brazilian Congress, “I wouldn’t rape you because you do not deserve it.” 

Even in liberal democracies that have long seemed stable, victories by right-wing antisystem parties are no longer unthinkable. But Bolsonaro and his party are especially dangerous because of their threats of violence against their political opponents and marginalized groups. Bolsonaro is more like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines than most of the right-wing European populist leaders. 

The danger in Brazil also arises from the weakness of the party defending democracy in the run-off election. In the face of an antisystem challenge, democratic forces have the best chance if they can unify their supporters behind one party, as Emmanuel Macron was able to do in defeating Marine Le Pen and the National Front in the French elections in 2017.

In Brazil, however, the Workers’ Party does not appear capable of leading a coalition of democratic forces. Brazil did make substantial social and economic progress after the Workers’ Party took office in 2003 under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But by the end of its tenure in August 2016, the party had become deeply implicated in both the endemic corruption of the country and the economic reverses it had suffered. The mainstream parties descended into open warfare with the impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff; corruption investigations ensnared a majority of the Congress and led to the jailing of Lula himself. Brazil became polarized between those who support the Workers’ Party and those who oppose it, and Bolsonaro has now effectively made himself the leader of those who oppose it. 

Under Lula and Rousseff, the government did enact a series of anti-corruption reforms, which transformed the judiciary and made possible the investigations that boomeranged on the party. Lula signed the legislation that barred him from running for the presidency this year, when he led in early polls. Whether he would have sustained that lead is not clear. In a Senate race, Rousseff also led in polls but ended up coming in fourth.

If there is a similarity between Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, it is the path they have followed from political outsiders to dominance of the right and a sudden and unexpected surge in electoral support. Bolsonaro has a base in the Pentecostal churches and agribusiness that he has extended to include surprising numbers among the poor who might be expected to be entirely behind the Workers’ Party. 

Matthew Rich, a post-doctoral researcher at the Centro de Estudos da Metrópole in São Paulo, writes that “the key to understanding ‘Bolsonarismo popular’ revolves around these everyday stresses of life” for people struggling to get by:

Their lives are hard and they believe they are doing the right thing. Then they look around themselves and see those they believe are undeserving—“lazy” [welfare] recipients and “bandidos” and it makes them angry. They ask, why are they suffering when these people are not?

This is exactly the same argument that observers have made about the shift to the right in the white working class in the United States.

Assuming Bolsonaro wins, the great question will be whether Brazil’s democratic political institutions, including an independent judiciary, can survive. The record in other countries that have seen right-wing “populist” parties take power is not encouraging. Soon enough their leaders set about gaining control of the judiciary, tax and regulatory authorities, and other agencies and reining in the media and independent organizations in civil society. 

This seems the probable outcome in Brazil too. The formalities of elections may remain, but the opposition will have no real chance once Bolsonaro is in power. That’s what a shutdown election is ultimately about, even if the voters don’t recognize that when they cast their votes for an authoritarian, they are resigning from their own role as the ultimate source of authority in a republic. 

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