Brazil’s Referendum on Authoritarianism

Latin America’s largest nation will either unravel into overt authoritarianism or move toward much-needed democratic rebuilding

Brazil’s Referendum on Authoritarianism
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (left) and current President Jair Bolsonaro (right) square off in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election (Photo by Evaristo SA / AFP via Getty Images)

Much is at stake in Sunday’s presidential election in the “country of the future,” as Brazil is known. Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s most authoritarian leader in recent history, has questioned the validity of the country’s voting system, which has long been known for its trustworthiness, and has signaled that he might not accept the election results if he is not declared the winner. He has consistently trailed in the polls behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known simply as “Lula”). By attacking the results before the election even takes place, Bolsonaro is setting the stage for extralegal maneuvers that could keep him in power. It is unclear whether he would have sufficient support from the military to achieve this goal, but the very fact this possibility exists is an ominous development for Brazilian democracy.

Unlike the U.S., Brazil has a well-established national electronic system for elections, which allows for results to be known in a matter of hours. Independent electoral courts oversee the running of elections, and all parties and media are involved throughout the entire process, which is highly transparent. And yet, drawing directly from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook, Bolsonaro has cast a shadow over the country’s democratic process. His threats present a dilemma for Latin America’s largest country: Either Brazil finds a way to rebuild its democratic institutions, or it could spiral further (back) into authoritarianism.

This perilous situation represents a dramatic change from the Brazil of a decade ago, when the country seemed to be an emerging democracy on the path toward global relevance. Its 20-plus years of dictatorship had ended in the mid-1980s through a peaceful transition and a new constitution that promised to address many of the country’s long-standing political and economic ills.

Extreme poverty had been reduced through innovative social programs and minimum wage policies. Brazil’s diplomatic influence expanded across the world, and economic ties with its neighbors deepened. The country emerged as a leader of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economic bloc and was poised to host both the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. By 2012, however, the global wave of right-wing populism had made its way to Brazil. Powerful conservative forces saw an opening to reassert themselves, including through antidemocratic means, culminating in their refusal to accept the results of the 2014 presidential election.

As luck would have it, in 2013 young people took to the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to protest against local government officials over rising prices for public transportation and other services. An element of the middle class became convinced that the police needed to attack the street protesters and supported the violence that ensued. A few months later, the most reactionary faction of the middle class captured the protests and managed to redirect dissatisfaction against the federal government, headed by Dilma Rousseff (Brazil’s president from 2011 until 2016). They replaced mobilization against tariff increases with outrage over corruption and presented the revamped neoliberal model as the solution to the country’s problems.

While some of these grievances were legitimate, the protests were taken over by extreme nationalist and authoritarian forces. Despite being clearly antidemocratic, the mobilization gained traction based on a recurring narrative in Brazilian political history: the claim that the left is particularly corrupt. This had been deployed in 2006 against Lula (who was president from 2003 to 2010) but, with his popularity then growing, it came to nothing. On the other hand, Rousseff, a far less charismatic politician than her predecessor, who presided over an economy in decline, was vulnerable to this line of attack.

Removing Rousseff was seen as the perfect opportunity to reimplement the neoliberal agenda, and then-Vice President Michel Temer made his move. After coming to power in 2016 through a parliamentary coup that removed the country’s first female president, Temer wasted no time in privatizing public services, opening the economy to international capital, eliminating labor protections and pursuing other neoliberal policies, yet he struggled to gain widespread support. This disconnect between deeply-conservative forces returning to power in the middle of a presidential term but without a clear mandate for their policies paved the way to a free-for-all situation in the election of 2018, when mainstream conservative parties could not find traction with voters and the only truly popular figure — Lula — had been illegally barred from running.

This perfect-storm scenario allowed Bolsonaro, a rather unremarkable member of congress who had built his career by praising the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 until 1985, to rebrand himself as an anti-establishment candidate who would, with God’s blessing, fix the country’s (in many ways fabricated) crisis.

Neoliberal policies have always been a hard sell with ordinary people in Latin America. But Bolsonaro’s newfound populist identity made him a more effective messenger for the right-wing economic agenda, which he packaged under the authoritarian, indeed neo-fascist banner of “God, country and family.” Central to this recasting of neoliberal policies as solutions for the country was the deployment of a culture war narrative that portrayed ordinary Brazilians as under assault by “cultural Marxists.” WhatsApp played a colossal role in this process.

Like his kindred spirit Trump, Bolsonaro knew how to exploit popular discontent and the collapse of institutions. He offered very few policy proposals. His strength as a presidential contender was not in his political platform but in the symbolic power of opposition to the progressive policies of the Workers’ Party (PT). He positioned himself as a representative of law enforcement and sought the support of former Minister of Justice and Public Security Sérgio Moro as the hero of the “Operation Car Wash” scandal, an anti-corruption probe led by the federal police of Brazil that resulted in the imprisonment of dozens of politicians (including Lula himself) and business leaders. While it began as a routine money-laundering investigation, it turned into a highly selective and politicized crusade targeting the PT. Brazil’s media played a key role in whipping up public outrage over the affair, which was eventually exposed for its overreach and bias.

Bolsonaro also approached Paulo Guedes, a neoliberal economist with extensive experience in financial markets. Likewise, through his sons, he obtained the support of Olavo de Carvalho, a former astrologer who became a political commentator and disseminator of the conservative philosophical tradition through dumbed-down courses on popular digital platforms.

Bolsonaro courted the business community (especially agribusiness), large national retail corporations and the financial markets. This reorganized power bloc of traditional political forces effectively promoted — with the support of the country’s armed forces and conservative religious leaders — the image of Brazil as a society defined by ultra-conservative elements, in which law and order appeared as a response to urban violence and an overdrawn image of moral degeneration. Neoliberal segments, for their part, refashioned the promise of market reforms as a tool against corruption and competent economic management as a technical solution to expand economic and social citizenship.

Bolsonaro’s appeal to Brazil’s lower socioeconomic segments was largely grounded on his anti-establishment narrative of “Tem que mudar tudo isso ai!” (“We have to change everything!”), which advanced a Manichaean narrative that not only reflected but also accelerated the erosion of confidence in the existing democratic political system.

Elected by a Frankensteinian coalition of free market ideologues, export agribusiness conglomerates, reactionary military leaders and morally-conservative evangelical forces, Bolsonaro has doubled down on his praise for the dictatorship and has attacked progressive and human rights activists, portraying them as a hindrance to the free expression of the common person’s sensibilities. Likewise, he has promoted an aggressively misogynist, chauvinistic and racist narrative. He has pursued an agenda of environmental destruction and anti-Indigenous policies, while presiding over some of the most embarrassing diplomatic fiascos in recent history.

He unwaveringly denied the public health threat posed by COVID-19 and actively worked to prevent the purchase of vaccines, which cost him significant support among traditional allies, particularly the middle classes. He has consistently attacked the political and legal framework of Brazilian democracy. Like Trump’s “The storm is coming” meme, Bolsonaro frequently appeals to his most steadfast supporters to help him in “due course” to bring to power an overtly authoritarian government.

These moves eventually proved too much for Brazil’s (supposedly liberal but effectively conservative) media conglomerates, further dampening his popularity. Add to this the difficult economic situation faced by most Brazilians, which has not been ameliorated by Bolsonaro’s anti-labor, neoliberal policies. Amid all of this, the president’s rhetorical appeals to patriotic pride and messianic salvation began to ring hollow.

Throughout his term in office, Bolsonaro has encountered resistance from local governors, Congress and the federal judiciary. None of them, however, has been able to entirely tame his dictatorial impulses. It is first and foremost through elections — still allowed, at least for now — that Brazilians can purge the body politic of the last remnants of the military regime. Casting aspersions on the integrity of the election is a cynical ploy for someone who ascended to the presidency via illegal machinations in Congress and the judicial system in 2018, when Lula was questionably arrested and banned from running for office. Now that he has been cleared of all judicial charges, Lula is finally free to run against Bolsonaro and is ahead in the polls.

Yet a new Lula administration would not automatically be able to revive the gains, nor the domestic and international excitement, of the early 2000s. Neither Brazil nor the world is the same.

Lula’s foreign policy effectively positioned Brazil as a rising force within the BRICS, a bloc that now faces serious problems in a world mired in mounting economic convulsions and polarized geopolitical alliances — developments that have only been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

On the domestic front, the Brazilian political arena is defined today by long-established divisions and a much more assertive extreme-right with emboldened militaristic and antidemocratic leanings. In order to create the broadest alliance possible to defeat Brazil’s most popular right-wing leader in half a century, Lula has made significant overtures to centrist and even conservative democratic groups. He will owe those forces politically, which could circumscribe his options in power.

But even in the context of a more turbulent and less effective new Lula administration, it is vital to halt Bolsonaro’s ongoing authoritarian practices. This depends above all on his electoral defeat — and on him accepting the results.

The recent victories of right-wing parties in Latin America are part of a global trend of authoritarian forces mobilizing and challenging central elements of liberal democracy. Much of this derives from the global economic crisis of 2008, a process with roots in the financialization of global capitalism over the last three decades. Latin America’s experiences with the rise of right-wing authoritarianism are on spectacular display in Brazil, where democratic institutions have been under attack for several years. Today, as the country gears up for its presidential election, the stakes could not be higher. Depending on its results — and whether the incumbent accepts them — Latin America’s largest nation could either unravel into overt authoritarianism or move toward much-needed democratic rebuilding.

Lula was arguably the most effective leader of the Pink Tide, in which center-left, democratically elected leaders in several Latin American countries implemented inclusive socioeconomic and political initiatives. The prospect of his return to power could portend not only the revival of democracy in Brazil but also an opportunity for a coalition, including Gabriel Boric in Chile and Gustavo Petro in Colombia, which would reaffirm and strengthen democratic norms and practices in the region.

The whole world is watching as Brazilians cast their ballots.

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