Bolsonaro Can’t Destroy Brazilian Democracy

Brazil’s new president is a throwback to its authoritarian past—but the country is more resilient than it used to be.

Jair Bolsonaro, the president-elect of Brazil, casts his vote in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 28. (Ricardo Moraes-Pool/Getty Images)
Jair Bolsonaro, the president-elect of Brazil, casts his vote in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 28. (Ricardo Moraes-Pool/Getty Images)

Jair Bolsonaro’s decisive victory in the second round of Brazil’s presidential elections showed a clear right-wing turn in the politics of Latin America. Three of the region’s five largest economies—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—are now in the hands of right-wing governments. But Bolsonaro is a figure significantly more extreme than Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Sebastián Piñera of Chile, both successful businessmen who came to power preaching the virtues of small government and open markets. Bolsonaro, by contrast, is an outright reactionary and the best manifestation yet of the “Trumpification” of the Latin American right.

Bolsonaro is an unabashed misogynist, having once told a female colleague in the Brazilian National Congress that she was “too ugly” to rape, he has characterized Haitian and Syrian political refugees coming into Brazil as “the scum of the world,” and he has shown outright hatred toward the LGBT community by noting that he would rather his son die than come out as gay. Bolsonaro has also made incendiary comments on race, including that Brazil does not owe anything to Afro-Brazilians since Africans “themselves handed over the slaves.” He has said he intends to end affirmative action policies meant to rectify centuries of racial discrimination.

Displaying a Trumpian hostility toward the environment, Bolsonaro has threatened to take Brazil out of the Paris climate accord and open the Amazon to development. Last but not least is Bolsonaro’s fondness for the military and penchant for authoritarianism, which is rooted in the Latin American tradition of the caudillo, or strongman. As a former parachutist in Brazil’s last military dictatorship, in place from 1964 to 1985, Bolsonaro has heaped praise on the leaders of the dictatorship. This praise has come despite a damming 2014 truth commission report that found that the military regime was responsible for a host of human rights abuses, including having killed more than 400 individuals—many of whom were disappeared as the regime sought to cover its tracks—and having tortured many more, including future President Dilma Rousseff.

Understandably, much of the reporting about Bolsonaro’s rise in the U.S. media is predicting a dramatic upheaval in Brazilian politics with apocalyptic overtones. A few months before the elections, an article in the New York Times speculated about the dangerous militarization of Brazilian politics suggested by Bolsonaro’s candidacy and that of other former military officers running for office and insinuated the likelihood of a military takeover. Some outlets have hinted at a coming assault on civil and political rights akin to the one afoot in the Philippines by Rodrigo Duterte, while others have contended that a Bolsonaro win would be a “victory” for the “global Christian right,” a movement that—as practiced in Russia, Hungary, Poland, and even the United States—justifies the use of religion to suppress women’s rights and homosexuality.

Yet, for all the very serious threats that Bolsonaro poses to Brazil and the international community as a whole, it will take a lot to radically upend Brazilian politics—more so than is commonly recognized. Indeed, a compelling case can be made that Brazilian democracy, despite its youth, is more than capable of coping with the stress on the democratic system placed by the Bolsonaro presidency. Much of this is the legacy of recent left-wing administrations. They have facilitated Bolsonaro’s rise, but they also have prepared the country for him.

Despite having become a democracy only in 1985, Brazil has had a rich political experience since then. It includes having elected right-wing governments in the past, most notably in 1990, when Fernando Collor de Mello burst into office with an economic agenda that, much like Bolsonaro’s, emphasized privatizations and comprehensive state reform. Collor’s presidency imploded spectacularly; he resigned in 1992 under the threat of impeachment by Congress on corruption charges. But, more importantly, Collor’s ambitious, liberalizing economic program went nowhere. If anything, an economic agenda anchored on privatization and state reform could prove harder to implement today in Brazil than in the early 1990s.

Since the Collor era, privatization has been co-opted by much of the left in Latin America, including Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT). And much of what remains to be privatized in Brazil will prove hard to pull off. Any talk of privatization must involve the oil giant Petrobras, the crown jewel of the Brazilian public sector. It is not clear that the public will go along with this privatization or that Congress will approve it. It’s not even clear that Bolsonaro is committed to it. As congressman, Bolsonaro displayed a “clear preference for nationalist, protectionist policies.” Indeed, his campaign sent conflicting signals on how zealously it intended to pursue privatization. While Bolsonaro’s University of Chicago-educated economic advisor Paulo Guedes has spoken enthusiastically about privatizing Petrobras and the utilities giant Eletrobras, Bolsonaro himself has been more restrained, talking about “preserving” the core of Petrobras and about his fears that Eletrobras might fall into Chinese hands.

On the other hand, as Macri and Piñera have discovered, undoing the legacy of left-wing governments is far from easy. And this could prove even harder in Brazil, where, according to the World Bank, more than 29 million people were lifted out of abject poverty and into the ranks of the middle class by the anti-poverty programs implemented by the PT. In fact, there’s little evidence to suggest that Bolsonaro’s victory signals approval by the voters of the dismantling of these social programs. More than anything, Bolsonaro’s victory is a reflection of a fatigue with PT politicians rather than a rejection of PT policies. Before he was sent to prison on corruption charges this year, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) was the leading candidate for the presidency largely on the strength of nostalgia for PT economic policies. Not surprisingly, late in the campaign Bolsonaro announced that he would expand one of Lula’s most popular anti-poverty programs, Bolsa Familia, or Family Purse, a conditional-cash-transfer scheme, by adding an extra monthly payment, which he argued would come from eliminating fraud and inefficiencies in the program.

Meanwhile, the structures of the Brazilian political system should deter any dramatic transformation of the country’s politics or even a radical shift in social and economic policy. Most telling of all is the endemic gridlock of the Brazilian political system, which renders its Congress one of the least productive in all of Latin America, if not the entire democratic world. This resistance to change could serve as a bulwark against a Bolsonaro assault on the regime of laws enacted by the PT to tackle corruption, protect the environment, and alleviate poverty and to advance the rights of women, children, and sexual minorities.

Brazil is, after all, the paradigmatic political science example of a “deadlock democracy,” a system that generates and rewards a multiplicity of weak parties and individualistic, pork-oriented politicians with little accountability to the citizenry. A key feature of the electoral system created since 1985 is an open-list system of proportional representation. Intended to enhance democratic representation, it also works to undermine democratic governance by generating a multiplicity of weak parties while encouraging pork-barrel payoffs, political horse-trading, and corruption. To be sure, the Congress that awaits Bolsonaro is quite conservative, reflecting the strength of the so-called “beef, bullets, and Bible caucuses”—the cluster of legislators representing the interests of agrarian oligarchs, law enforcement, and the evangelical community.

But Congress is also more fragmented than ever: The new session will have no fewer than 35 political parties in the 513-seat Chamber of Deputies. The largest party will be the PT (with 56 seats), followed by Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (with 52 seats). As in the recent past, this extraordinary fragmentation in the political party system will make enacting any legislation an uphill struggle, and the PT’s control of the largest share of seats in Congress puts the party in a good position to block Bolsonaro’s program. And so far, there’s very little to suggest that Bolsonaro is especially skilled at navigating the complexity of Congress, with no bill of substance attached to his name in his seven terms as a Rio de Janeiro congressman.

Finally, for all of its weaknesses and shortcomings, Brazilian democracy is not as fragile as many international observers make it out to be. There are pockets of extraordinary strength in the political system that should serve as guardrails to protect against any democratic breaches, starting with a remarkably clean and efficient electoral system. There was not even a whiff of corruption or malfeasance in two back-to-back rounds of voting. This is no small feat considering that Brazil is the world’s fourth-largest democracy, with a complex electorate not unlike that of the United States. Brazil is also in possession of a strong and vibrant civil society, noted for its large and independent media, powerful social movements, and a long history of protest. Unsurprisingly, reacting to the revulsion of many Brazilians to his divisive rhetoric, Bolsonaro has recanted some of his most incendiary comments, and within hours of his election, he announced that people who discriminate against the LGBT community are deserving of harsher penalties than are currently allowed by the law.

Also noteworthy is the burst of judicial autonomy that Brazil has experienced in recent years and which, unintentionally, contributed to Bolsonaro’s rise. Historically, the judiciary has been the weakest branch of the Brazilian government, usually employed as a tool for the executive branch. But emboldened by the anti-corruption laws enacted by the PT, the judiciary has shown its teeth lately by launching the country’s largest anti-corruption campaign. So far, the campaign has ensnarled some 60 percent of the Brazilian Congress, prevented the incumbent president from running for re-election, and sent Lula, the country’s most popular politician, to prison. Less apparent, at least to the outside world, is that the judiciary, which was transformed by the PT with the appointment of many women and minorities to the courts, especially the Supreme Federal Court, has in recent years handed down some striking decisions advancing and protecting civil rights, such as the 2011 ruling that paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

None of this is to say that Bolsonaro’s presidency will be inconsequential or that Bolsonaro cannot find a way to bend Congress and the courts to his will. Rather, that we should be cautious in proclaiming doom or in making uninformed comparisons. There’s a tendency in the U.S. media, and even among some scholars, to overreact to political developments in Latin America. Indeed, the reaction of the American left to Bolsonaro’s rise is eerily reminiscent of the American right’s reaction to Lula’s rise in 2003, and the widespread fears at the time of the formation of a left-wing troika of “Lula, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez,” which never came to pass. As the American experience under Trump reveals, there’s no insurance in any democracy, however consolidated or mature, against the rise of a leader whose policies and demeanor are a direct offense, if not an outright threat, to democracy and its values.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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