Even if President Jair Bolsonaro loses by a wide margin in the October elections, Brazilian democracy will face a severe stress test. But a Bolsonaro victory, or even a narrow defeat, would bode much worse for the country, the region and, given the environmental importance of the Amazon, for the entire planet.
PARIS – In less than a month, Brazilian voters will elect their next president. One might think that the unpopular incumbent ruler, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, does not have the slightest chance. But he still retains the support of some very powerful forces, and continues to pose a serious threat to Brazilian democracy.
Since coming to power in 2019, Bolsonaro has made it his apparent mission to dismantle Brazil’s democratic institutions. One of the first things he did after taking office was to deprive FUNAI, the Brazilian federal body in charge of indigenous affairs, of basic powers. He then appointed Marcelo Xavier da Silva (a police officer linked to agribusiness) to head the organization, thus giving free rein to the elimination of protections for indigenous lands. Meanwhile, Ibama (the country’s main agency for the environment) has suffered budget cuts, political interference and a weakening of regulations. In addition, Bolsonaro (a former army captain) encouraged the politicization of the armed forces and the regional military police.
If he gets another term, these tendencies will worsen. Do not forget that elected autocrats tend to intensify their attempts to destroy democracy after the second electoral victory. You have to ask yourself then, what are the chances of Bolsonaro winning again?
In a recent poll, 59% of respondents said they would never vote for Bolsonaro, and 61% disapproved of his government. Much more likely to win is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president from 2003 to 2010, who was released from prison in 2019 after serving less than two years of a 12-year sentence for passive corruption (overturned last year after questions were raised). the impartiality of the judge who sentenced him).
But Bolsonaro’s approval rating has seen a small improvement recently. In addition, an important section of the Brazilian political class (the “centrão”, made up of center-right and right-wing parties) remained faithful to Bolsonaro in exchange for ministerial posts and funding from a very opaque “secret budget”. It should be noted that Bolsonaro in practice delegated control of the public budget to the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, one of his allies who has become the de facto prime minister of Brazil.
Far from fulfilling his campaign promise to fight corruption and reform Brazilian politics, Bolsonaro revived the parties and figures most exposed to the corruption scandals of the past two decades and profoundly downgraded Brazilian democracy. A process in which he had the help of a large part of the political class.
Not surprisingly, he has also tried to buy public support, despite the fact that Brazilian law prohibits electoral patronage. In a context of rising inflation, it increased a monthly payment received by 18 million poor families (until December 2022), offered to give cash to taxi drivers and small farmers, provided transportation subsidies to the elderly, etc. It also promotes tax cuts (including fuel).
Even if this will not be enough to secure his re-election in October, Bolsonaro has been showing all the signs of a leader very capable of staging a constitutional coup. He has questioned the honesty of Brazilian institutions and denounced the possibility of electoral fraud. It seems that the electronic voting system that worked so well in Brazil for more than twenty-five years has suddenly become vulnerable to manipulation.”
In this sense, it seems that Bolsonaro is copying the manual of former US President Donald Trump. While the January 2021 attack on Capitol Hill, encouraged by Trump, did not keep him in power, it did not bring social condemnation to Trump or the Republican Party. And while in the United States an intervention by the armed forces in support of a Trump-led coup was highly unlikely, the Brazilian military seems more interested in controlling the elections than protecting the country. Last year, the defense ministry sent the Brazilian Supreme Electoral Tribunal (in charge of supervising the elections) a questionnaire with more than eighty questions referring to the electoral process. He then announced that he was going to organize a parallel “inspection plan” for the election, with its own vote count included.
In addition, there have been cases of physical threats to citizens, activists and candidates. Following the June murder of English journalist Dom Phillips and anthropologist Bruno Pereira in the Amazon, a Bolsonaro supporter shot and killed a Workers’ Party activist. In this environment of rising political violence, Lula decided to wear a bulletproof vest in his public appearances.
A tough test of resistance awaits Brazilian democracy, even if Bolsonaro loses by far in October. But if he wins, or even if he narrowly loses, the future may be much worse. That is why it is so important that the Brazilian democratic forces put aside their differences and form a united front against Bolsonaro and his extremist sympathizers.
Lula is already working on the creation of this broad front. His most audacious political gesture so far has been to invite Geraldo Alckmin (former governor of São Paulo, former leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, PSDB, and Lula’s rival in the 2006 presidential election) to be the running mate of the. But more is needed; Lula must invite all leaders who share his desire to restore democratic normality to work together to isolate Bolsonaro and his supporters in Congress, the judiciary and other influential positions. And even those candidates who have a remote chance of winning the election (ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet in particular) should support Lula’s campaign, to help prevent a Bolsonaro victory.
For its part, the international community must be ready to act if Bolsonaro or the Brazilian military try to distort the result of the election. After all, the consequences of an authoritarian drift in Brazil extend far beyond its borders, in particular because of the crucial importance of the Amazon for the future of the planet.
Gaspard Estrada is executive director of the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).
Translation: Esteban Flamini
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 1995 – 2022