Boston University

Corruption, Frustration, and the Risk of Democratic Breakdown in Brazil by Julia Banas @ Boston University

Brazil’s “The South is My Country” secessionist movement is only the most recent addition to what could be democratic breakdown.

Brazil’s risk for democratic breakdown has only increased with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff last year. Rousseff was impeached in 2016 for “illegally manipulating government accounts.” Today, the investigations into bribery and corruption known as the “Car Wash” probe are nearing an end, with Rousseff and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva charged with “forming a criminal organization to divert funds from the country’s state oil company.” Lula could potentially serve ten years in prison. Rousseff’s replacement and current president Michel Temer has also been accused of accepting bribes. His approval rating is only three percent, the lowest rating since Brazil became a democratic nation. Temer, Rousseff, and Lula deny the accusations against them. Lula still plans to run for president again, and he is currently leading the polls , though he will not be able to run if his sentencing goes through. Rousseff, meanwhile, has said that her impeachment was a result of a coup that it is not over yet, and it will prevent Lula from becoming president.

In a Monkey Cage article for the Washington Post, Amy Erica Smith says that while Rousseff’s impeachment was not a coup (some calling it a “soft coup”), it was a misuse of democratic procedures. Smith says that the initial charges against Rousseff are not usually cause for impeachment, but the “Car Wash” scandal and her unpopularity due to the recession motivated legislators to impeach her as an attempt to contain the crises. However, Brazil’s troubles did not end with Rousseff’s impeachment. All of the corruption is just one of the causes for Brazilians’ frustration with the current government, and when considering all of the factors, there is clear potential for democratic breakdown.

Linz and Stepan say that democratic breakdown occurs when problems become unsolvable and the democratic government is no longer considered the least evil or seen as legitimate. Many Brazilians currently feel that the country’s problems are unsolvable. On top of government corruption, the economy is not doing well, unemployment is rising, and inequality is increasing, leaving Brazilians feeling powerless and hopeless. Linz and Stepan say that the political context of problems matters, noting economic changes as a large qualifier for unsolvable problems, and disloyal opposition can more easily attack the system and demand solutions when fragmented leadership is in place.

Support for democracy has fallen by 32 percent, and 55 percent of Brazilians said “they wouldn’t mind a nondemocratic government as long as it ‘solved problems.’” Less people have been attending protests since Rousseff’s impeachment, but those who do have shifted the protests to the right, with more people calling for the freedom to bear arms and military intervention in the government. Some people believe that the only way to solve Brazil’s problems is to establish military dictatorship. This directly coincides with Linz and Stephan’s discussion of unsolvable problems. Citizens feel that the government cannot fix the issues in the country, so they want to “fix the system” by starting over.

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right lawmaker who has been compared to Donald Trump, has praised the military dictatorship from the past, and some people see a slight appeal in electing him. He is polling low, though, with Lula far ahead and only nine percent saying they would vote for him “in some scenarios.” While a Bolsonaro presidency is unlikely, his segment of support along with the economic factors and corruption could be worrying for Brazil’s democracy, as it is younger and less resilient. A return to dictatorship may not be because of Bolsonaro, but because of Brazil’s scandals, economic troubles, and more; however, the ideas he brings have become present in citizens’ minds.

Linz and Stepan’s disloyal opposition is not only represented in the movements to return to dictatorship. They also say that secessionist movements are “obvious” disloyal opposition. Inspired by Catalonia’s recent vote, the South of Brazil recently asked to vote on secession informally, and though many believe the movement will not succeed, their reasons for wanting secession reflect many of the potential indicators of democratic breakdown.

Citizens in southern Brazil feel anger towards the government due to political disorder and the recession. They also saw “little return from taxation” because most benefits went to the poorer northern regions. The factors that led to 95 percent of southern Brazilians voting for secession are the same factors that make people believe that the problems in Brazil are unsolvable: corruption, the recession, economic inequality, and more. The separatist movement is a representation of Brazilians’ frustration with the current government.

The circumstances for democratic breakdown are present in Brazil. Linz and Stepan’s unsolvable problems exist and people are starting to look to other governments for solutions. As frustration grows among citizens, it is important to look after Brazil’s democracy and what could happen to it.


*Photo by L.C. Nøttaasen, “Brazil – Flag,” Creative Commons Attributes 2.0 Generic License


  1. Cody Duane-Mcglashan

    October 24, 2017 at 1:17 am

    As someone who has not followed Brazilian politics, save a newspaper headline here and there, I found your post both informative and thought-provoking. By going beyond the highly publicized impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and tying it to public opinion on democracy and southern Brazil’s secession movement, you are able to paint a broader picture of what you see as a potential democratic breakdown.
    However, after reading Amy Smith’s Washington Post article on the impeachment proceedings and considering South America’s recent political history, I do not see this event as precipitating democratic breakdown. The fact that constitutional processes were used to oust President Rousseff shows the great progress that Brazil’s has made since the return to civilian rule in 1985. During the latter half of the 20th century, overt military coups were almost standard operating procedure. The fact that Rousseff’s opponents used legal methods shows perhaps backsliding, but not a country on the precipice of democratic
    breakdown. It is, of course, unfortunate that the impeachment was politically motivated, but we saw a similar situation in the US less than 20 years ago. When Clinton was impeached for lying under oath, subsequent voting in the senate was almost entirely along party lines.
    I find the second data point, that over half of Brazilians wouldn’t mind a nondemocratic government, to be far more disturbing. As Linz and Stepan explain, perceived legitimacy of the government and system is integral to the success of democracies, and to see so many Brazilians losing faith in the system due to corruption and economic problems may indeed prove disastrous for the already unstable country.

  2. Jonathan Silin

    December 7, 2017 at 8:23 pm

    Julia, I think your post does a great job of explaining the complex situation on the ground in Brazil and tying it back to the readings from class. You use Linz and Stepan as an interesting framework for understanding citizen feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness and democratic breakdown. A way to take this argument even further would be to focus on such sentiments in Brazil’s black communities. In another class I am taking, “Afro-Brazilians and the Brazilian Polity,” we have discussed that although Brazil hails itself as the world’s only “racial democracy,” Afro-Brazilians are consistently and systemically marginalized and discriminated against. Despite making up 53 percent of the population, black Brazilians are 3 times as likely to be killed than their white counterparts. 70 percent of Brazilians living in extreme poverty are black. Moreover, all but 1 of 39 ministers in the presidential cabinet is black. Unlike the recent events affecting the country you discuss in your article, the problems affecting the Afro-Brazilian community are longstanding and entrenched. This climate of what effectively amounts to 2 Brazils, one black and the other white. With Brazil’s democratic government have continually ignored the plight of its black citizens, it is quite easy to see how Linz and Stepan’s concept of disloyal opposition has existed within the black community for decades. However, I think the situation among Afro-Brazilian’s has transcended Linz and Stepan’s framework to the point where the black electorate is entirely jaded when it comes government altogether.

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