Boston University

Brazilian democracy under threat: the pathway that led President Bolsonaro to power by Eugênia Álvares Affonso

On October 28, 2018, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, from PSL (Social Liberal Party), was elected president of Brazil with 55 percent of valid votes on the second round of the elections. Despite of having more than 30 years in public office as a Federal Deputy, Bolsonaro had never been a popular figure amongst Brazilian people. According to data collected by Datafolha, in December of 2015 Bolsonaro had only 4 percent of voting intentions, the lowest rate amongst all five presidential candidates. With a long list of aggressive comments, which include threats to the opposition and the press, endorsement of violence committed by police officers, and sexist, racist and homophobic remarks, Bolsonaro’s election does more than reflecting the mentality of a parcel of the Brazilian population. It shows how, once more in world history, a demagogue took advantage of a country’s political instability to get to power and neither the political elites or the voters were able to stop him.  

The factors that led to the significant increase in Bolsonaro’s popularity and his eventual victory have been observed in other nations in different moments in history. According to Linz and Stepan, the rise of political leaders with authoritarian tendencies happens in moments of crisis, when the government is unable to solve problems it was supposed to. Disloyal oppositions with anti-democratic ideal, controlled until then, start to use people’s dissatisfaction to gain prominence and, thus, rise to power. 

The involvement of PT (Workers’ Party) in corruption scandals led to the impeachment of then President Dilma Rousseff (which still has its validity questioned by many) and the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva 2016 and 2018, respectively. With this, a feeling of disappointment was installed especially in the lower classes, the majority of PT’s electoral-base and main responsible for its victories since 2002. In an article from 2016, Brazilian political scientist Camila Rocha predicted that the fall in political support for PT by the lower classes would “reset Brazilian electoral arrangements.” After PT’s corruption scandal, polls showed consistent increase on voting intentions for Bolsonaro, while voting intentions for PT’s Fernando Haddad declined.

The 2018 elections have been described by many as a reflection of the sexist, racist and homophobic ideas that still permeate Brazilian culture and people’s mentalities. However, that is not all. While we can’t deny that Brazil is plagued with such issues, being, for an example, the country with the highest rates of murders of LGBT, Bolsonaro was not elected by those who supported him from the beginning and, thus, align with his dreadful mindset and attitudes. A lot of people perceived their vote on him as a vote against PT, take as an example the spread of the “I am not a Bolsonaro supporter, but I have been a Bolsonaro supporter” campaign that spread on social media. Noticing people’s fragility and distrust towards PT, Bolsonaro saw an opportunity to overcome the opposition. For this, he appealed to promises of improvement in the economy and public safety, while also using slush funds to sponsor the spread of fake news about Haddad on instant messaging app Whatsapp.

Despite the fact that many citizens were carried away by a combination of fear and hope, the voters are not the ones to blame for his election. As Levitsky and Ziblatt put it on their “How Democracies Die,” it is common for politicians with authoritarian tendencies to arise from time to time. Thus, political elites and their respective parties must be aware of the signs and act as “gatekeepers of democracy,” taking the measures necessary to keep them off power. Many hoped that PDT’s (Democratic Labor Party) candidate Ciro Gomes would declare support to Haddad “in the name of democracy,” after losing in the first round, however, that didn’t happen. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, political elites should be aware of the four key indicators of authoritarian behavior. According to them, “a politician that meets even one of these criteria is cause of concern.” The criteria proposed by the authors are: 

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. 
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. 

Some examples of the president’s attitudes that fit each of the criteria are: 

  1. Recently, it was reported that the Bolsonaro family has ties with the two men suspected of killing politician, feminist and LGBT activist Marielle Franco. Some weeks ago, congressman and LGBT activist Jean Wyllys, a friend of Franco’s, left Brazil due to death threats, which, he says, started after Franco’s death. 
  2. Bolsonaro used slush funds to sponsor the spread of fake news about the opposition through social media platforms, especially to spread fear on how Brazil would become “a second Venezuela” if Haddad became president.
  3. In many situations Bolsonaro made aggressive remarks about minorities. He has stated he would rather have one of his sons die in an accident than be homosexual. He told a congresswoman she didn’t deserve to be raped by him because she was “too ugly.” He called immigrants “the scum of the earth.”
  4. Bolsonaro limited media access to his induction ceremony and has threatened Folha de S. Paulo, one of the most renowned Brazilian newspapers, after it reported on the existence of some alleged fictitious workers on his payroll.

Many Brazilians use the existence of democratic institutions and the Federal Constitution that provides a system of checks and balances as a justification to why, regardless of what the president does, democracy will resist. However, as Levitsky and Ziblatt put it, institutions can become weapons and checks and balances are not self-executing if unwritten democratic norms are not respected. Such norms refer to mutual toleration (competing parties must accept one another as legitimate rivals) and forbearance (politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their constitutional powers). In this way, while Bolsonaro violates such norms, Brazilian democracy will be under threat.

Photo by Alessandro Dias, “Ato Pró Jair Messias Bolsonaro” (Flickr), Creative Commons Zero license.

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