Boston University

Bolsonaro’s Problematic Admirations and their Autocratic Undertones

Brazil’s recently elected 38th president, Jair Bolsonaro, has spread his name globally through his offensive comments and provocative far-right political views. While these things have earned him the nickname ‘Brazilian Trump,’ they have also called into question his dedication to democracy. Though it is simply far too soon to call Bolsonaro any kind of autocrat, his election into office does create the need to examine his words for any signs of dangerous, anti-democratic tendencies. Upon examination of these famous quotes, it is clear from the nature of his statements that his political solutions can often lie in anti-democratic forms of governance and power. Particularly, when one looks at his comments regarding past Latin American dictatorships we see an attitude that could imply deeper authoritarian sentiments. To put it in terms of the indicators detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, Bolsanaro’s declarations of admiration contain proof of his “weak commitment to democratic rules of the game” as well as his desire to encourage violence.

Consider, for instance, a 1993 interview with Bolsanaro that was published in The New York Times. This interview features a candid statement from Bolsanaro where he explains his desire for a new Brazilian dictatorship. The language of the statement illustrates his disillusionment with democracy, as he calls the Brazilian democracy ‘irresponsible’ and explains that the solution to “-serious national problems-” lays in authoritarianism. Obviously, this statement reflects the fact that, at least at one time, Bolsanaro did not feel committed to democracy as a means for bettering Brazil as a country. His words speak to his willingness to turn to anti-democratic means to solve problems, demonstrating a concerning lack of faith in democratic institutions. However, the desire for a dictatorship does not make someone a dictator and, thus, says little about how a leader might envision the consolidation of executive power. This is why we turn to his comments regarding Alberto Fujimori.

Alberto Fujimori’s time as Peru’s president was colored by a myriad of authoritarian acts. The 1992 Peruvian Constitutional Crisis was one of the most significant, as Fujimori dissolved both the legislature and judiciary, absorbing their power and sending the military to harass legislators. To this act, Bolsanaro expressed sympathy for Fujimori, detailing his own desire to dissolve the Brazilian legislature, which would allow a president to “-rule by decree,” citing ‘corruption’ and ‘inflation’ as motivations. Bolsanaro highlights the benefits of eroding basic institutions, revealing three things about himself with this statement: his contempt for the legislature, his willingness to derail the regime, and his fondness for consolidated executive power. These traits are consistent with his status as a populist and political outsider, but these anti-establishment traits contain a clear disdain for democratic norms. Bolsanaro finds inspiration in Peruvian authoritarianism, discovering solutions to ethical and economic problems in bolstered executive power. This clearly demonstrates Bolsanaro’s lack of commitment to democratic rules while suggesting how he may go about consolidating power while in office. However, it doesn’t say nearly enough about his commitment to violence.

Over the course of his political career, Bolsanaro has been an extremely vocal proponent of torture as well as an admirer of the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985. While he has made a myriad of comments regarding both of these things, one stands out amongst the many. After declaring the superiority of the past dictatorship, Bolsanaro has been famously quoted as saying that the regime’s great failure was to “torture and not kill”. Not only is he endorsing past political violence, but he wishes to surpass it. He views violence as an essential aspect of maintaining order, stressing the severity of this violence by criticizing the old regime.

Furthermore, consider the way Bolsanaro views the dictatorship. He admires it and longs for the ‘period of prosperity’ it brought to Brazil. We are once again seeing him attempt to find a solution outside of the realm of democracy. He views modern Brazil as a place of economic trouble and widespread corruption, and he looks to the past for a ‘better time,’ disregarding the harm of authoritarianism in favor of the ‘prosperity’ he feels it brought his country. When coupled with the aforementioned statements, this suggests autocratic tendencies that could result in this president potentially eroding Brazilian democracy simply to solve economic and ethical issues. His leadership should be watched cautiously, especially at such a tumultuous point in Brazilian political history, as Bolsanaro does not view democracy as part of the solution to democratic Brazil’s problems.


*Photo by Mauro Pimente. “Jair Bolsonaro waves to the crowd after voting in Rio de Janeiro on October 28.” (AFP), Getty Images.”

2 Comments

  1. Stiv Mucollari

    February 17, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    First off, great blog post! I found the comparison between Jair Bolsonaro and Alberto Fujimori fascinating and accurate, but I do believe one key difference exists between the two of them; the support of, or lack of support, from the elites in each other’s respective nations. Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote in How Democracy Dies that “As a political outsider, Fujimori had few friends among Peru’s traditional power brokers” (73). They further mentioned that Fujimori’s attacks on politicians, media, and business leaders furthered the distrust the elites had of him, and virtually the entire Peruvian establishment supported his opponent, Vargas Llosa. In contrast, the Brazilian elites seem to have, to borrow a term from Levitsky and Ziblatt, collectively abdicate their responsibility, be it either from ideological collusion or a belief that they could control Bolsonaro. His embrace of market-friendly policies and the disdain that investors had for the static economic policies of Brazil’s Workers Party has made him the ideological choice for the financial elites of Brazil. Further evidence of this is shown through the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal endorsing him, and the warm reception Bolsonaro got at the Davos economic forum. While an outsider, it seems that Bolsonaro cannot wait to become an insider to co-opt the support of the financial elite as a safeguard for his administration. Would you agree with this characterization that Bolsonaro has consolidated support from the elite in contrast to Fujimori?
    Links:
    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-far-right_us_5bb437cfe4b028e1fe38dccb
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/brazilian-swamp-drainer-1539039700
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-davos-meeting-bolsonaro-business/brazils-bolsonaro-uses-davos-speech-to-appeal-to-big-business-idUSKCN1PG1SE

  2. Jonathan Eckel

    February 17, 2019 at 11:15 pm

    I agree with Stiv, this was a very well written post. Examining a person’s idols and admirations is very telling as to how they will behave in the future, but Stiv is right in pointing out the differences between Bolsonaro and Fujimori in terms of how they approach the economy, as well as who’s favor they’re hoping to gain from taking that approach. The distinction between Bolsonaro and Fujimori is important to note, as having support from the elites could prove instrumental in establishing legitimacy to actions that would otherwise garner widespread backlash in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Not only is the Brazilian democracy at a higher risk of backsliding with Bolsonaro in office, but the backing of the elites all but ensures that if Bolsonaro is successful in turning Brazil back into an authoritarian state, there would be little pushback from the upper class all the way down to the middle class. The legitimacy would allow for widescale violence against Brazilian minorities, such as Afro-Brazilians or the LGBTQ community, and revolution would have to start with the truly disenfranchised. The comparisons made between Trump and Bolsanaro are interesting, especially since people feel the clarify who is more dangerous to democracy out of the two. Such discussion almost seems comical, as Bolsonaro clearly has far more know-how than Trump in terms of how to work within the democratic system.
    Links:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/26/brazils-version-trump-makes-trump-look-like-mr-rogers/?utm_term=.9cd72d7ea4e5

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