Presidential election in Brazil: Brazil at a crossroads

The elections in a few weeks are the most important in the country’s history. If Bolsonaro wins again, the conversion to a dictatorship could begin.

Election posters with Bolsonaro, Lula and Mickey Mouse

Election posters with Bolsonaro and Lula in Brasilia Photo: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

In political discourse one should be careful with superlatives. It’s not an exaggeration though presidential election in Brazil scheduled for October 2nd as the most important election in the country’s history. Because nothing less than democracy is at stake. With Jair Messias Bolsonaro, not just any politician is standing for re-election. The ultra-right incumbent has never made a secret of who he is and what he stands for: he is a notorious anti-democrat, a hate-filled right-wing extremist, an ardent admirer of brutal military dictatorships.

In the three and a half years of his tenure, Bolsonaro left a trail of destruction in Latin America’s largest country. His attacks on the environment, international conventions and democratic norms have rocked Brazil. Bolsonaro opened old wounds and added new ones.

For guys like Bolsonaro, elections are just a means to an end. Many analysts are certain: the ultra-right head of state would have staged a coup if he could. But Brazil’s institutions have proven surprisingly resilient in recent years, defying many of the mob president’s authoritarian aspirations.

Bolsonaro continues to attack the media and the judiciary

It was not possible to provoke an open fracture. Still, that’s not a reason to calm down. Because Bolsonaro has found other ways to undermine the democratic system: with attacks on the media and the judiciary, through state-legitimized violence, interventions in education and the construction of clear enemy images. As in other countries, the erosion of Brazilian democracy is happening in many small steps that are often not directly noticeable.

In their book How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write: “But there is another kind of collapse, less dramatic but just as devastating. Democracies can be brought down not only by militaries but also by their elected leaders, presidents or prime ministers, who undermine the very process that brought them to power.”

There is much debate in Europe about the concept of ‘illiberal democracies’, in which a democratic facade is maintained to dissolve its substance from within. Here, too, democracies usually no longer disappear overnight, with a big bang. These are developments, often long-term projects. Brazilian “authoritarianism over elections” is still in its infancy. And on many points Bolsonaro was shown limits, especially by the judiciary.

The young democracy is on the brink

But a look at other countries also reveals that if a candidate is re-elected, that opens the door to authoritarian state restructuring. Developments in Hungary, Poland and Turkey should therefore serve as a warning for Brazil. A second term in office for Bolsonaro would be a serious blow to Brazil’s fledgling democracy.

He has already declared that he wants to rebuild the Supreme Court. A majority in favor of conservative judges could permanently shift the structure of state and society. Similar to the situation in the USA, where the Supreme Court recently overturned the right to abortion, fundamental judgments could then also be made in Brazil. What should also cause concern: Bolsonaro has indicated that he will bring right-wing fanatics into a possible new cabinet.

Four more years under “Captain Chainsaw” will have dramatic consequences for the global climate

And he will likely try to push ahead with authoritarian projects like anti-terror law reform. A second term in office for Bolsonaro would also be a disaster for the environment. The overexploitation of the rainforest is already having devastating effects. The processes that picked up speed under Bolsonaro will be difficult to reverse. Four more years under “Captain Chainsaw” could have dramatic consequences for the global climate. So the election in October is not only a directional decision about the future of the country, but one about the entire planet.

Good chances for Lula

At the moment it looks as if Bolsonaro could actually be beaten in the election. his adversary, the social democratic ex-president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, leads in all polls. The shoulder-shrugging handling of the corona pandemic, the economic slump, his blunt tone: Bolsonaro has drawn a lot of displeasure in recent years. Even conservatives turned their backs on him in dismay. Nevertheless, around 30 percent of the population is on his side – not despite, but because of the constant breaking of taboos, provocations and misanthropic politics.

It is therefore not possible for Bolsonaro to moderate himself. Because apart from his voter base, he doesn’t have much to show for it. Any deviation from its radical course will be severely punished. And so Bolsonaro is relying on total confrontation in this election campaign and is trying to delegitimize the democratic process. Bolsonaro declared that he would not accept any result other than his victory. He raises doubts about the electronic voting system, even though it only recently passed a security test. “Only God” could remove him from the presidency, he once announced.

hope for the institutions

It is therefore not surprising that in January 2021 Bolsonaro did not say a word about the storming of the US Capitol by fanatical Trump supporters and seconded Trump’s lie to election fraud. It is considered certain that Bolsonaro will also doubt the election results in the event of a defeat. Many anticipate violence. It will therefore be crucial how the military and the police react. Do they feel more committed to the Constitution or the President?

More importantly, Brazil’s institutions and civil society take a firm stand against Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism before it’s too late.

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