Brazil’s democracy is under attack

President Jair Bolsonaro threatens its judicial system, relishes dictatorial image.



September 9, 2021 - 10:32 AM

Brazil's former president, Jair Bolsonaro, on May 7, 2020, in Brasilia, Brazil. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images/TNS)

Though Jair Bolsonaro’s opponents warned of the dangers, most voters in the world’s fourth largest democracy were willing to elect a declared admirer of dictatorship. Many are now having second thoughts. The president’s popularity has plummeted, with almost two-thirds of Brazilians now rejecting him. Even those unfazed by the relentlessness of his aggressive ultra-conservatism have balked at a supreme court investigation into his own conduct and corruption allegations surrounding his allies and family, surging inflation and unemployment, and above all his decision to let Covid run rampant, killing more than 580,000 Brazilians.

But those who backed him are getting what they voted for: a man with unabashed disdain for democracy and admiration for force. On current polling, the popular though polarizing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would beat him easily in 2022’s election. Mr. Bolsonaro is acting accordingly. The president has already sought to cast doubt on electronic voting, and limited the power of tech companies to remove content — making it harder to tackle disinformation. On Tuesday, he unleashed rallies in the country’s biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília and São Paulo. Though not quite on the scale he hoped for, the crowds were still sufficiently large and fervid to send his message. If the supreme court does not shift its course, “it may suffer that which we don’t want,” Mr. Bolsonaro warned. Diehard supporters had a less euphemistic version of how to handle his opponents: “Shut down the court,” and “Shoot them.”

The parallels with Donald Trump are striking. So are the links to his circle. On the eve of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo was in Washington meeting Ivanka Trump and others. His only complaint about the invasion was that it was poorly organized. This weekend, the former Trump adviser Jason Miller attended the rightwing conference CPAC Brazil and Donald Trump Jr. spoke by video link. Steve Bannon has claimed that the Brazilian election will be “stolen by machines”.

But unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has begun his planning a year ahead of a possible defeat and has a sizable body of admirers in army ranks; and unlike the U.S., Brazil has already endured two decades of military dictatorship. Some warn of the very real risk of an event akin to the invasion of the Capitol, but more serious. Others believe it is already under way: every day Mr. Bolsonaro is in power, he erodes Brazil’s democracy further.

He appears to believe he can maintain the support of the legislative bloc known as the Centrão, motivated more by practical political interests than ideology, against impeachment. But his current strategy is a gamble. It may further alienate people he still needs — including powerful rightwing figures in agribusiness, politics and the military who are viscerally opposed to Lula, but think their interests are better served by stability than chaos. They would be happy if a viable alternative candidate emerged on the right.

For erstwhile backers to claim surprise at how Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency is turning out suggests either staggering disingenuity or even more marked stupidity. But for opponents, there is little comfort in being proved right. The primary danger is of course to Brazil. Yet if Mr. Bolsonaro continues in power, it will not only worsen the climate emergency by further imperiling the Amazon; it will embolden and encourage extreme rightwing populism elsewhere. We should all be alarmed.