WIKIMEDIA COMMONS Protesters denouncing corrupttion march in front of the National Congress Palace in Brasília, March 2016. 

The Decline and Fall of Brazil’s Political Establishment

Whether or Not Bolsonaro Wins the Presidency, a Transformation Is Underway

This October, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect a new president, and the country could become the next democracy to fall in the populist wave that has been sweeping the globe. Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist member of Congress known for making racist and chauvinistic comments, is currently leading in many polls and may very well win a second-round runoff.

At first glance, it may seem strange that a country once hailed as one of the most inclusive democracies in the developing world could elect a president who has openly attacked the rights of gay people, women, and Afro-Brazilians and who has been an apologist for military dictatorship and torture. Yet Bolsonaro’s rise makes sense when one considers the backdrop of Brazil’s culture of political corruption. After watching politicians of nearly every mainstream party be caught in corruption scandals, Brazilian voters are willing to rebel against a dysfunctional system. Unlike the traditional elites, Bolsonaro built an innovative campaign based on heavy use of social media and grassroots work to promote himself as an outsider to this system.

Whether or not Bolsonaro ends up winning, the fact remains that a broader transformation in Brazilian politics is under way. The country’s traditional centrist establishment that has ruled since the transition from military dictatorship in the 1980s is in decline. For now, Brazil appears to be headed for another lost decade, but with the right reforms the country could build a more transparent political system that would deliver effective governance for its citizens.

For decades, the generation of leaders that oversaw the transition from military dictatorship dominated Brazilian politics. But the establishment of democracy was not about sweeping aside the corrupt institutional landscape that had been created by the dictatorship. Rather, it was an exercise in reconciling popular demand for political openness while upholding the benefits of vested interest groups that had flourished under military rule. Although the 1988 constitution provided for universal suffrage for the first time in Brazil’

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