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Ever since Jair Bolsonaro came to power in Brazil, observers have warned that the former army captain posed a serious risk to the world’s fifth-largest democracy. Those fears have proved well founded. Since taking office, the president has joined demonstrators calling for military intervention in Brazil’s politics and the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, promoted the large-scale militarization of his government, and systematically undermined public trust in the country’s voting system. Last month, Bolsonaro promised supporters that he would no longer accept decisions by a particular Supreme Court justice he frequently demonizes.
Developments in the United States have only added fuel to Bolsonaro’s fires. After supporters of then President Donald Trump invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo publicly stated that with better planning, the invaders might have succeeded—“killing all the police inside or the congressmen they all hate.” Bolsonaro himself insists that the 2020 U.S. election was rigged, an idea he apparently repeated during a recent visit to Brasília by Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser.
With Bolsonaro taking his cues from Trump, it is difficult to imagine the Brazilian president accepting an electoral defeat when he runs for reelection in 2022—raising the possibility that something resembling the January 6 riot could take place in Brazil. Yet even if the country is lucky enough to avoid that outcome, its democracy will still be in grave danger. A Venezuelan-style collapse, where democracy slowly erodes and eventually succumbs to pressure from an authoritarian-minded leader, is not out of the question. And even if a democratic-minded candidate succeeds Bolsonaro, reversing the decline of the Western Hemisphere’s second-largest democracy will be a long and uphill battle.
Brazil’s democratic decline is rooted in domestic trends that predate Bolsonaro’s rise to power, chief among them the incomplete assertion of civilian control over military leaders. A little more than three decades after the end of military dictatorship in the 1980s, the country’s armed forces have regained an enormous amount of political influence. Governments in the early years of the millennium succeeded in clawing back significant civilian control by, among other things, creating a Ministry of Defense and appointing civilians to lead it. But since 2018, all of Brazil’s defense ministers have been generals. More than 6,000 military personnel currently serve in Bolsonaro’s administration—a sharp increase from previous governments—and current and former military officials hold many key cabinet positions.
Regional governors have also expressed concern about losing their constitutionally mandated control over military police units, where authoritarian and pro-Bolsonaro sentiment is rife. Although numerous governors recently vowed to work together to reduce the risk of rebellious activity within law enforcement, the example of neighboring Venezuela shows that it can be difficult for civilians to reassert control over such units.
Brazil’s political and judicial institutions have also largely failed to stem the authoritarian tide. The Supreme Court and Congress, in particular, have struggled to check Bolsonaro’s dangerous behavior, including his systematic use of misinformation to attack adversaries and his frequent assertions that only God can take the presidency away from him. Despite polls showing that most Brazilians believe Bolsonaro would like to stage a coup, impeachment still seems unlikely. Indeed, Bolsonaro has already succeeded in altering important political norms—for instance, normalizing a president’s ability to govern with impunity if he or she can successfully co-opt the attorney general and the head of Congress. Even if Bolsonaro loses in 2022, his successors will certainly be tempted to employ similar tactics.
Reversing the decline of the Western Hemisphere’s second-largest democracy will be a long and uphill battle.
Gradually worsening economic conditions—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—have only hastened the country’s democratic decay. Successive democratic governments have failed to provide basic public goods to many Brazilians, including security, proper sewage disposal, and access to economic opportunity. Even during Brazil’s boom years in the first decade of the millennium, when the economy grew at up to seven percent, homicide rates steadily rose. Today, about 50,000 Brazilians are murdered per year, and organized crime groups and militias control swaths of major cities such as Rio de Janeiro. This reality helps explain why “tough on crime” leaders such as Bolsonaro, who depict human rights as an obstacle to law enforcement, will remain competitive for years to come.
Bolsonaro is therefore both a symptom and a cause of Brazil’s democratic malaise. Unlike Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American countries, moreover, Brazil has never openly dealt with its authoritarian past. Eager to turn the page on its brutal history of military dictatorship, subsequent democratic governments refused to convict even a single person for the numerous human rights abuses committed during more than 20 years of military rule. That changed only in June 2021, when a judge in São Paulo sentenced a retired police officer to two years in prison for a 1971 kidnapping. This willingness to wipe the slate clean has enabled public figures to indulge in authoritarian nostalgia—the dictatorship’s mistake, according to Bolsonaro, was “to torture instead of to kill [opponents]”—with limited pushback.
Brazil’s democratic decline isn’t solely the result of domestic backsliding, however. International factors also play a role. Concerns about deforestation in the Amazon and about climate change, for instance, have intensified international pressure on Brazil to do more to combat environmental destruction. Such criticism has already provoked a backlash among many of Bolsonaro’s supporters—making it possible for him to fan the flames of nationalism rather than tackle Brazil’s numerous internal problems. Paradoxically, the more internationally isolated the country grows as a result of its environmental record, the easier it becomes for Bolsonaro to depict himself as the last protector of Brazil’s sovereignty.
Far-right groups in the United States have also influenced Brazilian politics. After Trump’s defeat in 2020, extremists came to see Brazil as part of a global battleground in their attempt to promote the so-called alt-right. The Bolsonaro family has maintained close ties to former Trump advisers such as Steve Bannon, and authorities recently detained Trump ally Jason Miller for questioning at the airport in Brasília after he attended a conservative political action conference there. The Bolsonaro government has also sought to strengthen its ties to far-right movements in numerous countries, including Hungary, Italy, and Poland—reaffirming common views on issues such as immigration and the dangers of “globalism.”
Once influential regional organizations such as Mercosur—a South American trade bloc—have also failed to counteract these ill political winds. Mercosur’s so-called democracy clause, which once played an important role in protecting political freedom throughout the region, is now largely irrelevant, as is the Inter-American Democratic Charter of 2001, which seeks to uphold democratic norms in the Western Hemisphere. Recent developments in El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele’s government has purged the country’s judiciary, and in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega has brazenly imprisoned numerous presidential candidates ahead of November elections, show that such regional organizations and neighboring countries lack the leverage to force Brazil to uphold democratic principles.
No matter what happens during Brazil’s elections, the country’s democracy faces a major test.
Even the United States’ willingness to pressure Bolsonaro over his antidemocratic rhetoric and policies is limited. The administration of President Joe Biden is eager to engage Brazil in the fight against climate change and in its efforts to reduce Chinese influence in South America—both of which will require cooperation, not antagonism. Sullivan’s recent trip to Brasília was a case in point: although the national security adviser pushed back on Bolsonaro’s claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was rigged, observers came away with the impression that Sullivan’s main objective was not to admonish the president for his authoritarian instincts but to convince him to ban Huawei from Brazil’s 5G network. If he agreed to do so, Washington offered Brazil a closer security alliance and suggested that the country could join NATO as a “global partner”—a status that among Latin American countries only Colombia can claim. Sullivan’s trip raised concerns that the United States might be willing to turn a blind eye to Bolsonaro’s explicit attempts to undermine Brazil’s democracy, provided he agree to join Washington in limiting Beijing’s influence in the hemisphere.
No matter what happens during Brazil’s elections in October 2022, the country’s democracy faces a major test. Democratic backsliding in other countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela suggests that strongmen are often emboldened by reelection and grow increasingly authoritarian. If he wins another term, Bolsonaro is unlikely to be an exception. If, however, he loses, refuses to concede, and mobilizes his supporters, Brazil’s weakened democratic institution may be unable to withstand the authoritarian onslaught.
To head off a democratic crisis, Brazilian opposition figures must avoid being lulled into a false sense of security by Bolsonaro’s frequent vows to moderate his political behavior. Instead, these groups must present a united front—avoiding the frequent infighting and factional division that have allowed the president to dominate public debate for the better part of the past three years. Just as in the Czech Republic, where a broad spectrum of groups recently joined together to defeat the populist prime minister Andrej Babis, anti-Bolsonaro groups must temporarily overcome their political differences and form a broad pro-democracy coalition. Simultaneously, both the Biden administration and the European Union must make it very clear that any further attempts to undermine Brazil’s democratic institutions would have serious consequences for Bolsonaro. If the president fails to change course, U.S. and European options should include downgrading military ties, halting ratification of the Mercosur-EU trade deal, and freezing Brazil’s admissions process to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Such a combined approach—one that addresses both the international and the domestic underpinnings of Bolsonaro’s antidemocratic movement—is the best way to ensure that Brazil’s democracy survives past 2022.