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Supporters celebrate Bolsonaro victory, São Paulo, Brazil, 10/28/2018 © Alf Ribeiro / Shutterstock

Bolsonaro’s Brazil: A Faltering Democracy

After a radicalized and violent campaign, Jair Bolsonaro may now put Brazilian democracy itself at risk.

On October 28, Brazil elected the extreme-right former congressman, Jair Bolsonaro, as its new president, with almost 60 million votes — 55% of valid votes cast. He defeated his contender, the leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, who received approximately 44% of the vote. Bolsonaro’s victory represents a historic setback for the country. After a radicalized and violent campaign, the newly elected president may now put Brazilian democracy itself at risk.

The president-elect’s divisive rhetoric and authoritarian leadership style will do little to assuage the tense atmosphere surrounding the elections. In the final days of his campaign, Bolsonaro seemed determined to reaffirm his bigotry, which has become his trademark. Addressing a crowd of supporters, he promised to lead a purge of his leftist opponents: “Either they go overseas, or they go to jail.”

Bolsonaro’s praising of violence against minorities, democratic institutions and liberal practices has overshadowed Brazil’s historical memory. The year 2018 is symbolic for the country. Thirty years ago, in 1988, Brazil transitioned to democracy when it promulgated a democratic constitution, putting an end to three decades of military rule — a brutally repressive regime that targeted political dissidents. Unlike other countries in South America, Brazil never brought to justice the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity under the junta.

As a politician, Bolsonaro has molded himself in a mindset that is rooted in the traditional political culture of patrimonialism and authoritarianism. Bolsonaro is known for praising the military and has said that the only problem with the authoritarian leaders during the Brazilian dictatorship was that they “tortured rather than killed” dissenters. He has also expressed an opinion that allowing the 1988 constitution to be drafted by an elected body was a “mistake.”

Symbolic Year

In addition, 2018 is symbolic for Brazil because 130 years ago the country abolished slavery. However, the descendants of former slaves experienced socio-economic marginalization that persists to this day. Much of Bolsonaro’s appeal rests on prejudice against the socially and economically vulnerable sections of the population. His strategy of alienating a sizable portion of Brazilians can be called “elite entitlement to privilege.” It functions as an unwritten code that determines how the privileged should keep the non-elites marginalized. This culture of elite entitlement in Brazil is based on race. In a country that is home to the second largest black population in the world, skin color is an important element of exclusion.

Brazil never institutionalized race, but diffuses racism through veiled social mechanisms, and elite entitlement to privileges functions as an informal filter sidelining non-whites. As this filter is arbitrary, it extends exclusion to other social groups not necessarily associated with race: women, homosexuals and the poor.

For Bolsonaro, the guarantee of equal and universal rights poses a threat to the current entitlement system. For this reason, he considers rights to be a privilege. But he came to innovate, and one of his innovations is to turn prejudice into the expression of “truth,” thereby enshrining its acceptability. In Brazil today, prejudice seems to be widely authorized and normalized; the guarantee of fundamental rights is seen as a threat to rich Brazilians, who voted in vast numbers for Bolsonaro.

In post-election Brazil, the general atmosphere is not one for celebrating these historic anniversaries. Instead, Bolsonaro’s victory represents a setback for the consolidation of democracy and an attempt to alleviate poverty.

The tense and polarized elections have revealed an angry and alienated electorate. Since 2014, voters have been trying to cope with the worst economic recession in Brazil’s modern economic history. During this time, Brazilians have also witnessed the biggest corruption probe in Brazil’s history, known as Operation Car Wash, which uncovered schemes involving high-profile politicians from all the main political parties. The scandal involved the state-owned oil company Petrobras, used by politicians to receive kickbacks from companies granted access to lucrative government contracts. The probe suggest that former presidents Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, both from the Workers Party that governed Brazil from 2001 until Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, played a central role in the corruption scheme. During the probe, several high-profile politicians tried to undermine the investigation.

In this context of permanent crisis, Brazil has increasingly showed signs that its democracy is faltering — a fact that has deeply influenced this year’s presidential elections. This situation has as its central component the inability of state institutions to respond effectively to economic and political crises, and as a result, the trust of most Brazilians in their institutions has been waning. The widespread and desperate desire for significant change is the end result of this slow and painful process. Since 2016 Brazilians have declared themselves in favor of a change of direction in the governance of their country. The growing support for change was reflected in the elections to the national congress on October 8, when a veritable political renovation took place across both houses.

The new composition of the national congress suggests a swing to the right. This shift has already been seen in previous elections, when the conservative caucuses — which represent the evangelical, agribusiness and crime-fighting interests — have increased their influence. Out of the 513 lower house seats, the evangelical caucus almost doubled the amount of representatives, from 82 elected in 2014 to an estimated 150 representatives in this year’s election. However, congress will remain highly fragmented, with no political party commanding an absolute majority.

Desire for Change

Bolsonaro’s victory likewise reflects this desire. In a recent opinion poll, approximately 30% of his supporters say they voted for Bolsonaro because he promised significant changes to the status quo. But despite the electorate’s desire for change, there are strong signs that Bolsonaro does not represent anything new. Because of his incompetence and lack of democratic credentials, he existed on the fringe of politics for most of his nearly 30-year parliamentary career, serving as a largely irrelevant member of congress. It is rather ironic that today Bolsonaro can seem to represent change to a large number of his supporters.

The governability of Brazil appears uncertain. Bolsonaro’s lack of a clear policy agenda only contributes to this uncertainty. During the campaign, he avoided providing clear details about policies, especially those concerning the pressing need for economic and political reforms. Added to this, Bolsonaro possesses dismal negotiation skills — an essential asset in a highly fragmented national congress, in which his party controls only 10% of the seats.

The party fragmentation in Brazil has given rise to a particular type of presidential system, the so-called “coalition presidentialism,” in which the president governs with the help of a loose and unstable coalition of parties in congress. In order to keep this coalition united, the president needs to offer key ministerial positions to the main leaders of the parties in the coalition and provide concessions throughout his presidential term. This characteristic of Brazilian politics has been considered a hindrance to governability. Despite the congressional shake-up in this year’s election, it remains to be seen how Bolosnaro will balance Brazil’s fragile political equilibrium.

Jair Bolsonaro will assume office on January 1, 2019. Brazilian institutions will be under great pressure to demonstrate that democracy is capable of containing the president-elect’s populist ambitions. But democracy in Brazil is faltering, and averting a democratic decline seems today a daunting task.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.