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Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: In Brazil’s upcoming election, nothing less than democracy is at stake

Opinions Editor
Thursday, October 4, 2018

By any metric, the past few years have not been good to liberal democracy. As Larry Diamond, a Stanford University professor of sociology who specializes in democracy, famously noted, we may be in the midst of a global “democracy recession.” Populists with autocratic tendencies have enjoyed electoral success in the past few years, and it appears that this trend is only intensifying — since just last year, over half of the countries assessed in an Economist report saw their Democracy Index rating fall.

Perhaps no country, though, is as close to the void as Brazil. On Oct. 7, Brazilians are posed to decide among a diverse pool of candidates for president, but polling suggests it will be a competition between Fernando Haddad, an academic and former center-left mayor of São Paulo hand-picked by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Jair Bolsonaro, a hitherto marginalized extreme right-wing congressman, famously sympathetic toward Brazil’s former military dictatorship. While Bolsonaro will almost certainly win the first round, it’s unlikely he will garner a majority at that point. But disturbingly, in a run-off, Bolsonaro and Haddad are locked in a statistical dead heat.

The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated. Brazil — the world’s eighth largest economy and home to half the population of South America — is in immediate danger of doing irreparable damage to its democratic institutions. No other democracy of Brazil’s size and influence has faced as dire a threat to its institutions in recent years. Though it is easy to read claims of dictatorships and oppression as platitudinal or hysterical — especially considering how commonplace rhetoric of autocracy and illiberalism has become in the United States — we must resist that temptation. After contextualizing the situation historically and within Brazil’s contemporary political framework, we will be able to see what makes Brazil’s choice this Sunday so dire.

First, it is important to assess the nature of the threat. Bolsonaro has been serving as a federal deputy in the lower chamber of Brazil’s legislature since 1991. For most of that period, he was a fringe politician, notable mostly for his extreme homophobia (he once claimed he would be incapable of loving a gay son, and would prefer for him to die in an accident), sexism (he once told a female deputy that she was not worthy of being raped by him) and racism (just this year he was charged with inciting racial hatred as a result of a lengthy catalog of hate speech). It was not until he entered the presidential race this cycle that he gained a national following. His success is in large part due to a confluence of factors beyond his control, but the sprawling Lava Jato corruption scandal, which has implicated the vast majority of Brazil’s political class, is perhaps what contributed most to the creation of fertile ground for a disruptive reactionary candidate. And indeed, Bolsonaro is campaigning primarily on a platform of anti-corruption and stability.

But it is Bolsonaro’s brand of so-called stability at this particular political moment in Brazil that makes his threat to Brazilian democracy so dire. Bolsonaro, a former captain in the military during the dictatorship period, is a notorious apologist for the regime, and has chosen as his running mate a former general, Antonio Hamilton Mourão, who just last year said that a military coup was possible in Brazil. At the same time, support for democracy as an institution in Brazil is declining in response to the sheer magnitude of the Lava Jato corruption scandal, which has penetrated all aspects of the country’s politics. In 2016, as details of the scandal came to light, popular support for democracy fell by 22 percent, from 54 percent in 2015. Fifty-five percent of Brazilians now claim they would support a non-democratic form of government if it “solved problems.” Of course, it is one thing to see an emerging nostalgic mythology form around the dictatorship era, and an entirely different thing to reify that nostalgia into a real-life government. But Bolsonaro’s electoral viability provides exactly this opportunity.

Some sanguine commentators have tried to minimize the threat to Brazil’s democracy by pointing out that its “strong” democratic institutions will not allow a return to autocracy. This is simply not the reality. As the famous Brazilian academic Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro once noted, “Despite democratic constitutionalism, there exists an evident legacy in state apparatuses, left by the authoritarian regime.” Just last year, for instance, when Brazil’s supreme court was deciding on whether to grant former president Lula’s request for a writ of habeas corpus while he was appealing his corruption conviction, the military’s chief of staff, Eduardo Dias da Costa Villas Bôas, ominously reminded the court and the public that “the military repudiates impunity” — a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt at threatening the court to essentially disqualify Lula, who was at the time the most popular candidate in the race by far. Shortly thereafter, Lula’s request was denied, and following his appeal, his sentence was increased to 12 years and one month.

What’s more, Brazil’s elected government has itself shown very little ability to protect the regular functioning of democratic government. The 2016 impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff for budgetary manipulation has been widely criticized as an attempt by federal representatives implicated in the Lava Jato corruption scandal — 303 out of 513 in the Chamber of Deputies and 49 out of 81 members in the Senate — to replace Rousseff, who was not implicated in the scandal, with her vice president, Michel Temer, who was also under investigation for corruption and, surreally, barred at that time from running for president due to previous corruption charges. Ultimately, of the 65 members on the impeachment commission in the Chamber of Deputies, 38 voted to impeach Rousseff, and of those, 37 were under investigation for charges related to the Lava Jato scandal. Incidentally, when Bolsonaro voted for Rousseff’s impeachment, he dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, an infamous torturer during the military regime who died the previous year. Rousseff was tortured for dissident activity by the military in 1970.

This is not to say federal deputies support a military coup — they were, by and large, looking out for themselves rather than staking out any ideological position. But the impeachment of Rousseff, the frankness of military officials in threatening the judiciary and the politicization of the judiciary itself (which we have seen most clearly in the recent conviction of Lula) all seem to suggest that there is insufficient institutional strength to protect the country’s democracy.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Brazil has been careening toward disaster for the past few years. In fact, I have previously written about the many threats and challenges Brazil’s democracy has faced in recent years. But Brazil’s choice Sunday is a critical juncture — either another large step toward illiberalism and autocracy or a rejection of this trend, a much needed course correction. Brazil’s descent into the abyss is by no means a fait accompli. Brazil’s success during the late 1990s and 2000s has been a model for post-dictatorship countries in Latin America and throughout the world. The Brazilian people have the power to embrace that legacy. Hopefully, come this Sunday, they will be a model for saving democracy, too.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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