After four years of far-right race-baiting, economic mismanagement, and social upheaval, Brazil has rejected President Bolsonaro’s attempt to secure a second term. Over the weekend, voters chose leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed Bolsonaro in a tightly contested election marked by high levels of partisanship and polarization. In most modern democracies, the period of governmental transition that follows the selection of a new leader is routine. However, Bolsonaro’s partiality for right-wing extremism has called this fundamental pillar of free government into question. The election might be over, but the question as to who will be Brazil’s next leader remains unanswered.
When Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil’s president in 2018, it was seen as a watershed moment in the young democracy’s history. The ex-military officer campaigned on a platform of antiquated social conservativism and rallied supporters behind an autocratic, ultra-nationalist image of Brazil. It mattered little that Bolsonaro had a long history racial animosity, misogynistic remarks, and a disturbingly nostalgic view of the nation’s former military dictatorship. At the time, Brazil was going through a historic economic downturn and its people were yearning for fundamental change. On the eve of his victory four years ago, it appeared that Brazil had not passed that vital test.
It was a different story on Sunday, albeit with some familiar political faces. The streets Sao Paulo were filled with jubilance, and some despondence, at the news that Da Silva had unseated Bolsonaro. Thousands crowded the city’s famous Avenida Paulista, setting off fireworks and bringing everyday life to a standstill as Da Silva, universally known simply as Lula, began delivering his victory speech. The impassioned former metal worker thundered: “They tried to bury me alive and I’m here.”
With 98.8% of the votes counted, the nation’s electoral authority announced de Silva had squeaked by with 50.9% of the vote, with Bolsonaro close behind at 49.1%. Despite close results, the 77-year-old leftist won a historic 60 million votes; the most any candidate has ever received in Brazilian history. Da Silva, who had served as president from 2003-2010, was imprisoned in 2018 on corruption charges, and therefore barred from running for office that year. The president-elect’s triumphant return is not even a week old, and already, there’s a looming fear that far-right authoritarians like Bolsonaro do not give up power so easily. Those fears are well-founded.
To understand why Bolsonaro presents such an unqualified threat to Brazil’s adolescent democratic tradition, the anatomy of right-wing authoritarianism requires a basic introduction. Since the 20th century, right-wing dictatorships have regularly usurped newborn democracies in times of existential crisis, both real and imagined. Although they are diverse in form, from cults of personality to military juntas, they all share some unique qualities that deserve inspection.
Firstly, they are characterized by nostalgic, extremely conservative social movements, which usually condemn cultural modernization and sound the alarm against particular “others.” Second, they adopt exclusivist mentalities, and advocate for a severe crackdown on perceived social and economic ills. For the regime to be successful, an outward threat is almost always required. This allows a justification for complete centralization of state power, and the elimination of democratic rights under the guise of law and order.
South America is no stranger to this violent, crude heritage. In 1971, military officer Hugo Banzer overthrew Bolivia’s leftist government under Juan José Torres. Only a year later in 1972, Ecuador’s supreme military commander Guillermo Rodríguez Lara seized power through a nationalist uprising. Paraguay had Alfredo Stroessner, and Uruguay had Juan María Bordaberry. Chile’s infamous General Augusto Pinochet terrorized his people for over a decade. This list of right-wing reactionary governments goes on almost indefinitely, however, there is one more example that proves particularly useful. The Fifth Brazilian Republic, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, was a military dictatorship primarily led by Joao Baptista Figueiredo, who overthrew Brazil’s democratically elected leftist government.
It’s not just that Bolsonaro’s own breed of right-wing populism lends itself to these type of violent, repressive regimes. The former paratrooper’s own words, beliefs, and ideas directly expressive a fondness for this style of governance. “Elections won’t change anything in this country,” Bolsonaro, who served in Figueiredo’s dictatorship, said during an interview in 1999. “It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000. If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die.”
Besides his self-omitted distaste for the democratic process, Bolsonaro clearly displays the other key hallmarks of right-wing authoritarianism: racial bigotry and blatant misogyny. “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” he told a Brazilian congressional candidate in 2014. In 2017, he said in front of a fired-up crowd: “I visited a quilombo and the least heavy afro-descendant weighed seven arrobas (approximately 230 pounds). They do nothing! They are not even good for procreation.”
In the months preceding the election results, Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the integrity of Brazil’s election process, keeping in line with another hallmark of right-wing extremism. What separates himself from his western counterparts with this tactic is his candor in regard to his true intentions. If need be,” he told a crowd of supporters during the campaign, “we will go to war.”
The uncomfortable truth is that De Silva’s victory, while legitimate and lawful, is effectively meaningless until he is installed as president. Usually, the transition process in a modern democracy would prove mundane, unremarkable and ordinary. However, Bolsonaro’s primitive, archaic personal ideology has made this stage of the democratic process crucial to the future of suffrage in Brazil.
We can only hope that Bolsonaro’s protracted hatred for Brazil’s representative system will manifest in the coming months through tedious legal challenges, and dubious yet actionless accusations. The alternative is the forfeiture of a hard-fought, republican structure that was not easily obtained. Whatever the outcome, Brazil cannot afford to be an anemic democracy.
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