At least one foreign leader still believes outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s desperate claims that the election was rigged. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was one of the last heads of state to grudgingly acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. But Bolsonaro remains adamant that the U.S. election was stolen and that Brazil’s presidential contest in 2022 could be too. While his latest assault on Brazil’s election system is controversial (and possibly criminal), it hardly comes as a surprise. Not only does he idolize the outgoing U.S. president, Bolsonaro is peddling similar false claims and conspiracy theories in Brazil.
Brazil’s young democracy is backsliding. Unless the country’s moderate leaders forge a united front to shore up their democratic institutions, Brazil risks an even more dangerous meltdown than the dramatic events in Washington last week. The conditions for democratic reversal are in place—a leader scornful of democracy and disdainful of civil society, a group of hardcore supporters committed to violently resisting his opponents, and an increasingly pliant security establishment. Making matters worse, Brazil has weaker checks and balances than many other democracies to keep it from falling off the brink.
Even before his election in 2018, Bolsonaro made no effort to conceal his anti-democratic credentials. Since assuming power, he has headlined a series of anti-democratic rallies. Inspired by his idol in the United States, Latin America’s so-called Tropical Trump is laying the groundwork to discredit his country’s electoral processes. Just in the past few weeks, Bolsonaro has questioned the integrity of Brazil’s 2020 municipal elections after most of his preferred candidates were knocked out in the first round of voting. This week, he told his supporters that the 2022 presidential contest should be restricted to paper ballots, claiming without proof that electronic machines were compromised. Sound familiar?
Like Trump, Bolsonaro, his sons, and his closest supporters are determined to undermine Brazil’s democratic institutions. Facing a slew of criminal and legislative investigations and 54 appeals for impeachment, Bolsonaro frequently lashes out at the Brazilian Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Tribunal. His eldest son, also a politician, has been charged with corruption. His other two sons, also elected officials, are accused of overseeing a clandestine “hate cabinet,” a group of close advisers operating out of the president’s office that organizes online hit jobs against political opponents and journalists. Meanwhile, members of his extended family and inner circle are engulfed in fake news enquiries and a sprawling criminal investigation. One of his sons even recommended restoring AI-15, a dictatorship-era decree to close the National Congress and state assemblies, forbid political demonstrations, censor the news, and suspend constitutional rights. (Bolsonaro later said he regretted his son’s comment, who apologized.)
Bolsonaro’s authoritarian instincts run deep. He was a tireless defender of Brazil’s military dictatorship throughout his 30 years as a fringe politician. He described convicted torturers such as the army officer Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra as heroes and lamented the fact that the dictatorship did not kill at least 30,000 people, starting with former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Like Trump, Bolsonaro’s dog whistles fire up his base, which was already riled up before his ascent to the presidency. Back in 2016, fascist demonstrators calling for the return of the country’s military regime stormed the National Congress in Brasilia in much the same way as last week’s mob of Trump’s supporters rampaged through the U.S. Capitol.
Bolsonaro’s hardcore loyalists are heavily armed and determined to protect their commander-in-chief from impeachment and being elected out of office. His backers are building up their arsenals, with some of them calling for a military takeover should the National Congress move forward with impeachment. Well before Bolsonaro assumed the presidency, one of his most urgent priorities was to dismantle the country’s firearms legislation. Since taking office, he has issued a slew of legal measures to increase access to high-powered firearms and ammunition and water down efforts to track missing guns. In addition to making semi-automatic rifles more available to civilians, he’s also tried to lower import duties on foreign-manufactured firearms.
Unsurprisingly, Brazilian gun ownership skyrocketed by more than 98 percent in 2019 and another 120 percent in 2020. This is deeply worrying in a country with between 50,000 and 60,000 violent deaths a year—three times more than in the United States, even though Brazil’s population is around one-third smaller. Not coincidentally, the surge in gun sales has benefited the country’s largest weapons manufacturer, Taurus, and played into the hands of the “bullet caucus”—a pro-gun, tough-on-crime coalition of lawmakers that is among Bolsonaro’s most steadfast allies. The arms manufacturer’s share price rose by more than 60 percent in 2020. Imports of foreign firearms have also increased several hundredfold over the past two years.
A former army captain, Bolsonaro is militarizing Brazil’s government. At least 10 of his 23 cabinet ministers are military officers, the highest number since the dictatorship. According to the Brazilian Federal Audit Bureau, he has appointed 6,157 active-duty and reserve personnel to government positions, twice as many as his predecessor. There are more than 1,250 military personnel in the Health Ministry alone. Bolsonaro routinely invokes the threat of military force to intimidate opposition legislators in the National Congress and members of the Supreme Court. Last year, the head of the opposition proposed banning active-duty military personnel from government positions starting in 2023, but it has yet to gather steam.
Bolsonaro commands widespread loyalty from law-enforcement agencies. Brazil’s state and civil police forces are legally subordinate to 26 state governors, but a sizeable proportion of their members are also among the president’s most enthusiastic supporters. Bolsonaro is the ultimate law-and-order president and has issued decrees to expand police discretion for the use of lethal force. This is controversial in a country where more than 6,000 people, most of them poor Black men, are killed by police every year. Bolsonaro has also resisted sanctioning illegal police strikes, most recently in Ceará in Brazil’s northeast, until the security situation spiraled out of control.
These and other threats are pushing Brazil’s democracy toward the precipice. So is Bolsonaro’s pandemic populism. He has obstructed basic public health measures and spread fake news about the virus, even as more than 203,000 Brazilians have died of COVID-19—the second-highest death count in the world, behind the United States. The country has only 2.7 percent of the world’s population, yet registers more than 11 percent of global COVID-19 fatalities, though epidemiologists believe the true death toll is significantly higher. Under Bolsonaro, the economy has also deteriorated: GDP contracted by more than 9 percent in 2020, tipping the country into a deep recession. Bolsonaro says the country is broke and claims he “can’t do anything.”
Brazil’s democratic credentials are coming under scrutiny. While the country still holds competitive elections, the Economist Intelligence Unit classifies it as a “flawed democracy.” Independent media and civil society are under constant attack and misinformation is rampant. While most Brazilians support democracy, roughly half of them dismiss the risk of a return to dictatorship. The country’s deep divides and polarization could help Bolsonaro win reelection in 2022. Notwithstanding his disastrous handling of the pandemic, roughly 37 percent still had a favorable view of the president at the end of 2020, in part because his ratings are helped by an about-face on providing subsidies to poorer Brazilians after initially refusing to provide them. Unlike his friend Trump, Bolsonaro still has almost two years left in his term. Unless Brazilians wake up to the deterioration of their democracy, it could soon be too late to save it.