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Democracy or Dictatorship? Bolsonaro Brings Populism to Brazil

Has liberal democracy come under threat in yet another country?

On October 28th, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election, defeating Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT) by 55.2% to 44.8%. Bolsonaro, previously an army captain, has served in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies – the lower house – since 1991. After switching parties multiple times and proving a fairly obscure political figure, Bolsonaro rose to prominence as a member of the far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL).

Picture courtesy of Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil, © 2016

Although Bolsonaro legitimately won the election, his past statements bring into question his loyalty to liberal values and democratic norms. He has stated that he would rather see a son of his die than be homosexual, commended figures that served in Brazil’s former authoritarian regime, and advocated for the execution of sitting politicians. On the campaign trail, he promoted loosening gun ownership laws, as well as limiting rules of engagement for police officers. Even though Bolsonaro calls himself a “defender of democracy,” he has also claimed that he is “in favor of dictatorship.”  

This disregard for human rights and democratic institutions poses a real threat to Brazil. Yet Bolsonaro is not unique, as many democratically elected leaders have not only displayed authoritarian tendencies, but followed through on those tendencies. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has dramatically impaired the free press. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unjustly purged hundreds of thousands of security officials, civil servants, and judges. In the United States, some scholars have gone so far as to label President Donald Trump an authoritarian-esque leader due to his illiberal tendencies.

These leaders have cemented their place in power by taking up populist messages. Orban has firmly resisted efforts for Hungary to accept Muslim refugees, while Erdogan has presented himself as Turkey’s savior in the face of the failed coup, and Trump has rallied a firm base of support around his “America First” ideology. Although Bolsonaro’s ascendancy symbolizes the rise of yet another populist leader, we must not consider his rise as only the byproduct of a global trend. Instead, we must recognize that he has risen to power as a result of a specific domestic crisis – Operation Car Wash.

Operation Car Wash was a Brazilian criminal investigation that has touched almost every level of corporate and political life. Launched in 2014, the investigation began when Brazil’s Ministry of Finance intelligence unit found suspect bank transactions involving Petrobras, a state-owned oil company. Investigators eventually realized that the case expanded well beyond Petrobras. For example, construction companies that bid for Petrobras contracts secretly formed a cartel and purposefully overcharged Petrobras. Even though some high-level Petrobras officials recognized this, they pretended not to, instead accepting massive bribes from construction executives to remain silent. Bribes went to politicians as well, who received everything from monetary compensation, to high-end watches, yachts, or prostitutes.

Between construction companies, Petrobras, and the politicians involved, the total financial sum of bribes exchanged reached as high as $5.3 billion.

The political consequences of Operation Car Wash have proven earth-shattering. Of the hundreds of officials believed to have taken part in the scandal, the list includes former presidents, ministers, members of Congress, and governors. Most consequential was the uncovered involvement of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula, who served as president from 2003-2011, received a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering. Federal prosecutors have labeled Lula the mastermind behind the scandal, and multiple officials that served in his presidential administration are in prison for similar crimes. The scandal also hit Lula’s handpicked successor, former President Dilma Rousseff, who served from 2011 until her impeachment and removal from office in 2016. Although prosecutors never charged her with direct involvement in the scandal, she was the chairwoman of Petrobras from 2003-2010, making her innocence difficult to accept.

Brazil has also suffered economically from the Petrobras scandal. In 2014, Brazil experienced its worst recession in nearly a hundred years. Brazil’s GDP fell by nearly four percent in both 2015 and 2016, and only stabilized in 2017. Although Brazil’s economy is growing again, it is still well below its pre-2014 levels.

These political and economic developments, which have shaken the Brazilian population’s trust in their institutions and candidates, has provided the perfect ground for Bolsonaro to rise to the presidency. Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to root out corruption without mercy. His opponent, meanwhile, was Fernando Haddad – a replacement candidate for Lula, who could not run because Brazil’s electoral court barred him from doing so. Bolsonaro’s opponent embodied exactly what the president-elect ran against throughout his campaign – the corrupt status quo.

Like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump, Bolsonaro captured the emotions of the nation, and played on those emotions to climb to power. Whether or not he manipulates these powers remains to be seen, but statements made throughout his career provide us little optimism. Brazilian corruption is unparalleled across the world, and if Bolsonaro is able to adequately address the issue, that is something proponents of equity and transparency should applaud.

Or, like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump, has Bolsonaro simply manipulated the people’s emotions to attain power?


Alex Psilakis

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