Brazilian Democracy with Bolsonaro: How long can Brazil handle it?

August 11, 2020

In the best-seller, “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and David Ziblatt analyze how authoritarian leaders are democratically elected and then create tyrannies or authoritarian regimes, killing democracy. This process is featured by the fraying of institutions, the rigging of bureaucracy, vilification of democratic principles related to tolerance to the opposition, and freedom of expression, especially freedom of the press and thought. This political engineering throughout the Government would lead to the death of democracies in a similar, but different, sense to what happened at the beginning of the 20th century with the Nazi-fascist movement in Europe.

In recent elections this process results in the emergence of radical right-wing leaders like Viktor Orban, in Hungary; Mateusz Morawiecki, in Poland, Sebastian Kurz, in Austria; Matteo Salvini, in Italy (who recently left power); Rodrigo Duterte, in the Philippines; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Turkey; Donald Trump, in the United States; Boris Johnson, in the United Kingdom and, Jair Bolsonaro[i] in Brazil. A recent example is the case of Hungary, whose parliament approved, on March 30, 2020, a project that gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unlimited powers under the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.[ii].

In Brazil, it was no surprise to the majority of the electorate who voted for Jair Bolsonaro (2018 elections), that his election would put us on a blind flight adventure in the economy and would represent a political regression[iii]. This became evident in 2019 and was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Bolsonaro's election took place in a complex and atypical institutional scenario that resulted from several factors: i) the construction of an anti Workers Party (PT) culture in the middle sectors of society, especially by the media, as an initial consequence of the scandal of Mensalão allowance and then the Lava Jato operation, where PT leaders had their investigations accelerated and even with the questioned legal ritual compared to leaders of other parties; ii) criminalization of politics and parties, underway since 2013, which initially reached the PT and then spread to large parties such as the PSDB, PDT and, PMDB, among others, leaving a gap suitable for the advancement of moralistic populism with anti-party speech; and iii) the democratic rupture resulting from the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016; among others.

 Whatever the complexity of the country's situation at that time, what was presented as an alternative in the country in the 2018 elections was not something new. Bolsonaro was a well-known politician, with seven terms (28 years) in the House of Representatives who, explicitly and without any embarrassment, always expressed his reactionary opinions on low audience TV shows and talk shows during his public life. It was considered a caricature and presented as a political freak, but it was accepted by a good part of the Brazilian population as an anti-system politician and elected President of the Republic. He was never the leader of the parties he passed and never reported a bill. In other words, as Professor Fernando Limongi said in an interview with the newspaper El País on October 11th, 2018[iv]the Brazilian right, Brazilian conservatism - or whatever, who voted and supported Bolsonaro - is minimizing the risk he is running and is making a very dangerous option. The Brazilian elite is taking a leap in the dark. I mean, you're not really jumping in the dark, because you know what you're doing and you're doing nonsense. We are accepting the Brazilian right; the Brazilian center is accepting to be led by a guy who is an obscurantist, a retrograde, an apologist for violence, a guy who supports the coup and misses the military regime.

Therefore, Bolsonaro voters cannot claim a lack of warnings. His unpreparedness and anti-democratic instinct are reflected in the constant attempt to break with the institutional structure. These acts have generated several complaints of crimes of liability, provided for in Law 1079/50, which can lead to impeachment. Between January 1, 2018, so far there are at least 8 situations, out of the 10 possible, of crimes of responsibility committed by Bolsonaro, including the encouragement and participation of acts that defended the closure of the STF and Congress and the request for the return of the AI -5[v]. In addition, there are two ongoing investigations by Supreme Court, one conducted by Judge Celso de Mello for complaints of ex-Minister of Justice Sérgio Moro about crimes of liability committed by the President; and another by Judge Alexandre Moraes, which involves the existence of a Fake News network led by his son, Carlos Bolsonaro, in the government headquarter, called “Gabinete do Ódio”[vi].

Another critical element that is killing Brazilian democracy is the massive presence of military personnel in civilian public positions, most of these without qualification for the positions. The military is currently in 8 of the 22 ministries and holds 1,349 executive posts. This without considering other 881 posts occupied by members of the three forces in the Ministry of Defense[vii]. Even the current Minister of Health, who has been in office for more than two months, is a General with no experience in health policy and health management. In other words, we have a democratically elected government but mostly occupied by militaries[viii].

This creates a democratic anomaly because of the excess of military personnel in civilian positions Under the Bolsonaro government, Brazil could be characterized as a kind of military intervention in the executive, although imperceptible so far for society and for legislative and judicial institutions. This situation, however, causes tensions that worse the relationship of harmony between the powers, questioning the constitutionally established independence of powers. This military conduct leads active and reserve generals in power to abandon their institutional role and, in some way, support attitudes of a president who behaves against the democratic rule of law and often threatens it.

This is shown in two articles published by Vice President Hamilton Mourão (reserve general)[ix], where he claims that there are inappropriate pressures on the president and those pro-democracy demonstrations, and only those (not those that call for the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress are not considered by him), would be composed mainly of rioters, and that comparing Bolsonaro with Nazi-fascist leaders would be an "excess.

The fact is President Bolsonaro left the army and an early interruption his military career, as a consequence of a dishonored image, from an act of indiscipline - claim of an increase in pay in 1986 that led him to prison in 1986[x] as well as an alleged terrorist act whose purpose was to place a bomb on the Guandu water main in Rio de Janeiro[xi]. Bolsonaro denied such accusations in his STM trial and was acquitted.

More recently, in an interview granted to Veja Magazine[xii] on June 16, 2020, the Secretary of Government of the Presidency, General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, was in tune with the President regarding convictions about opening trade, damn the public service (forgetting his own role as a public officer) and that the measures taken mitigated the informal economy. But, the most impressive part of the interview is that he considers a possible impeachment of the list, as a possible result of processes sent to Superior Electoral Court (TSE), as processes of political judgment. And about having a military coup in the country, he says: What is the possibility of a military coup in Brazil? ... it is outrageous and offensive to say that the Armed Forces, in particular the Army, are going to strike, that the Armed Forces are going to break the democratic regime. The president himself never preached the coup. Now the other side must also understand the following: do not stretch the rope.

How can be seen; it is another General who turns indifferent, ignoring the fact that the President's presence in acts against the Supreme Court, against Congress and the constant attacks on the press and civil rights implicate the defense of an authoritarian regime. The following day June 16, 2020, Vice President Hamilton Mourão poured oil on troubled waters, telling Folha de São Paulo Newspaper that "There are no uniformed soldiers giving political statements and participating in demonstrations, that is, the Armed Forces remain firmly disciplined[i]. After that, a note from the President was issued, which was also signed by the Vice President (Hamilton Mourão) and the Minister of Defense (General Azevedo e Silva)[ii]. The note says that "I remind the Brazilian Nation that the Armed Forces are under the supreme authority of the President of the Republic, in accordance with Art. 142/Federal Constitution...." and that "In today's preliminary injunction, Supreme Court Judge. Luiz Fux well recognizes the role and history of the Armed Forces always alongside Democracy and Freedom". 

It seems to us that the President misunderstood what Supreme Court Judge Luiz Fux said in his injunction regarding ADI ask by the PDT party in relation to article 142 of the 1988 Federal Constitution on the role of the Armed Forces[xiii]. He states that the Armed Forces have no Moderating Power and that their intervention in the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches is not authorized. In the words of Supreme Court Judge Luiz Fux in his opinion, “The institutional mission of the Armed Forces in defense of the Fatherland, in guaranteeing constitutional powers and in guaranteeing law and order does not accommodate the exercise of moderating power between the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary branches ”. It also clarifies that the power of the armed forces is limited “limited power, excluding any interpretation that allows its use for undue interference in the independent functioning of the other Powers, relating the authority over the Armed Forces to the material powers attributed by the Constitution to the President of the Republic”. In other words, the Armed Forces are under the command of the 1988 Federal Constitution, this is clear and obvious, and not at the service of any government's political police, as the President's note makes us suppose.

In short, Brazil is a country with an extensive tradition of the military in power and that our history has already shown us. It is nothing new, even though the country has been living under the democratic regime since 1985 and the 1988 Federal Constitution for 35 years. Meanwhile, returning to the beginning, as Levitsky and Ziblatt affirm, authoritarian leaders in the current time are gradually dismantling and insulting of institutions as seen in the dismantling of policies to combat deforestation that was led by IBAMA and in the constant attempts to interfere in public universities and in the research they carry out. In this way, they seek to concentrate more power and break institutional attributes under the pretext of defending freedom but acting to found a tyranny. This “one step ahead one step behind” of the reserve generals (and some of those in active duty) reported here is a mechanism to disguise democracy as being what these soldiers want it to be. This deceives only the improvident. The fact is that we have military men in power again, even though they are in reserve, and they are engaged and committed to a leader who is authoritarian.

How does civil and political society manifest itself in this regard? It is good to remember that civil and political society is vulnerable because it lives a pandemic that the President insists on holding a denial behavior. At the National Congress, there is no willingness to consider any of the more than 35 impeachment requests from the President. The House of Representative's President, Congressman Rodrigo Maia, says that impeachment is not a priority, but the fight against coronavirus[i]. The cases that fall on the President will depend on justice, the Attorney General, and the Supreme Court, nothing more than that. The ultra-radical right-wing movement that supports the President, called "300 do Brazil", underwent three important setbacks: 1) the Governor of the Federal District, following the judicial measure, ordered their camp to be removed from the ground of ministries[ii]; 2) the President of National Congress ordered the removal protesters who invaded the dome of Congress [iii] ; 3) its main leader, Sara Winter, was arrested after the group threw fireworks at the STF building[iv]. The Minister of Education who visited the 300 camps on June 13, 2020, reiterated what he said at the ministerial meeting on April 22, 2020, about the Supreme Court and was exonerated, after the President of the Supreme Court, Judge Dias Toffoli, issued a disapproving note on the Minister's attitude[v] and the Supreme Court consider your arrest[vi]. This pushed President Bolsonaro to discharge the Minister of Education, who hurriedly traveled to the United States, having been appointed to a position at the World Bank appointed by the President.

Despite all this confusion at the beginning of June, the end of June and beginning of July 2020 had a brake on Sunday media attacks on the STF and the national congress supported by President Bolsonaro and the military that occupy positions in his government. This happened after the arrest of Fabricio Queiroz, a friend and former parliamentary advisor to President Bolsonaro and his son, the current Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, when he was State Representative in Rio de Janeiro (ALERJ). This former advisor led for decades what is called “rachadinhas” in Brazil – the process of appropriating the salaries of parliamentary advisers.[xiv]. In addition, there is evidence that Senator Flávio Bolsonaro is linked to militiamen (milicianos) - groups of former criminal police officers hired to coerce and kill people in favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and there is evidence that Fabrício Queiroz is involved in hiring these militia members at the Senator Flávio Bolsonaro’s office[xv].

This fact caused the Generals in the Government to suddenly cool down their most radical statements. However, on July 13, 2020, Vice President Hamilton Mourão manifested himself again before a statement made on July 11/2020 by Gilmar Mendes (Judge of Supreme Court) who criticized the work of Ministry of Health in fighting Pandemic and said that “the army is associating with this genocide”[xvi]. Vice-President Mourão reject the statement[xvii]. Because of this, the Minister of Defense, General Azevedo e Silva made a representation to the Attorney General's Office on the statement by Judge Gilmar Mendes. At the end of the same week, Vice President Hamilton Mourão himself asked to Minister of Health, General Pazuello, to talking about with Judge Gilmar Mendes and considered the matter closed.

What is visible now is that President Bolsonaro remains the same, only silent in his radical hysterical statements due to the lack of support for a military coup and, also, due to the accusations that hang over him and his son. Affirming that he had contracted COVID-19, but showing no examination, he again defended the use of chloroquine as a medicine to fight COVID-19. He appeared taking Hydroxychloroquine in a live[i], even stating that there was no evidence that it was not ineffective [ii]. But there is no possibility that this medicine could be effective in the treatment of COVID-19, according to an article published on July 23, 2020, in "The New England Journal of Medicine"[iii]. Based on a study carried out in Brazil - with the participation of 55 hospitals and more than 900 patients with COVID-19 at different stages of the disease - the article concludes that the use of Hydroxychloroquine is ineffective as medicine to cure of COVID-19 and also that this has a harmful side effect for patients taking the drug - increased cardiac arrhythmia, which causes faster death.

But returning to the initial question, what is the future of Brazilian democracy with Bolsonaro? Obviously, Brazil changed the face of your civilization with Bolsonaro as President united to the reserve Generals. Restore the Brazilian Covilitazion is important not only for the institutional value of democracy but for good quality of public policies at the moment since expertise is neglected to give way to the President's anti-scientific and obscurantism. At militaries in positions of government, we realize to certain political opportunism merely in the occupation of paid positions, without any project or more substantive contribution to the good governance of the country.



[i] A different version of this article was published in June 15, 2020 in Estadão Blogs – Gestão Política e Sociedade.

[ii] Fernandes, A.S.A; Teixeira, M.A.C.; Palmeira, J. (2020) The Long Brazilian Critical Juncture Since 2013: Crisis And Punishment. Cadernos Gestão Pública e Cidadania. São Paulo, v. 25, n. 81, 1-19,e-81577, 2020. See http://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/ojs/index.php/cgpc/article/view/81577.

[iii] https://istoe.com.br/orban-obtem-plenos-poderes-para-governar-hungria-por-decreto/

[iv] Hunter, W., Power, T.J.  (2019). Bolsonaro and Brazil's Illiberal Backlash. Journal of Democracy, Volume 30, Number 1, January 2019, pp. 68-82. See https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2019.0005.

[v] https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2018/10/10/politica/1539187153_593055.html

[vi] https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2020/03/veja-crimes-de-responsabilidade-que-bolsonaro-pode-ter-cometido-desde-o-inicio-do-mandato.shtml; https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/reinaldo-azevedo/2020/03/18/impeachment-vejam-os-10-crimes-de-bolsonaro-e-as-15-agressoes-a-lei-1079.htm.

[vii] https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/agencia-estado/2020/05/30/investigacao-deve-chegar-a-nucleo-do-gabinete-do-odio.htm; https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/06/04/pgr-diz-que-politicos-com-foro-citados-em-inquerito-das-fake-news-tem-relacao-com-gabinete-do-odio.ghtml

[viii] https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2020/05/bolsonaro-antecipa-mudancas-apos-saida-de-moro-e-infla-presenca-militar-em-postos-chave.shtml

[ix] About this see a recent article published by us on Panoramas (Scholary Platform) at the University of Pittisburgh entitled “COVID-19 and the Brazilian Political Crisis: The Imperfect Storm”, https://www.panoramas.pitt.edu/news-and-politics/covid-19-e-crise-pol%C3%ADtica-brasileira-tempestade-imperfeita-portuguesenglish

[x] https://opiniao.estadao.com.br/noticias/espaco-aberto,limites-e-responsabilidades,70003302275;  https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2020/06/03/mourao-manifestacoes-artigo.htm

[xi] https://veja.abril.com.br/blog/reveja/o-artigo-em-veja-e-a-prisao-de-bolsonaro-nos-anos-1980/

[xii] CARVALHO, L. M. (2019). O Cadete e o Ca­pitão. A Vida de Jair Bolsonaro no Quartel. São Paulo: Todavia.

[xiii] https://veja.abril.com.br/paginas-amarelas/luiz-eduardo-ramos-e-ultrajante-dizer-que-o-exercito-vai-dar-golpe/

[xiv] https://static.congressoemfoco.uol.com.br/2020/06/Fux.pdf

[xv]https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,o-que-e-rachadinha-entenda-o-crime-pelo-qual-fabricio-queiroz-e-investigado,70003337625; https://g1.globo.com/sp/sao-paulo/noticia/2020/06/18/fabricio-de-queiroz-e-preso.ghtml; https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de-janeiro/noticia/2019/01/18/caso-fabricio-queiroz-o-que-e-cronologia-dos-fatos-personagens.ghtml

[xvi] https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/flavio-bolsonaro-empregou-mae-mulher-de-chefe-do-escritorio-do-crime-em-seu-gabinete-23391490

[xvii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeDDyYXDBeo

[xviii] https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2020/07/mourao-diz-que-gilmar-passou-a-linha-da-bola-e-forcou-a-barra-ao-criticar-militares-na-saude.shtml

About Author(s)

Antonio_Sergio_Araujo_Fernandes's picture
Antonio Sérgio Aráujo Fernandes
Antonio Sérgio Aráujo Fernandes is a Ph.D. in Political Science at USP and postdoc in Public Administration at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, he is a professor at the School of Business at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA) in Brazil.
Robson Zuccolotto's picture
Robson Zuccolotto
Robson Zuccolotto is a Ph.D. in Accounting and Controllership from the USP and postdoc in Public Administration and Government from FGV EAESP. Currently, he is a professor in the Postgraduate Program in Accounting at Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo (UFES) in Brazil.
Marco_Antonio_Carvalho_Teixeira's picture
Marco Antonio Carvalho Teixeira
Marco Antonio Carvalho Teixeira is a Ph.D. in Social Sciences at PUC-SP in Brazil. He is a professor at the School of Business Administration at FGV EAESP and Coordinator of the Public Administration course.
Alex Bruno F. M. do Nascimento's picture
Alex Bruno F. M. do Nascimento
Alex Bruno F. M. do Nascimento is a Ph.D. in Administration at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. He is also a Professor in the Postgraduate Program in Administration at the Federal University of Campina Grande in Brazil.