By Felipe Storch de Oliveira | Contributing Writer
Commentators said that 2018 would be Brazil’s most tumultuous voting day ever — the country was divided, political parties made offensive statements towards the other side, neighbors started blocking one another on social media. Then this year’s election came around. On October 30th the current president Jair Bolsonaro, the 63-year-old former army officer right-wing incumbent, will face a runoff with adversary Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a 76-year-old former union organizer and veteran leftist president. Brazil’s primary election was a tight win for Lula (48%) over Bolsonaro (43%), with other votes spread across nine other candidates, and abstentions. As Brazil approaches its presidential election runoff day, Bolsonaro lags behind former president Lula of the Worker’s Party in most polls, with several centrist figures endorsing Lula. However, despite the election’s result, uncertainty remains on how to build an effective coalition in congress and advance on a much needed agenda for Latin America’s largest country.
A key obstacle that Lula faces in creating a congressional coalition is Bolsanaro’s apparent intent to discredit votes cast against him. Mr Bolsonaro has made several public statements about how the election results will be “erroneous” if he is not elected. He has stated that polls are wrong, that the voting system needs to be audited (despite regular inspections), and says that the Electoral Supreme Court is biased. Bolsonaro offers no credible evidence for these claims, but many of his supporters believe him despite extensive accreditation given to the Brazilian voting system by numerous international observers. Bolsonaro’s backers have also supported his calls for an increase in the number of seats in Brazil’s Supreme Court, stating that the current court is too biased. Some supporters have even gone so far as to have hung posters calling for a “military regime now!” Such critiques of the Brazilian government that Bolsonaro has raised will linger after the polls announce a winner, and they will test democratic institutions. It will be imperative to continue to dialogue and seek common ground, reminding Mr Bolsonaro’s voters that his own allies were elected in the first round of voting using the same voting system that elected him to power. It is thus important that the United States and other foreign nations play a key role in easing the tension by recognizing the electoral result timely.
A second threat to democracy in Brazil is the recent rise of hate speech and violent incidents. While the country mourned the killing of Marielle Franco, a black, bisexual Brazilian human rights defender in March 2018, violence against vulnerable communities continues to increase. During this years’ electoral period, four violent murders of political adversary have occurred in addition to dozens of violent incidents reported. The rate of murdering of indigenous people has increased. Journalists – specifically women – are persistently attacked by Mr Bolsonaro supporters and hate groups, especially on social networks. Given that these social networks have gained momentum in Brazil, it will be essential to counter hate speech in the next government and seek to strengthen democratic institutions. Countering hate speech and bringing political debate back to a normal, regular heated conversation must become a guiding principle for conducting free and fair elections in Brazil.
In the Amazon rainforest region, the election’s day-after will require extensive work to rebuild weakened environmental laws and institutions. Between 2019 and 2022, Mr. Bolsonaro has passed dozens of legislative acts that aim to weaken the environmental legislation of the current administration. These acts range from budget cuts of environmental institutions and loosening of existing mining requirements to applying fewer environmental fines and shrinking the size of law enforcement agencies. A significant portion of the changes to environmental legislation occurred during the seven month period at the start of the pandemic, when Mr Bolsonaro’s government prioritized economic growth over environmental protection. The cutbacks to environmental protection measures has led to rises in illegal mining, physical violence, and rural conflict, all while making Brazil’s climate targets a far fable. Since Mr. Bolsonaro took office, the annual rainforest deforestation rate has increased by 73%. 20,000 illegal miners are now in the Yanomami indigenous territory, and their presence presents a significant barrier to curbing environmental degradation. These setbacks to environmental protection and restoration that have occurred under Bolsonaro’s government will take years to overcome.
Perhaps these strategies to question democratic institutions, promote hate speech, and exploit natural resources have been used to hide Mr. Bolsonaro’s poor performance and record as president. Under his government, the country’s economy has grown below the G20 average and the old phantom of inflation has harmed low-income Brazilians. COVID-19 took the life of almost 700,000 Brazilians, a number that represents 10% of the world’s total coronavirus death toll. Bolsonaro managed to remain in cabinet – despite the more than 140 impeachment requests filed in Brazil’s lower house- because of billionaire allocations to a discretionary budget for a handful of congressmen which have such limited accountability that the money has become known as “secret budget.” In short, Mr Bolsonaro has failed to deliver on his main promises of economic growth and combating corruption.
One may be surprised that Bolsonaro has received such a significant number of votes in the first round of the presidential elections. Bolsonaro’s success has occurred in part because with the blessing of Brazil’s congress, a state of emergency was declared in July. The declaration allowed the government to waive the constitutional cap on spending, which freed up USD 7.6 billion in welfare benefits, plus a subsidy for cooking gas and benefits for truck and taxi drivers. While this assistance is much needed, with poor Brazilian families earning a temporary extra 38 USD per month, it came with a threat; the adjustments are valid only until the end of this year, which reinforces the old strategy of using last-minute cash to bump up votes.
In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore how American democracy is threatened by examining past examples of democratic breakdown. In summary, the authors list four warning signs to watch as an autocratic regime rises and poses risk to democracy: (1) rejections of the rules of democracy, such as claiming that election results are “invalid,” or suggest that the constitution needs fixing; (2) false discrediting of opponents; (3) shows of tolerance of, or encouraging attitude towards the use of violence; and (4) expressions of a desire to reduce the civil rights of individuals or institutions, such as a claim that the country would be better without a free press. Looking at Mr. Bolsonaro’s track record, a second term will reinforce the antidemocratic actions that he has taken in his first term as president, weakening one of the America’s largest democracies further.
Mr. Lula is the candidate for those who value the stability of Brazil’s democratic government and are open to a more centrist government that will focus on balancing economic, growth, inequality, and opportunity, all while respecting democratic institutions Mr Lula is not a perfect candidate, and an assessment of his Workers’ Party doings (and misdoings) deserves a debate in itself. However, Lula is still the most pragmatic option and his time in government tends to be balanced out by a conservative lower house and congress. Mr Lula is known for being a good negotiator, a token most-needed for maintaining a stable democratic government in this election’s day-after.
The current election in Brazil is extremely alarming and endangers one of largest and greatest democracies in addition to putting the lives of several groups at risk. For the 33 million Brazilians living with food insecurity , the next president must have a consistent, integrated agenda around combating starvation, creating jobs, and fighting inflation. Getting back to climate change targets and restructuring HIV and cancer prevention and care programs are also essential goals for the next president. One certain task that will remain for the day-after the election is for the next president to ensure that the millions who voted for Mr Bolsonaro respect democratic institutions. That task alone will make for a tough day-after.
Felipe Storch de Oliveira ‘16 is a Franklin & Marshall College Alumni. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org