On Bolsonaro: Brazilian democracy at risk

This article was first published on FocaalBlog on November 8th 2018.

By Flávio Eiró

Picture a street handcraft market in a touristic village called Porto de Galinhas in Pernambuco, Northeast Region of Brazil. A few days before the second round of the 2018 presidential elections on 28 October, I observed the following conversation on the market.

“You can vote for him, don’t worry, he won’t kill gay people,” says a local 50-year-old addressing a couple of openly gay, young, black men wearing tight shorts and colorful shirts. They reply: “Yes, he will, Bolsonaro will kill gay people.” While the young men walk away, the Bolsonaro supporter keeps trying to convince them, half-laughing, half-serious, stating that his candidate is not as bad as some people have been arguing. “No, he won’t . . .” he says, “and don’t worry, because if he does kill gays, the environmental agency will come after him—after all, they are animals under risk of extinction!”

The slang commonly used in Brazil to refer to gay men is veado (deer). Although gay men use the word proudly, it is often meant as an offence when used by others. The older man is clearly aware of this and wants to use it ironically when referencing the environmental agency. Yet, this is the irony of the hard right in a country that has rapidly abandoned democratic conventions in recent months. This is possibly why his effort to convince the young men—and those around listening to the conversation—that Bolsonaro is not dangerous fails to recognize the real fear of these young men in the face of a probable victory of the extreme right-wing presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro.

A few days later, Bolsonaro was elected with 56 percent of the valid votes, and on 1 January 2019, he will be inaugurated as Brazil’s president. For the first time since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, Brazil is on the brink of an authoritarian turn. Although I am not sure what would have happened if Bolsonaro had lost the election, I do not think that he will start a military dictatorship now that he has won.

In a recent post on FocaalBlog, Massimiliano Mollona detailed the main factors behind Bolsonaro’s fast growing support among the Brazilian poor whose votes, as many commentators now allege, were crucial to his victory against the Workers’ Party (PT), which had governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016. I agree with Mollona that Bolsonaro took “advantage of the popular rage [that] exploded against the political establishment” and that significant support came from leaders of Evangelical churches and agribusinesses. The support for his candidacy was to be expected, as representatives of these sectors have long formed a conservative base of mutual support in the National Congress of Brazil, together with Bolsonaro and the “gun caucus” (bancada da bala). In fact, other than expected, Bolsonaro’s party also took the second-highest number of seats in Congress, which may make it easier for his government to win Congress majorities for legislation—possibly even a three-fifths majority for motions to amend the Constitution.

What we already see is that Bolsonaro’s core supporters—and other moderates—are using his popularity to refute claims of “authoritarianism.” This, in some way, mirrors his own rhetorics throughout the years, which relied on claims that controversial statements only reflected “what the people think.” Certainly, Bolsonaro will try to preserve his popularity at all costs, so if his government would adopt authoritarian policies—probably in an Erdoğan or Duterte fashion—his supporters will most likely not complain, but follow Bolsonaro’s insistence that this was for “the good of the majority” and against the “enemies of the country.”

In this article, I engage with his supporters and other optimists (there are scholars and intellectuals among them) by saying: sure, Bolsonaro will probably not start a dictatorship, but that does not mean we are in good hands, and an authoritarian government with fascist tendencies is the most probable scenario. As I will show here, by making use of an “anti-corruption” agenda, Bolsonaro will go after left-wing parties. He has also given clear signs that he will not tolerate opposition from the media. University professors and teachers are among his first targets to fight, what he calls “ideologies.” The sooner people understand that the preservation of democracy goes beyond the appearance of normality and legality—as our recent past has taught us—the faster Bolsonaro will lose popular support.


Bolsonaro’s statements have a polarizing effect. He has often made outrageous comments about a set of delicate topics, ranging from supporting torture and extrajudicial killings, to the ridicularization of minorities and threatening to imprison his opponents, whom he describes as “communists.” It is not worth going over them here in detail since they have been reported in news outlets and political commentary all around the world, and he has often been labeled a “fascist.”

Although appalling to many, these statements did not prevent him from winning the elections. This is because many other Brazilians identify with them. Bolsonaro also taps into anti-communism, the cornerstone of right-wing ideology during the country’s 20 years of military dictatorship (1964–1985). Still, not all Bolsonaro voters are fascists, and they disagree with the atrocities he glorifies. As in the cases of Trump, Erdoğan, and the many far-right parties rallying in elections across the globe, their vote is sometimes considered an antiestablishment and “protest vote.” Instead of extending recent debates on the qualities and expressions of populism and fascism in these elections, this article is an attempt to actively debate and contradict Bolsonaro’s supporters.

A proud supporter of Jair Bolsonaro and community leader in a poor neighborhood of Recife, Pernambuco, October 2018 (photograph by Martijn Koster).

A community leader and proud supporter of Jair Bolsonaro in a poor neighborhood of Recife, Pernambuco, October 2018 (photograph by Martijn Koster).

This is important because, in my view, a crucial reason to vote Bolsonaro was for many that he seemed a lesser threat than the PT. Corruption scandals associated with the party, an economic crisis, and the fear of a “socialist degradation” of Brazil fostered by the aforementioned right-wing alliance of churches, businesses, and media pushed people to vote for Bolsonaro. Yet, to do this, people had to embark on a process of normalizing him, which started with the simple denial of what Bolsonaro says and will now consolidate in an acceptance that everything is fine as long as things do not get too ugly.

So, it may seem that whether these so-called protest voters maintain their support for Bolsonaro or withdraw it would depend on whether he will actually kill gay people or orchestrate what his future vice president called a “self-coup” that would start a military dictatorship. Yet, the focus on these questions neglects the fact that Bolsonaro does not need such extreme measures to weaken our democracy. Instead, two other developments make Bolsonaro a threat to Brazil.

One: The announced tragedy
Since the first round of the 2018 presidential elections on 7 October, when Bolsonaro was confirmed as the favorite, attacks on minorities and individuals who identified themselves as supporters of other candidates increased. A capoeira master was stabbed to death in Bahia after identifying himself as a PT supporter. A school and health center in an Indigenous village were set on fire. Military police officers on duty attacked a university student in Bahia. LGBT persons and environmental activists fear for their safety as verbal and physical aggressions increase. Many journalists were harassed or suffered aggression when reporting on events that could have negative effects on Bolsonaro’s candidacy—or even for simply being at gatheringsof his supporters, since mainstream media outlets are seen as an “enemy,” or again, “communists.”

What makes such violations of basic democratic rights an announced tragedy is that Bolsonaro was quick to state that he could do nothing to stop such violent acts. At the same time, he has called for violence against his opponents on several occasions. In his speeches, he uses concrete images such as “shoot down” (fuzilar) and “sweep away” (varrer do mapa), and threatens arrest and exile to opponents. Yet, a careful choice of wording allows him to claim these were metaphors to threaten corrupt politicians. During his first interview after the election, he promised to “ban the red bandits” only to later explain this was addressed at the leaders of two left-wing parties only. He also called the two largest social movements of the country “terrorists,” promising to criminalize their activities, in a deliberate strategy to delegitimize the opposition.

Yet, Bolsonaro and his supporters share a worldview that justifies such symbolic violence because leftist parties and social movements qualify not as political opponents but as enemies of the nation. Accordingly, his campaign sought to monopolize national symbols and fronted the slogan “Brazil is my party.” Communists, PT members, leftists, activists, social movements, and corruption—for Bolsonaro and his most faithful followers, these are all the same. And since they are enemies, Bolsonaro’s belligerent rhetoric has constantly been translated into violent acts. In many of those attacks, the perpetrators shouted the new president’s name and announced that the act was just the beginning.

Just like the Bolsonaro supporter in Pernambuco in the opening vignette, those who until now shy away from violent action or might never condone it ignore how Bolsonaro’s propaganda is normalizing violence. Those who declare Bolsonaro’s discourse as “metaphorical” in fact legitimize him as president and his authoritarian tendencies as righteous. At the same time, such attitudes exempt him from responsibility for the many acts of violence in his name and follow his favorite strategy: to dehumanize his opponents. Since Bolsonaro shows no sign that he will tone down his discourse, more violence against any opposition to his government can be expected from his supporters.

At this point, right after the elections, it is therefore important to consider how this atmosphere will impact the political climate in 2019 and after, when Bolsonaro becomes the president of Brazil.

Two: The silent collapse
Brazil is facing something unprecedented. While Bolsonaro is a political novelty in the country’s recent history—a democratically elected president who wants to be an autocrat—he has made his intentions clear, and we should take his words seriously. With this in mind, this section is a tentative prediction of Brazil’s future: the silent collapse of democracy.

First, for now there are no signs that Bolsonaro will begin a new military dictatorship. This is for the simple reason that he does not need one. With a majority coalition in Congress, he will easily be able to pass his main political reforms. His popular support and the ease with which he dominates opinion on social media suggest that his future government will have no difficulty in framing critical points in line with his Manichean logic of “patriots” versus “enemies of the nation.” To do so, he will also count on the support of popular Judge Sérgio Moro, responsible not only for the sentencing of former President Lula in a controversial trial but also for politically motivated actions that interfered with Dilma Rousseff’s administration and tried to influence the 2018 elections. A few days after the elections, the judge has confirmed his participation in the new government as Minister of Justice and Public Security, which will, for the first time, combine these two policy fields and give priority to tackling “organized crime.”

Bolsonaro’s commitment to fight what he calls “political tendencies” in schools and universities also indicates how ideas that oppose his worldview might be silenced. Any oppositional ideas will be framed as “doctrines” or “ideologies,” and teachers and professors reproducing them in school settings will be punished. In fact, Bolsonaro has already supported a recently elected deputy from his party, who asked people to film teachers that express negative opinions about the new president in the classroom; she called such teachers “indoctrinators.” This happened parallel to police invasions of universities throughout the country, which removed signs and banners against Bolsonaro—and, in fact, general statements against “fascism.” In one university in the Northeast Region, the police was ordered to canvass and collect all electoral material from the professors’ association office that had been organizing an anti-Bolsonaro event. Claiming that universities must be politically neutral, local electoral courts ordered such censorship, which the Supreme Court later reversed with reference to the right to “free manifestation of ideas.”

In this tense atmosphere, it is feasible to ask, who will be the first “anti-nationalist” or “communist” to be prosecuted under the existing anti-terrorism laws and presented to the country as a threat to public order? Who will be the first university professor to be fired from one of the prestigious federal universities for “indoctrinating” students in Marxist theory? If these things seem far from being real for some, and while it remains unclear how much Bolsonaro can do within the legal constraints of the presidency, his popularity might well allow him to do what he and his team have promised: to “put an end to all activism,” to choose presidents of federal universities himself, and, among other things, to arrest or send his opponents away from the country.

While his moderate supporters insist that democracy is not under threat, they only consider the risk of direct dictatorship and do not see that an authoritarian turn may not require the complete destruction of democratic institutions. They ignore, for example, that by repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the electoral system, Bolsonaro has already prepared the terrain for contesting any future electoral losses. By vowing to impose the will of the majority on minorities, he was loud and clear about his lack of commitment to democracy. But apparently, as long as one considers oneself part of this “majority” and the “patriots,” the value of democracy does not seem to be absolute.


Meanwhile, supporters of Bolsonaro were more concerned about the direction of the country under the hand of Professor Fernando Haddad of the PT. Such concerns were mostly motivated by a strong anti-left feeling that gained strength when the PT won elections for the presidency of the Republic for the first time in 2002. Some fantasize since then that there was a secret communist revolution underway. To them, it does not matter that in 13 years of government, the PT has done nothing in this direction. Still, “the danger lurks,” they say, and Bolsonaro promises to free Brazil from this supposed danger. The main question to answer is then why his authoritarian attitude and his disrespect for the fundamental values of democracy are deemed a lesser evil. Why do even his moderate supporters not care about developments that in many ways foreshadow Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s alert that “mass fascism was never made up of fascist masses, but rather of well-organized fascist minorities who were capable of capitalizing on the legitimate aspirations of ordinary citizens to have a decent job and live in safety”?