Insurrection in Brazil and the Resilience of Democracy
A far-right leader loses a presidential election and thousands of his supporters storm the capitol, break into government buildings, and demand his reinstatement, claiming that the election was stolen. While eerily familiar to Americans, this description isn’t of Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington D.C., but of Jan. 8, 2023 in Brasilia.
The similarities between these two events are uncanny. Moreover, people often compare former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to former US president Donald Trump due to their shared far-right policies favoring businesses and elites over the environment, public pandemic safety, or minority group rights. Bolsonaro has even earned the nickname “Tropical Trump” from the media, and Trump has endorsed Bolsonaro, tweeting that “Brazil is lucky to have a man such as Jair Bolsonaro working for them.”
While these commonalities may seem shocking, the Brazilian insurrection should be less of a surprise than an expected outcome given the country’s decade of shaky national politics and the global democratic decline spreading similar anti-democratic movements worldwide. Brazil’s insurrection also reveals the nation’s democratic resilience, which should be a cause of optimism for the recently inaugurated president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula.
NEW YEAR, SAME POLITICS
Following a narrow victory of 50.9% in a runoff election in November, Lula declared that “Brazil is back!” Indeed, Lula himself is back in office for the first time since 2010 for his third term as Brazil’s president.
Lula’s political career predates Brazil’s democracy. Before the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985, he entered the political sphere with his Workers’ Party, PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores). He first became president in 2003, after a few years of unsuccessful campaigning. Lula’s politics were known for their successes socially, introducing participatory budgeting systems; participatory councils in sectors such as health, water, and housing; programs for upgrading slums; and programs to improve health and education, most significantly Bolsa Familia. Despite corruption scandals like Mensalão, Lula left office after his second term in 2010 with an incredibly high approval rating of 83%.
The end of Lula’s presidency signaled the start of Brazil’s political turmoil. His successor, PT member Dilma Rousseff, “was just not the same kind of political animal” as Lula, according to Professor Benjamin Lessing, the director of Latin American Studies at UChicago, who is currently conducting field research in Brazil.
In addition to not matching Lula’s public popularity and skill in political negotiation, Dilma’s term was rocked by criticisms from both the public and Congress. “There was an economic downturn, and there were street protests,” Professor Lessing explained. “The anti-Dilma movement took on a lot of force, on the streets and in Congress. She was never accused of the kind of corruption that Lula was accused of. She was never even accused of the kind of corruption that many congress people went to jail for: serious, embezzling corruption.” But even on minor corruption charges, the Brazilian Congress impeached and removed Dilma from office in 2016.
Dilma’s vice-president, centrist Michel Temer, completed her term. Despite his support in Congress, Temer failed to tame Brazilians’ political discontent. After two years laden with political scandal, Temer’s unpopularity spelled the end of presidential aspirations for both him and Brazil’s center-right parties.
“The center-right parties got wiped out, and that opened up the path for Bolsonaro,” Professor Lessing explained. “He was very far right, he said crazy things, but there was no center figure with popularity to stand in his way.” Following a decade of political instability, Bolsonaro emerged in the absence of a strong challenger.
FACE-OFF FOR DEMOCRACY
Challenging the social programs Lula and PT pushed for in the 2000s, Bolsonaro closed Brazil’s participatory councils, attacked civil society activists, and ended the Bolsa Familia program. In addition to limiting civil society, Bolsonaro pushed policies that were disastrous for the pandemic, the Amazon rainforest, and the preservation of Indigenous people’s land. By the end of the 2010s, Bolsonaro contributed to jeopardizing the democracy and social progress for which Brazilians had been fighting for over three decades.
Thus, the 2022 Brazilian election became a face-off between politically opposite candidates with divergent national outcomes: far-right Bolsonaro and his socially conservative platform against leftist Lula and his calls to support social well-being and revitalize democracy. The results determined more than just the political leadership: they changed the course of Brazilian democracy.
In addition to the economic and social issues on the table, democracy itself was at stake. The heated election was fraught with Bolsonaro’s threats that the election would end only if his victory, death, or arrest imperiled any peaceful, democratic transition of power. After his loss in November, Bolsonaro declined to address the public for 48 hours, and he still refused to concede in his first speech after the election.
“In many ways, Bolsonaro fomented this insurgent idea,” Professor Lessing said. “He laid the groundwork for people to not believe in the election, think it was stolen, and incentivized these insurgents to take action.”
From dismantling social welfare programs to claiming election fraud, Bolsonaro threatened democracy at every stage of his political empowerment—yet the failures of his attacks reveal Brazil’s democratic resilience.
FROM INSURRECTION TO DEMOCRATIC RESILIENCE
After the Jan. 8 insurrection, there was no military intervention or coup. Instead, the investigation and arrest of demonstrators and removal of supporting officials from office followed. Brazil’s democratic institutions held. “January 8th, ironically, strengthened both Lula’s position and the broader project of restoring resilient democracy,” said Professor Lessing.
Brazil’s democratic resilience suggests a promising shift away from the global rise of authoritarianism. “With the democratic consensus from World War II and the 20th century receding in the rearview mirror and the far right becoming more sophisticated and internationally connected,” Professor Lessing explained, “democracy is on the rails.”
More than just in decline, democracy is under attack. Forces of division, ethnonationalism, and repression threaten democracies while autocracies reinforce their power by undermining election integrity, weaponizing corruption, and spreading disinformation to strengthen their grip on power.
Against these challenges, Lula pushed for democracy. Following the Jan. 8 insurrection, Lula took immediate action to reinforce his legitimacy and democratic institutions. According to Professor Lessing, Lula’s reaction was “to go after these people, arrest these people, and put order in the house, including within the military.” Ultimately, Lula strengthened his political power by using the Bolsonaristo bureaucrat’s involvement with the insurrection to remove them from their offices. Moreover, Lula got every state governor to meet in Brasilia and publicly condemn the insurrection, demonstrating solidarity and his support among government officials.
Beyond his response to the insurrection, Lula upheld democratic institutions by bridging political polarization. Lula chose former political adversary Geraldo Alckmin as his vice president as “a way of showing that Lula’s coalition was broad and goes all the way from the left to center,” Professor Lessing explained. Additionally, Lula appointed officials representing Brazil’s diversity, including Indigenous people, anti-racist organizers, and agricultural cooperative supporters.
Through these efforts, Lula facilitated the flourishing of Brazil’s civic activism, including the coalition of health organizations, grassroots movements, and academics that lobbied against Bolsonaro’s policies. In exposing Bolsonaro’s incompetence, these civic groups also laid the groundwork for Lula’s campaign, revealing the reemergence and strengthening of Brazil’s civil society and democracy.
“There's a consensus there now that whether you like Lula or you don't like Lula, we all want there to be democracy,” said Professor Lessing. This is evident through civic activism and efforts to unite across political lines.
NOT OUT OF THE WOODS
Although Lula seems to have restored and upheld Brazil’s democratic institutions, challenges to his presidency remain. Already Lula faces tight financial markets and high interest rates. Additionally, “a real question of loyalty to the Constitution” remains: according to Professor Lessing, “the police are very pro-Bolsonaro.” Moreover, “even though they're not allowed to by the Constitution, they'll go on strike, let crime ramp up, or hold the governors and even federal positions hostage by making things challenging for them.”
Even if Lula is successful, Brazil still faces the challenge of succession. When Lula steps down, Brazil will need a capable leader to continue preserving its democracy—especially given its history of turmoil stemming from incompetent successors unable to fill their predecessors’ shoes.
“Democracy is only going to be safe when figures like Bolsonaro and Trump are decisively beaten,” Professor Lessing explained. “They remain viable politically until they suffer a complete political defeat and lose their following—not just the loss of one election.”
As far-right figures lurk in the political shadows, democratic leaders worldwide must strengthen democratic institutions to outlive their terms. While its democracy may have prevailed in this election, Brazil’s institutions could be in jeopardy in the next. “We're not totally out of the woods,” Professor Lessing said—not until Brazilian democracy survives at least another peaceful transfer of power.
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