Skip to main content

Brazil and Democracy After Bolsonaro

By Maria Paula Angel Benavides

In the midst of distrust in democratic institutions and in a highly polarized media environment, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro faced each other in a bitter fight for the Brazilian presidency. Renata Uitz (Co-director of the CEU Democracy Institute and Professor at the CEU Department of Legal Studies) discussed the outcome of the elections with Diego Abente Brun (Professor of Practice of International Affairs and Director of the M.A. in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program), Juliana Cesario Alvim Gomes (Visiting Professor at the CEU Legal Studies Department, and Human Rights Professor at Federal University of Minas Gerais) and Nauro Ferreira Campos (Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Professor at ETH-Zürich).

The stakes were high in the 2022 elections. Lula was seeking to return to power, while Bolsonaro was seeking to stay in power. The former was released from jail through judicial intervention just in time to run again for the presidency. He always proclaimed his innocence and argued that the case against him was politically motivated. The latter, the incumbent was campaigning while governing, yet he was surrounded by controversy and accusations. In fact, in October 2022, he was accused of committing nine crimes, including embezzlement of public funds, by an investigation of the Federal Senate.

The first round gave Lula a margin over Bolsonaro but handed both houses of Congress to the conservatives. The second round resulted in Lula’s victory, leaving Bolsonaro as the first president to lose re-election in Brazil. However, the polls suggested a much more comfortable lead for Lula than the results ultimately indicated. Either way, neither Bolsonaro nor his supporters were happy and, after a long silence, legally contested the election results. Nevertheless, their efforts were thwarted, at least temporarily, as they received a massive fine from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

How did the complex strategy of wielding public powers but also claiming election fraud play out in the second round of the elections?

Bolsonaro followed a complex campaign strategy, it included both trying to manipulate the rules and also to mock them. In the course of his presidency, he proudly proclaimed “I’m the constitution,” proposed changes to the election rules, lobbied the Senate, and shared through the country his fears of election fraud.

According to Diego Abente Brun, “what we saw in Brazil is very much the same thing we saw earlier in the United States. It was pretty much the same logic. The president, who has all the power of the state at his disposal, claims ahead of time that if he doesn't win, then the elections are going to be fraudulent.” In this sense, “what this does is a very dangerous blow to democracy, because it sends the message that elections are no longer credible nor tools to access power, and somehow the system is playing against the people, which is not the case.” As he argued, “we know the voting machines in Brazil were used since 1996, so there were no problems with them at all. It was simply a strategy, of authoritarian regimes, to undermine democracy. These are authoritarian leaders who are bent on ruling in an authoritarian form.” In the end, “we're going through a very dangerous process of democratic erosion, there is no question about that,” he said.

Regarding the above, Nauro Ferreira Campos added: “the direct comparison between Bolsonaro and Trump makes Trump look very good. It's very important for people to realize that he’s Trump on steroids.” 

What were the elements of Lula’s campaign strategy?

Lula has been elected previously, but those were very different times, it was before a time when a president could easily be impeached, democratic rules were questioned and the integrity of elections was called into question.

According to Nauro Ferreira Campos, Lula’s strategy was a traditional one. “He tried the opposite of Bolsonaro" and "he's a very able politician, who has many years of experience in building consensus.” “He tried to bring very different views" because “he realized very early on that was important to broaden the tent.” Nevertheless, “there’s a big gap between the strategy and the outcome that, as an economist, is difficult to understand," he argued.

However, “the outcome of the campaign was very remarkable” and “the fact that despite having a broad basis and trying to build consensus, the victory was achieved largely thanks to the poorest region in Brazil, the Northeast,” he said. He thinks that these elections are "almost a miracle of democracy" and proof "of the strength of a set of Brazilian institutions that were able to withstand the barrage and the brute force that was used by the Bolsonaro campaign.” 

What is instrumental to Lula's victory?

For Juliana Cesario Alvim Gomes, the broad-based coalition (which not only included Vice President Geraldo Alckmin but also liberal economists and former allies that were not aligned recently with Workers Party) was key. Also, Lula’s overcoming of Bolsonaro's government machinery and the use of social media and online platforms made by the Workers Party (which was much greater compared to the previous election).

Lula's victory is in part due to the integrity of the electoral administration. However, it is important that Bolsonaro was supported by the federal police to block and intimidate. So, even with Bolsonaro voted out of office, there is plenty of Bolsonarism across state and federal bureaucracies and law enforcement, as well as the military. So where does this leave Brazil? Should people worry about the integrity of public administration? Or is this a turbulent time that is expected to settle down?

For Juliana Cesario Alvim Gomes, it is an exception that the political system and institutions organize themselves to dispute the electoral results, so not taking it seriously is a winning strategy. In that sense, this is a unique historical event, the last sight of Bolsonarism. However, Diego Abente Brun is not so optimistic about it. “What we see here, for the first time since the transition in Brazil in the 1970s, is the military coming back,” he argued, adding that “they came back with Bolsonaro first, when he appointed a number of retired military people in high level positions, but now it is a institution”. He even claimed that “we don't see this anywhere else in Latin America. We don’t see it in Argentina or wherever you have controversial elections. You don’t see it anywhere, except in Brazil, and this is very dangerous.”

Is the military overtaking the moderating power?

Would it be an exaggeration to say that the moderating power, that we understand as belonging to the Supreme Federal Court, is now being claimed by the military?.

For Nauro Ferreira Campos, this situation can be compared to what happened in the UK with Brexit or in the US with Trump. Questioning the elections and voter suppression may sound mundane, but they are not. He also added that Lula’s victory in the Northeast, even if the police actively campaigned in favor of Bolsonaro and also blocked the roads on the day of the election, is remarkable. For him it is puzzling to see how close the election turned out to be.

Are law enforcement and the military claiming the reigns of mediating powers?

Juliana Cesario Alvim Gomes argued that she was not saying that “treating these people that remain in the streets as outcasts means that they are really outcasts or they have no influence the in the Brazilian political scenario. I just feel that it's a strategy that is working to keep the institutions doing what they should be doing in terms of transition". However, it is "true that we had an increase of political violence, bigotry, and distrust in institutions, that won't vanish with the new government."

According to her, “even if we are going back to the so-called normal, this can be very problematic, even in terms of the influence of the militaries or the armed forces, because what we're seeing now is more serious. (…) In Brazil we never had a proper transitional justice process, so we did have an undue influence of militaries during prior democratic governments, including Lula, but now we have a much worse situation,” she continued, adding that “I do believe that the army forces are claiming this role (…) but I also think that is problematic for the Supreme Court to use this category to refer to itself. It has done in recent times in order to overstep its functions. So I think we shouldn't talk in terms of moderative powers to talk about the current institutions, not even the Supreme Court let alone the armed forces."