a heated presidential election puts brazils future as a democracy in question scaled

Since taking office in 2018, right-wing Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to roll back basic democratic rights and routinely attacked the country’s democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court and Congress, driving worries that he could completely undermine democracy if he wins a second term this year.
Buda Mendes via Getty Images

SAO PAULO — Hundreds of Brazilians packed into the Teatro Tuca, a theater at the center of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, on Monday night to see Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva kick off the final week of a heated and tumultuous presidential campaign. An even larger crowd gathered outside, beneath a message projected onto the theater’s stone facade.

Brasil Pela Democracia, it said. Brazil For Democracy.

Brazilians will go to the polls Sunday to choose between da Silva, a leftist who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, and President Jair Bolsonaro, a member of the fraternity of right-wing leaders that has put democracies across the world at risk.

Da Silva appeared headed for an easy victory just weeks ago. But Bolsonaro’s surprisingly strong performance in the first round of voting on Oct. 2 put him within shouting distance, and he has spent the last three weeks unleashing an unprecedented wave of social spending and a relentless barrage of fake news — he and his supporters have accused da Silva of worshiping Satan, wanting to close churches, and seeking a full Communist takeover of Brazil — in an effort to close the gap.

Polling averages suggest that da Silva is still in the lead. Bolsonaro has stagnated since Sunday, when a prominent ally and former congressman fired at least 20 rifle shots and threw two grenades at police who were attempting to arrest him at his home, part of a dispute with the Supreme Court that Bolsonaro, who has fought with the court throughout his presidency, struggled to fully denounce. The president then renewed his attacks on Brazil’s top electoral court on Wednesday, saying that its refusal to launch an investigation into claims that his campaign’s ads were being censored would force him to resort to “the ultimate consequences” in response.

Bolsonaro insisted that he would remain within the bounds of the constitution. But a late-night meeting with his cabinet, including leaders of all three military branches, renewed fears about what Bolsonaro, who has spent two years spreading conspiracy theories that suggest he will not accept defeat under any circumstances, will do if he loses.

As the race draws to a close, however, concerns that polls might be once again underestimating Bolsonaro’s support linger. The potential that large numbers of voters could sit out the election has left many da Silva supporters gripped by anxiety that Bolsonaro could still prevail legitimately.

A Bolsonaro victory would have massive implications: It would provide a jolt to right-wing politicians across Latin America, where some have already begun to mold their candidacies off of Bolsonaro’s brand of politics, and the world. It would put the Amazon Rainforest, which has suffered from huge spikes in deforestation rates under Bolsonaro, and other crucial Brazilian ecosystems at risk, potentially imperiling global efforts to combat climate change.

But the Tuca Theater itself highlighted the race’s most gargantuan stakes: the fate and future of Brazilian democracy.

Crowds gather outside the Teatro Tuca in São Paulo, Brazil, for an election event featuring leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The theater has served as a symbol of Brazilian democracy since 1977, when Brazil's military dictatorship violently put down a student demonstration outside of it.

Crowds gather outside the Teatro Tuca in São Paulo, Brazil, for an election event featuring leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The theater has served as a symbol of Brazilian democracy since 1977, when Brazil’s military dictatorship violently put down a student demonstration outside of it.
Travis Waldron/HuffPost

The theater has served as a potent symbol of resistance to authoritarianism for decades, since the country’s military dictatorship violently repressed a student demonstration there in 1977. Bolsonaro has long expressed affinity for that dictatorship, and has spent his four years as president eroding basic democratic rights and targeting Brazil’s democratic institutions. There are substantial fears that he would use a second term to further tear away at that foundation, and he has already suggested that he would seek drastic measures to take over a Brazilian Supreme Court that has served as a bulwark against him.

In the race’s final stages, da Silva and his supporters — including numerous centrist politicians who helped bring down the dictatorship a generation ago — have tapped into Brazil’s prior struggles for democracy as inspiration for this one.

“This election is a fight between democracy and barbarism,” da Silva told the crowd Monday, as he leaned out of a window on the theater’s second floor. “It is a fight between democracy and fascism.”

‘I Have No Doubt Brazil Will Turn Into An Autocracy’

Many of da Silva’s supporters need no convincing. To Maria Valéria Medeiros Valério, a 60-year-old lawyer from São Paulo, the implications of the election are clear.

“I have no doubt that Brazil will turn into an autocracy” if Bolsonaro wins, she told HuffPost outside the Tuca theater on Monday.

A half-century ago, democracies tended to collapse in dramatic fashion, as Brazil’s did in 1964, when its military orchestrated a coup against a democratically elected leftist government and instituted a repressive dictatorship that ruled the country for two decades.

Modern democracies, however, rarely fall apart so suddenly. Instead, they are typically slowly and steadily eroded from within, by leaders who use democratic means to win the power necessary to break a democracy down.

Bolsonaro’s improbable rise to power was an indication that Brazil’s democracy was already unhealthy: After nearly 30 years spent as a fringe congressman, Bolsonaro surged to victory in 2018 on the back of a campaign that tapped into fervent anger with the country’s political establishment, deep frustration with the ruling Brazilian left, and a previously untapped but sizable base of support for his brand of machismo-fueled authoritarianism.

Since taking office, Bolsonaro has targeted government programs meant to protect and promote the rights of LGBTQ Brazilians, the Indigenous, Black people and women. He has purged government officials who don’t adhere to his far-right ideology, fired ministers and public servants who refuse to go along with his conspiracies, and co-opted entire agencies, using them to advance his main priorities: the gutting of environmental laws and protections, the targeting of Indigenous peoples, the erosion of public education and academic freedom.

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro hold a banner asking for military intervention during a protest amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at the Esplanada dos Minsitérios on June 21, 2020, in Brasilia.

Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro hold a banner asking for military intervention during a protest amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at the Esplanada dos Minsitérios on June 21, 2020, in Brasilia.
Andressa Anholete via Getty Images

Police, emboldened by Bolsonaro’s aggressive law-and-order rhetoric, have killed more than 6,000 people in each of the last two years, a stark increase in a country whose law enforcement bodies already rank among the world’s most deadly. The vast majority of victims of police violence in Brazil are Black. Murders of Indigenous peoples, who have accused Bolsonaro of “genocide” and crimes against humanity, have spiked along with the number of illegal invasions of their lands.

Attacks on journalists, environmentalists and LGBTQ people have increased. The number of firearm registrations rose 473% over the last four years after Bolsonaro loosened gun laws, and the 2022 campaign has been marred by explosions of political violence.

Bolsonaro has relentlessly targeted the country’s democratic institutions with blatantly authoritarian threats: When Congress and the Supreme Court have refused to bend to his will, he has endorsed protests calling for their closure and instigated thinly veiled shows of force meant to spark fears that the military might intervene on his behalf.

There are significant worries about whether Brazil’s institutions can withstand another four years of relentless pressure.

Across the world, in countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia and Hungary, struggling democracies typically haven’t succumbed during an authoritarian leader’s first term. It’s in the second term that they have been able to cripple the most basic tenets of democracy.

“The institutions in Brazil have been resilient, and have done what is possible,” said Mario Braga, a senior analyst at Control Risks, a consulting firm. “But it gets harder and harder, and the longer he stays, the more chances and resources he’ll have to undermine institutions.”

In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has advanced more than $52 billion in public spending aimed at social programs that would benefit the poor, in an effort to sway voters who make up da Silva’s biggest base of support. Bolsonaro has sped up welfare payments to ensure they’re delivered before the election and fast-tracked numerous other economic assistance measures that will expand programs to nearly 5,000 Brazilian families.

Bolsonaro’s allies in Congress passed new measures to approve some of the spending, but much of it is still likely illegal under Brazilian election law. Last week, documents obtained by The Brazilian Report showed that banks had been given private data on millions of poor Brazilians, in order to directly target them for new payroll-related loans. The data, the outlet reported, was likely provided by the government itself, and could amount to a “massive violation” of Brazil’s privacy laws. But so far, no investigations into potential legal violations have been launched.

Fears that Brazil’s institutions may further buckle under the weight of Bolsonarismo intensified after the first round of voting on Oct. 2, when Bolsonaro’s party won the largest share of seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower house of Congress.

A second term would guarantee Bolsonaro the ability to appoint at least two more justices to the Supreme Court, a body he has repeatedly targeted. Bolsonaro this month signaled his potential support for plans to expand the number of positions on the court in order to turn it into an anti-democratic ally. His incoming allies in Congress have also suggested that they could seek to exert more influence over the court by impeaching current justices or lowering the mandatory retirement age in order to create new openings.

Da Silva oversaw Brazil's economic boom as president from 2003 to 2010. After spending nearly two years in prison on a corruption conviction that was later annulled, he's seeking a return to the presidency -- and appears likely to beat Bolsonaro on Sunday.

Da Silva oversaw Brazil’s economic boom as president from 2003 to 2010. After spending nearly two years in prison on a corruption conviction that was later annulled, he’s seeking a return to the presidency — and appears likely to beat Bolsonaro on Sunday.
Andre Borges via Getty Images

Bolsonaro has repeatedly claimed that it’s da Silva who poses the authoritarian threat to Brazil: Lula, as the former president is popularly known, would unleash violent criminals and turn the country into the “next Venezuela,” a neighboring country where Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has destroyed any semblance of democracy. But it’s obvious that Bolsonaro poses the greater risk of bringing about “the Venezuelazation of Brazil,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

An even better example, Casarões said, might be Hungary, which has seen a decaying of democracy under right-wing leader Viktor Orban. His authoritarianism is rooted in a religious illiberalism that he has used to target the press and public institutions. Bolsonaro has staked his presidency on appeals to Brazil’s growing evangelical population, the most radical wing of which supports a version of Christian nationalism similar to what has driven Hungary’s democratic downfall.

“The mirror image of Brazil of the future is today’s Hungary,” Casarões said. “[Bolsonaro]’s always very open about it. He very often says that Hungary provides the best role model for what he wants for Brazil: a religion-driven, illiberal type of democracy. And there’s a very thin line between illiberal democracy and no democracy at all.”

‘I’m Here Because I Love Democracy’

Four years ago, many of Brazil’s leading political figures remained on the sidelines as Bolsonaro rose to the presidency.

The 2018 contest was defined by anger, and much of it was aimed at the leftist Workers’ Party, which through da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff held the presidency from 2003 to 2016. Da Silva oversaw a massive economic boom during his eight years in office, and left the presidency with approval ratings above 80%. But the economy collapsed on Rousseff’s watch, while a massive political corruption probe ensnared hundreds of Brazilian politicians — including da Silva, who was convicted in 2017 and sent to prison. (Rousseff was impeached in 2016.)

Da Silva’s conviction was annulled in 2021, after The Intercept Brazil exposed rampant judicial and prosecutorial malfeasance that denied him due process. But anger still lingers: In recent polls, 43% of Brazilians have said they see da Silva’s return to the presidency as the worst possible outcome of the election, a number equal to the share that sees a second term for Bolsonaro similarly.

In the face of Bolsonaro’s clear threats to democracy, though, many of the establishment figures who refused to support the Workers’ Party candidate in 2018 have thrown their weight behind da Silva’s campaign.

From the beginning, da Silva has seen a “broad front for democracy” as key to victory: In June, he named Geraldo Alckmin, a long-time center-right rival, as his running mate. Since the first round, he has won the backing of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a lion of the Brazilian center-right, and numerous other centrist leaders.

“I vote for a history of struggle for democracy and social inclusion,” Cardoso tweeted this month. “I vote for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.”

No ally has been more important to da Silva’s runoff campaign than Simone Tebet, a centrist senator who finished third in the first round of voting earlier this month. Tebet rose to prominence during a congressional probe into potential corruption in the Bolsonaro government’s procurement of COVID vaccines, and she later became the favorite of Brazilians who sought a “third way” between Bolsonaro and da Silva.

During the runoff, she has criss-crossed the country to campaign for da Silva, arguing to Brazilians that a vote for the leftist is a vote for a democracy in which politicians like her are still free to disagree with their leaders.

Da Silva has sought to build a "broad front" for democracy in the race against Bolsonaro, and has won the backing of key center-right politicians like Sen. Simone Tebet (center, in white), who has emerged as a powerful surrogate for the former president's campaign.

Da Silva has sought to build a “broad front” for democracy in the race against Bolsonaro, and has won the backing of key center-right politicians like Sen. Simone Tebet (center, in white), who has emerged as a powerful surrogate for the former president’s campaign.
DOUGLAS MAGNO via Getty Images

At Monday’s event, the 52-year-old Tebet recalled putting her ear to the door of her father’s office as a child in the 1970s, and listening as he and other leaders of Brazil’s burgeoning pro-democracy movement resolved to fight for the end of the dictatorship. Da Silva, she noted, was often among them.

“Lula and I think very differently on many points, but there is something much greater that unites us: The love for our country, for our people and for democracy,” she said on the Tuca Theater stage. “I’m here because I love democracy, I’m here because I fought for it and I’m here because I don’t give up on Brazilian democracy.”

Tebet’s support may provide the votes necessary to push da Silva over the line: She has succeeded in convincing key members of Brazil’s financial elite — a class that largely supported Bolsonaro in 2018 — to publicly endorse da Silva, and polls show that nearly 70% of her voters intend to back the leftist in Sunday’s election.

Most of da Silva’s supporters have abandoned any lingering hope that an election victory will vanquish Bolsonaro’s movement. The right-wing president unlocked and emboldened a more conservative version of Brazil, one that will complicate any efforts to rebuild or fully safeguard its democracy. There is a cautious optimism among them, though, that they will defeat the biggest threat to that democracy on Sunday, even if by only the slimmest of margins.

In the middle of Monday’s event, the crowds inside and outside the Tuca Theater burst into a rendition of “Apesar de Você,” a popular song written by the singer Chico Buarque in 1970. The lyrics warned the military dictatorship, which eventually censored the song, that it wouldn’t be able to repress Brazil forever.

As the voices of the singing crowd bounced off the walls of the Tuca and rang through the streets outside, the song’s hopeful message took aim at a more modern target.

“In spite of you,” the crowd sang, “tomorrow will be another day.”

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