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How democracies survive? Lessons from Brazil

Mr Daniel Cerqueira

Daniel Cerqueira is the Director of the Human Rights and Natural Resources Program of the Foundation for Due Process since 2014. He served as a lawyer for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights between 2006 and 2013. Daniel Cerqueira studied law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and International Relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais (Brazil). He has an LLM in International Legal Studies from Georgetown University, United States and an MSC from the Global Rule of Law and Constitutional Democracy Program at the University of Genoa, Italy.

How democracies survive? Lessons from Brazil

Bolsonaro's rise to power in 2018 and the popular support he still holds shows the information dystopia and the inability of parties with democratic vocation to close ranks against demagogues who lack such vocation. This article comments on some factors that allowed Brazilian democracy to overcome four years of constant authoritarian assaults at the hand of Bolsonaro and the demands to ignore the official result of the 2022 presidential elections shared by a sector of society and the Armed Forces.

As a starting point, the term “bolsonarism” (bolsonarismo in Portuguese) used in this piece goes beyond a mere support to the former president. It is characterized by the identity bond that unites millions of people convinced that the rules of the electoral game, the Supreme Court and other instances of the State are co-opted by the left. The orthodox bolsonarist tends to believe that science, education, arts, and moral codes have been tainted by leftist ideas, to the detriment of the traditional values inherent to the Brazilian nation.

According to political scientist Francisco Bosco, bolsonarism is rooted in the hyperpolarization of our days, aggravated by the rupture of two fundamental precepts identified by Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die: forbearance in the face of the basic and unwritten rules of the democratic game and the acceptance of the political adversary as a legitimate player. In the Brazilian context, Bosco points out that these precepts were equally unmet by the two parties that dominated the Brazilian electoral scene since the end of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and the return of free electoral suffrage (1989): the Worker’s Party (PT the acronym of Partido dos Trabalhadores) and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB the acronym of Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira).

PT and PSDB shared, at their creation (1980 and 1988, respectively), the desire to restore democracy after 21 years of suppression of political freedoms. Over time, their dispute over power caused them to annul each other, either by political or discursive means. Political annulment was manifested, for example, in the countless impeachment requests made by the PT against the social democratic leader and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and in the PSDB's deliberate conspiracy to impeach Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The discursive annulment translated into PT’s mantra according to which the PSDB had become an extreme right-wing neoliberal spawn, responsible for a decade of economic and social backlash. The PSDB opposition was even more implacable, especially during Rousseff's term, having employed slogans such as "the PT has a monopoly on corruption" or "any alternative is better than the left." Such slogans would be high caliber ammunition for Bolsonaro in the upcoming elections.

In the midst of this all-out war between these two parties, the alternative elected in 2018 (democratically, it must be said) turned out to be the worst possible. It multiplied corruption schemes, nepotism, and opacity in public management, promoted a boycott against science and against the Amazon, among other disasters. But the most nefarious legacy of Bolsonaro's four years was, probably, to have disseminated the conviction; among an important part of society, Armed Forces and police; that a coup d'état is a valid and desirable option.

This unfavorable political and social environment calls for an answer to the following question: how did Brazilian democracy manage to survive? The first condition was, of course, to avoid a second Bolsonaro term. Before becoming dictators, autocrats who come to power through free elections usually need at least two consecutive terms, a minimum of popular support and furtherance in the Armed Forces. Alberto Fujimori resorted to a civil-military coup in his first term, but he is an exception to the rule. Orbán in Hungary, Putin in Russia, Chávez-Maduro in Venezuela, and Ortega in Nicaragua made the deepest changes in the political and institutional puzzle in a second term, to perpetuate themselves in power.

Brazilian Labor Party’s move towards the center, the creation of a broad coalition with some center-right parties and the pragmatism whereby Lula approached conservative sectors of the electorate, especially in the weeks before the runoff, were decisive in avoiding a fatal blow to the democratic institutionality of the country had Bolsonaro achieved a second term in office.

Having addressed Bolsonaro's defeat, one should ask why a coup attempt was not staged between the announcement of Lula's victory, on October 30, 2022, and his inauguration as president, on January 1, 2023? Given the former president and his followers’ contention that the runoff had been rigged (the first round was not challenged, since many right-wing candidates were elected in Congress and in the main governorships), the possibility of an institutional rupture was considerable. Additional evidence of the mood for a coup was found in the draft decree of intervention of the Electoral Justice to modify the runoff result. This document was seized in the residence of Bolsonaro's former Minister of Justice and recently appointed Secretary of Security of the Federal District. The former minister is currently under pre-trial detention and faces a probe for omission during the acts of insurrection that took place in Brasilia on January 8, by radical Bolsonaro supporters.

Source: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

The first reason why the coup d'état did not materialize is the confidence that most of the population and the international community have in the Brazilian electoral system. The disinformation apparatus employed during, after and several months before the elections was not able to transcend the bolsonarist information metaverse. No matter how noisy the millions of Brazilians who believe in the myth of fraud at the polls may be, they remain a minority contingent of the population.

The second reason was the mobilization of civil society, opinion makers and the media outlets that sought to clarify false information about the integrity of the electoral process. They also alerted public opinion, international organizations and governments of countries with significant diplomatic and economic relations with Brazil, of the risks of allowing those who do not accept the results to revert the election so abruptly. Likewise, the Superior Electoral Court played a key role in combating fake news about the integrity of the electronic ballot boxes and the electoral vote count as a whole, among other bolsonarist big lies that circulate in the underworld of social networks up until today.

The third reason seems to have been the absence of sufficient support within the Armed Forces. It is no secret that Bolsonaro used that institution, and that part of the military, especially officers who occupied ministries or other positions in his cabinet, flirted with the coup option. However, one should not conclude that all military personnel celebrate such use of the Armed Forces or support Bolsonaro. Despite the trauma of military interference in several moments of Brazilian republican history, it is worth remembering an occasion when an Army marshal, then Minister of War Henrique Lott, seconded by other Army commanders, put entire battalions in the streets of the country's main cities, in November 1955, to ensure the transfer of power to President-elect Juscelino Kubitschek. Known as “novembrada,” this movement dismantled an imminent coup d'état orchestrated by the conservative National Democratic Union party, and supported by several political leaders and high-ranking military commanders, especially from the Navy and the Air Force.

Regardless of the support that Bolsonaro continues to have within the Armed Forces and the police forces of several local states, his coup attempt could not gather enough support and it was not possible to change the outcome of the elections by means of tanks and rifles.

Despite the lack of organic support in the security forces for the anti-democratic route, there is ample evidence that the Army General Headquarter in Brasilia acted recklessly on at least three occasions in which radicals camped in front of that facility sought to disturb the peaceful transition of power: the invasion of a Federal Police building and the depredation of vehicles and public property on December 12, 2022 in Brasilia; the placing of explosives in a truck, deactivated before a terrorist attempt in the capital's airport, days before Lula's inauguration; and the assault on the Supreme Court, Congress and Government Palace, on January 8, 2023, a date which will live in infamy in Brazilian history.


Having withstood the longest of its days, Brazilian democracy could emerge stronger, as long as the mistakes of the past are not repeated. After the aforementioned “noviembrada,” Juscelino Kubitschek adopted a conciliatory stance with the military and civilians who tried to overturn the elections. Days after his inauguration, in January 1956, air force officers in favor of the institutional rupture rebelled at the Jacarecanga base, in the north of the country. With Kubitschek’s support, the Federal Congress granted amnesty to all those involved in the plot, including the rebels of Jacarecanga, and an unprecedented number of military officers took over civilian functions in the government. The impunity in the face of sedition and the constant interference of generals in politics between the second government of Getúlio Vargas (1951-1954) and the eventful mandate of João Goulart (1961-1964), were the prelude to the military coup of March 31, 1964.

Strengthening of the democratic culture in Brazil calls for discouraging the inclination of the Armed Forces to act as a sort of moderating power and ensuring the punishment of those who have attempted against democracy and the three branches of the Republic in recent months.

It is important to keep in mind that Bolsonaro conspired with impunity against the outcome of the elections, even before they were held, because the Attorney General, Augusto Aras, has always acted as a taskmaster of Bolsonaro’s personal designs. The first and single time Aras included him in a preliminary investigation for crimes against the democratic order took place a few days ago, when he was already in Florida wearing the hat of an ex-president.

Therefore, it is essential to expunge partisanship from the administration of justice. In this regard, the announcement that Lula could appoint the next Attorney General, in September of this year, outside the 3-nominee list proposed by the vote of all federal prosecutors, seems to be a mistake. Initiated by Lula himself in 2003, this list mechanism was followed by each of the presidents who succeeded him, except for Bolsonaro. Departing from Bolsonaro's anti-republican habits and refraining from the temptation to appoint servile Justices and Attorney Generals would be an exercise of forbearance with a dose of vitality to the benefit of Brazilian democracy.

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