Is Jair Bolsonaro a threat to democracy?

Do you think that Jair Bolsonaro is a threat to Brazilian democracy, as many his critics  claim, or not, and why? What will be his political focus internationally, will his victory, maybe indirectly, contribute to the rise of global authoritarianism, as some observers point out? Read few comments.

Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Credit:

David Lehmann, Former Head of the Centre for Latin American Studies, Emeritus Reader in Social Science, University of Cambridge University

He is a threat to democracy although at present we do not know how serious a threat. But a President who will come in to office in January having made repeated statements in support of summary justice and announcements that he will send his opponent to jail, does not inspire confidence. The fact that he may bring military personnel into the government is not in itself a threat to democratic institutions.

Brazilian democracy Is already being undermined by unpunished  violence on the part of cattle ranchers  perpetrated against indigenous groups and others in the interior. This will presumably now get more intense as the institutions to protect those groups lose funding and personnel. Bolsonaro has for long made it clear that he despises protection for minority groups and also protection of the environment which he regards as an illegitimate restraint on free enterprise. It has to be said however that recent governments have not been very energetic in enforcing these rights and this protection.

Democracy is also undermined by the power of drug traffickers in low income urban areas and by the impunity of violent but usually unsuccessful attempts by the authorities to assert their control In those areas. The rate of homicides by the police is shockingly high and never received any sanction or even enquiries. You should check out the numbers. Bolsonaro will insofar as is possible give police violence even more freedom of action: however, you should know that this sort of policing is under state not federal control. That can change if, as is happening in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the governor calls in the National army to help In controlling the traffic. The effort does not seem to have been very successful, but I have no detailed information.

Bolsonaro said the other day that he would declare certain social movements to be terrorists. This could send them underground (a big mistake in my view) and give him the excuse to declare a state of emergency. The same sort of excuse could be available if there are mass demonstrations and especially if these are encouraged by irredentism on the part of the PT (Workers’ Party). I feel that the PT  will embark on a campaign of the legitimation as it has done before against governments that disagreed with. This would be a mistake also.

Obviously this election does fit into an international pattern. Indeed the electoral support must be greater than any other extreme right wing candidate has achieved. It may have received technical and even financial support from outside the country, but it is hard to question the authenticity of electoral support for the extreme right.

I worry that gangs may take the law into their own hands and attack gays in particular. Such activity already enjoys de facto impunity which make it worse, but it is the responsibility of state governments not the federal government.

The truth internationally, is that no one really cares about Brazil except China which relies on the country for wnormous imports of soybean and minerals. Within Latin America the new government will no doubt engage in theatrical polemics with the Venezuelan regime. But it may well close the frontier to refugees, which would be cruel.

Tom Long, Assistant Professor, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick

To see Jair Bolsonaro as a threat to Brazilian democracy does not require any great leap. It only requires taking the president-elect at his own words, including his own quite recent words. Bolsonaro has threatened his political opponents with violence or exile during the campaign. He plans to appoint military or ex-military leaders to a wide range of posts. He has praised authoritarianism, including its use of torture, in Brazil. He has advocated unrestricted police violence, flatly rejecting due process. He has disparaged and threatened vulnerable groups and the press. His supporters have responded, creating a climate of violence and a surge of attacks against journalists. If we believe that he is serious about these things, and he repeatedly says that he is, then we should expect him to act in a fashion unconcerned with democratic practice, civil-military division, respect for due process and rule of law, and anything approaching civil politics and discourse.

While Bolsonaro’s rise will probably be cheered by many on the far right outside Brazil, at the moment, his concerns seem to be almost entirely about Brazil. He has spent very little time on international affairs during his long legislative career or during the campaign. However, following the trends of similar leaders elsewhere, I expect Brazil to quickly look for scapegoats for Brazil’s problems. Venezuela will be a convenient target and foil. Conversely, Donald Trump will be a useful rhetorical ally, though it is not clear that the two have deep shared interests around which they could foster any meaningful cooperation. Something similar may be true with the Italian Northern League or Hungary’s Viktor Orban. They might point to one another for self-justification and legitimation, but real cooperation will be limited. On the other hand, many leaders in the region and globally will try to maintain distance from Bolsonaro to avoid a domestic political backlash from the center and left, and because many face their own far right, nationalist challengers.

Sean Burges, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies, Australian National University

He is not a threat in the sense that he is highly unlikely to be able to stage an ‘auto-golpe’ per the Fujimori example from Peru in 1992. The threat Bolsonaro presents to Brazilian democracy is indirect in the sense that his rhetoric and behaviour gives the nastier elements in Brazil permission to act out on their urges. We’ve seen this with the politically motivated beatings meted out to his opponents in the streets over the past few weeks. More worrying are the police invasions of university campuses this week to shut down classes and seminars on fascism and totalitarianism. The real challenge for Brazilian democracy will be how its institutions cope with the breakdown of civility in public and private life that has accompanied Bolsonaro’s campaign.

He is going to have two main priorities. First is to stabilize and restart the economy, which means tackling pension and social security reform. The difficulty of this task should not be underestimated and some of the key levers that need to be pulled sit in the hands of state governors, not the president. The second element is going to be on the law and order front, looking to reduce the horrendous levels of violence in the country. His answer looks like it will be a ‘mano duro’, tough guy approach, which is almost certainly only going to make things worse, not better. This is where it gets frightening for Brazilian democracy because Bolsonaro is almost certainly going to face major frustration on both these files and his past behaviour does not suggest he will engage the negotiation and consensus creation essential to a functional democracy.

Don’t be surprised to see a number of military figures in prominent positions in Bolsonaro’s government, but also don’t be alarmed by this. Very few in the military want to take on the mammoth economic and public security challenges facing Brazil. But, if they are called to serve and provide their considerable administrative and managerial expertise they military will comply.

I haven’t mentioned the international because I think the scale of Bolsonaro’s domestic problems are so large that he will have little mental space to seriously consider the international.

Riordan Roett, Professor and Director Emeritus, Latin American Studies Program, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University

Brazil is a constitutional democracy.  The judiciary is relatively independent.  The Congress, while,  disorganized with too many parties, functions.  Bolsonaro will need to work within this framework.

I don’t think foreign policy will be an early priority.  His focus will be domestic security, corruption, and reducing the size of the public sector.

Having said that, his position on the environment and the Amazon is very worrisome.  Allegedly he plans to withdraw from the Paris Accord.  We shall see.

His victory represents a very Brazilian decision to vote out the old corrupt politicos; to address the economic crisis; toimprove public services etc.  These are very challenging goals.  He will need support in Congress – not easy to gain given the number of parties and that of public opinion.  While he won by 55%, 45% voted against him.

There is a widespread rejection of liberal democracy around the world and Brazil is one more example.  It existed before the Brazilian election and will continue to grow with or without Brazil.

Patricio  NaviaProfessor, Political Science, Universidad Diego Portales, Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies, New York University

Bolsonaro has had a conduct in the past that concerns reasonable people. So, his record is not reassuring.  Now, as a President, he might prove to be a pragmatic and moderate leader who can unify the country.

During the last few weeks of the campaign, he distanced himself from some of his most offensive views and statements. Now, he still has a record of being offensive and authoritarian. But he also has a record of respecting democratic rules in Congress. He served as a legislator for 7 terms. I do not think he is a committed democrat, but he has played by the rule and has respected democratic institutions.

So, we will need to wait and see what happens in Brazil. I am concerned, as anyone should be, but I do think Bolsonaro deserves the benefit of the doubt. We will see how he behaves. If he departs from democratic norms and rules, I am sure Brazilians will soon turn their backs away from him.

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