Brazil: Democracy or Autocracy

Written by: Christopher Ploumidis

In one year, Brazilian politicians will be facing off for the most powerful offices in the nation.   The 2022 Brazilian Presidential election is beginning to closely mirror the 2020 U.S. Presidential election in some frightening ways. Known as the “Trump of the Tropics,” presidential incumbent Jair Bolsanaro has been sowing doubts about the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system for some time now. Claiming widespread election fraud, Bolsonaro has gone so far as to say he sees only three possibilities for his future: “being arrested, killed or [attaining] victory.” This will likely mar the validity of election results for, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian voters or, worse, may allow Bolsanaro to actually overturn the election results. Is this a part of a trend of democratically elected leaders calling fraud when their poll numbers drop?

At this time, the main players are very interesting. Leading in the polls is the previous president, a left-wing candidate named Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Brazilian Worker’s Party. Lula was very popular during his administration from 2003-2010 when the Brazilian economy experienced a boom. Lula was formally barred from running for office on the basis of two convictions of corruption that have since been overturned by the Brazilian Supreme Court in March of this year. 

In stark contrast is current President Jair Bolsonaro, who originally ran under the conservative Social Liberty Party but is now running as an independent. Bolsonaro has been highly criticized and has been subject to over 130 impeachment requests since coming into office. His policies and rhetoric have come under heavy criticism as well. Making disparaging remarks about minorities, gay people, and even French President Emmanuel Macron has made him a polarizing figure in the Brazilian political landscape. In early October 2021, large opposition protests formed in Rio de Janeiro to address Bolsanora’s mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic and the sweeping inflation that the economy has experienced. Bolsanaro has repeatedly been dismissive of the virus and remains unvaccinated.

The election is currently a year away, but polls have shown that Lula is far ahead of Bolsanaro. According to an independent firm’s polling, it is estimated that Lula will get 52% of the vote whereas Bolsanaro would likely receive 32%. This is an enormous lead, but the results could be more complicated than the polls suggest. Bolsanaro has attempted to pass legislation that would remove electronic voting machines and would require voters to submit their choices using paper ballots. This legislation has failed, and Bolsanaro has warned that if voters do not have the option to cast their votes using paper ballots he could attempt to suspend the 2022 election. Many fear that Bolsanaro is trying to stoke fear in the eyes of Brazilian voters and eventually use that fear to dispute election results.

Does Bolsanaro have legitimate fears of voter fraud? Jaun González, the United States senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council, thinks not. González stated earlier this year that American officials have “great confidence in the ability of the Brazilian institutions to carry out a free and fair election with proper safeguards in place against fraud.” He also emphasized the importance of “not undermining confidence in that process.” There is not a legitimate fear of voter fraud in this election according to American and Brazilian officials, and Bolsanaro’s claims are seemingly unfounded.

Despite the polls showing a demonstrative lead, it is clear that this next year will be a stress-test on Brazil’s democracy. This election has major implications for Brazil and the rest of the world. Brazil is the largest country by both landmass and population in South America, and it has major influence in that region. A dangerous precedent is being set with democratically elected officials disavowing the validity of, or even suspending elections, and what happens next could decide the fate of Brazil’s democracy. One could argue that the 2020 United States election and false claims of voter fraud have laid the groundwork for Bolsanaro’s assault on Brazilian democracy. It is shocking to see some of the largest democracies in the world be shaken by despicable lies of individuals that hold power. History is repeating itself faster than expected, and the writing is on the walls.