Brazil: A Democracy in Crisis?

Brazil, a country mired in political and economic turmoil, has an uncertain future. Michel Temer, formerly the vice president, is the current president. He ascended to the presidency when his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from office amid allegations of corruption. President Temer, who is widely perceived as corrupt, has stated his intention to not run for the presidency in the next election, scheduled for October 2018. Brazil has a myriad of problems such as ongoing corruption, economic turmoil, and violence. As the Brazilian people consider the direction their country will take moving forward, they are left with multiple options.

Image courtesy of Agência Brasil via Wikimedia, © 2007, some rights reserved

One of the most controversial possible candidates is Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula served as President of Brazil from 2003 to 2011, during which time his administration held broad popular support amidst an economic boom spurred by the commodity boom of the mid-2000s and the implementation of a social democratic agenda. However, he has since suffered from a dramatic fall from grace. During the administration of Dilma Rousseff, his successor as President and fellow member of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), Brazil’s economic prospects soured. Brazil entered a major economic recession in 2015 from which it has not yet fully recovered. Another cause for polarization is the Operation Lava Jato (car wash) corruption scandal that has embroiled countless politicians. Lula is currently free while appealing a nine and a half year prison sentence on charges of money laundering and accepting bribes. Should his appeal fail, he would go to prison and be ineligible to run for office, in which case PT would likely nominate the former Mayor of Sao Paulo Fernando Haddad. However, should his appeal succeed, he would be the likely favorite to win the presidency. The Brazilian electoral system resembles that of France in that a candidate must win a majority of votes to win the election, and if nobody wins a majority, then a runoff round occurs pitting the top two candidates from the first round against one another. Polls show that Lula would be a favorite to win a plurality in the first round and candidate that polls currently indicate would be the likely victor. His election as president would reinstate PT’s mandate to continue funding social programs, and would also mean that PT, the party principally but by no means exclusively responsible for one of the largest corruption scandals in democratic history, would return to power.

Another incredibly polarizing possible candidate is Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is a Deputy (equivalent to a congressman) from the state of Rio de Janeiro who represents the right wing anti-establishment Patriota Party, formerly National Ecologic Party. Bolsonaro and Lula are in similar situations in that they are both fervently lauded and fiercely reviled by significant portions of the population. As such, Bolsonaro’s best chance of being elected is if he faces Lula in the runoff, because Bolsonaro’s anti-establishment platform works best against a former president embroiled in numerous corruption scandals. However, Bolsonaro is particularly divisive because of his sympathies for Brazil’s Cold War-era military dictatorship. He has stated his admiration for the military dictatorship, including Colonel Brilhante Ustra, one of the chief torturers in the military regime. Such sympathies frighten some, who think that his election as president would mean the end of the Brazilian democracy. However, a significant portion of the population has become largely disillusioned with democracy. The current political system is one in which over half of all members of the Chamber of Deputies (congress) are under investigation for corruption, an entrenched bureaucracy which is perceived by many to be inept and overpaid, and has allowed the management of Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, to use the enormous contracts the company awards to private companies as a way by which they can procure bribes. It is because of systemic problems such as these that many Brazilians think that Brazil’s democratic institutions have failed, and that Brazil needs a president like the one Bolsonaro promises to be, one that will purge the political establishment in such a way that is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric. Support for Bolsonaro also comes from social conservatives, the wealthy, and those opposing immigration. His election as president would be a sharp turn to the right ideologically and if the alarmists’ are right, could mean a return to a military regime.

The alternatives to Lula and Bolsonaro while more moderate do not seem to be in a strong position to mount a successful campaign. One of the leading opposition parties, the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), is likely to nominate either the longtime Governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, or the Mayor of Sao Paulo and former host of the Brazilian version of The Apprentice, Joao Doria. Neither candidate seems to have any involvement with corruption, however each candidate polls poorly likely due to the popular perception, despite PSDB not leading a presidential administration in 15 years and Doria only taking office in January of this year, that they are establishment candidates. This is due to the fact that PSDB, one of the largest parties in the country, has seen numerous politicians from its party come under investigation for corruption connected to Lava Jato, including Senator Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost the presidential election runoff in 2014. The other alternatives include former Senator Marina Silva, the 2010 Green Party presidential candidate and 2014 Socialist Party candidate, currently with the Sustainability Network, a progressive environmental party that she founded. Silva could feasibly have a significant impact on the election. In the previous two elections, she won 19 and 21 percent of the votes, respectively. However, in neither instance did she advance to the second round. Preliminary polls suggest that 2018 will not be any more fortunate for Silva than the previous ones.

The most likely scenario for the Brazilian election is a runoff between a PT candidate, either former President Lula, Fernando Haddad, or somebody else from PT and Jair Bolsonaro. These possibilities share the characteristic of excessive candidate polarization the Brazilian population. A victory for PT would be a victory for leftism, establishment politicians, and those wishing to experiment with Socialism of the 21st Century. A victory for Bolsonaro would be a victory for social conservatism, populists, and Brazilian nationalists. Either candidate could potentially cause serious harm to Brazil’s democratic institutions as one candidate shows no concern for corruption and the other has expressed his sympathies with tyranny. The high likelihood that the Brazilian people choose one of these options and not another one indicates that Brazil’s tumultuous times may continue.