Brazil: Surge in Divisive Politics

By Marcus Vinicius Rossi da Rocha*

Two politicians debate

Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro disparages fellow politician Maria do Rosário during a debate on violence against women. / Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Political tumult, constant corruption scandals, and widespread popular loss of confidence in political institutions have given rise to divisive right-wing movements that, although not poised to win office in the 2018 elections, are laying the groundwork to have an impact on Brazilian politics in coming years.  Brazil will elect a president and both houses of Congress in October 2018, after five years of economic crisis (3.6 percent contraction in 2016); corruption scandals (President Michel Temer is still under investigation in the Lava Jato probe); low confidence in government (Temer has 3 percent approval); and political instability.  Many observers believe Brazilian democracy could be in peril.

Two factors in particular – the economic decline and the odor of taint surrounding Temer and the political class – are fueling a surge in right-wing and populist politics.  Conservative and market-oriented agendas are, unsurprisingly, gaining momentum, but also are challenges to the country’s three decades of democracy, including the defense of torture and military dictatorship.  The surge is seen in three main areas:

  • The Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) is a youth libertarian movement born in early 2014 following the mass street protests of 2013, which its leaders helped organize. While promoting free speech, less government, individual liberty, and market-oriented reforms, its agenda emphasizes moral issues as an electoral strategy.  It mobilizes protesters against left-leaning politicians and gay art exhibits and succeeded in shutting one event down on spurious grounds.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain turned lawmaker, is famous for his defense of torture and the death penalty, his opposition to human rights protections, and his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in 1964-85. Proud of his lack of political correctness, he compares himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he casts himself as engaged in a moral struggle to save the nation.  He promises to withdraw Brazil from international human rights agreements; opposes gay marriage; and wants to adopt the death penalty and loosen gun laws.  In a speech on the House floor one time, he told a female legislator and human rights defender, “I do not rape you because you are not worth it.” He was reprimanded by the courts for this and other statements, but a leading public opinion institute Datafolha shows him with almost 20 percent of popular support.
  • A handful of senior active-duty and reservist military officers also seem to be crossing the line with greater frequency, openly speaking about “constitutional military intervention.” These officers espouse a highly disputed interpretation of Article 142 of the Constitution – which states that the “Armed Forces aims … to defend the homeland, to assure the constitutional powers, and, by initiative of any of these powers, to assure law and order” – to argue that the Constitution gives the Armed Forces authorization to intervene in politics.  At an event a few weeks ago, General Antonio Hamilton Mourão said that if the judiciary does not fix the government’s corruption problem, the Armed Forces could.  The high command remained silent.

Few analysts believe that the 2018 elections will be obstructed in any way, but the years of crisis, compounded by the polarizing rhetoric and activities of frustrated conservatives, will put checks and balances to test.  A military coup is highly unlikely – the Army is not eager to run the state again – but the apparent politicization of institutions sworn to defend the rule of law could cause others to flout the Constitution.  Congressman Bolsonaro does not appear likely to score big in 2018.  His party is small, but his popularity could very well give a boost to similarly minded groups poised to gain ground in Congress. This could lead to more than a continued shift toward the interests of construction firms, financial system, and agriculture sector that support them; it could portend a dismantling of decades of work to build democratic institutions; end torture and police brutality; and protect citizens’ rights to choice, freedom from discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation; pro-choice laws, gay rights, and indigenous rights.  Three decades of democracy won’t be reversed easily, but the next several years call for healing, not a new politics of division.

 October 5, 2017

* Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and a CLALS Research Fellow specializing in the Brazilian executive branch and corruption in municipalities.