Brazil: Is Democracy Under Threat?

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

A large group of Brazilians wave the Brazilian flag

A rally supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2017. / Eduardo Figueiredo / Midia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil hit a new peak last weekend – resulting in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to turn himself in to be imprisoned – and strongly suggests that the country’s democracy is in deeper trouble than previously thought.  Lula said he was a victim of political persecution by both prosecutors and the courts, including the six Supreme Court justices who ruled that he not be allowed the courtesy of remaining free during his appeals to Brazil’s higher courts on his conviction on corruption charges.

  • Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) claims that the decision is part of a campaign against leftwing forces that has intensified since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016. Supporters say that Lula’s imprisonment at a time that he is leading in presidential polls is the culmination of a strategy aimed at making sure that the PT – the only party to have won the presidency in elections since 2002 – remains out of power.  Most mainstream media and some rightwing lawyers have argued that Lula’s arrest obeyed all legal procedures, but PT supporters are not alone in their allegation of impropriety.  José Afonso da Silva, one of the most prominent non-partisan constitutional law professors in Brazil, has written a legal opinion against Lula’s imprisonment.  Other experts claim that Lula’s imprisonment order was strangely rushed (jurist Celso Antônio Bandeira de Mello), while others have expressly criticized the Supreme Court for denying Lula Habeas Corpus (Prof. José Geraldo da Silva Júnior).
  • While proof remains elusive, strong circumstantial evidence of conspiracy persists. The lawsuit against Lula was tried much more rapidly by Judge Sérgio Moro than most cases, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed by the regional court just in time to keep Lula out of the presidential election scheduled for October 7.  Moreover, the accusations against Lula are fragile:  Moro argues that the former president received a $1 million remodeled beach apartment as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for political favors, but there is no evidence that the apartment was Lula’s or that he used it in any way.  Neither is there evidence that the construction firm received any favors.

Other indications that Brazil is experiencing an “open season” against the left are emerging.  Civil society leaders have reported repressive practices against them, including violent protests at their public events.

  • The assassination of a Rio de Janeiro municipal legislator is widely thought to have been carried out by rightwing elements. At a recent political rally, unidentified gunmen shot at Lula’s vehicle.  A wealthy São Paulo night club owner is offering a reward for anyone willing to murder Lula in prison.  Radical and angry political movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre are gaining strength by angrily advocating and celebrating through social media the imprisonment of political opponents.  Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who praises the military dictatorship, has become the new frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Another troubling sign was a tweet from the Armed Forces – issued the day before the Supreme Court’s judgment against Lula – that it will not tolerate impunity. It has been widely interpreted as the most direct threat to the Court since the end of military dictatorship.
  • Freedom of expression and academic freedom are under pressure as well, according to many observers. Local, state, and federal legislators are trying to ban the teaching of gender issues in public schools, claiming gender issues are a leftwing ideology should not be taught to young children.  At the university level, in Rio Grande do Sul a local congressman filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office asking that a course entitled “The 2016 Coup d’état” – referring to the removal of Dilma Rousseff and inauguration of President Michel Temer – be disallowed.

Democracies rarely die as a result of the acts by one or even a small group of political leaders, but rather as the outcome of repressive actors’ manipulation of popular confusion and anxiety about the country’s direction.  Lula may not have been perfect – he was not – but he deserved fair treatment by the government and fair enforcement of the law.  Democracies cannot endure when one group or another uses government institutions, even with significant popular support, to impose its views on others, often violently.  We should not forget that, in its early stages, the military coup in Brazil was supported by the media (at least by the biggest TV network in the country, Rede Globo), by civil society institutions (such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), as well as by much of the political leadership.  Radicalization, inability to dialogue, and unwillingness to make political compromises are the factors that made Brazil descend in 1964 into two decades of repression.  We might now be slipping down this same path, and witnessing the rebirth of institutionalized and popularly-supported repression and intolerance.

April 10, 2018

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and former CLALS Research Fellow.

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