Brazil: Will Officers’ Role in Government Taint the Military Institution?

By Christoph Harig*

President and Vice President of Brazil

Vice-President General Hamilton Mourão and President Jair Bolsonaro / Pedro França / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

More military officers have joined Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government than during most periods of the country’s last military regime (1964-1985), which raises the question how much the military – as an institution – will avoid compromising its supposed non-partisan nature.  The President, Vice-President, as well as eight government ministers, are retired or reserve military officers.  Bolsonaro furthermore nominated an active-duty army general as the government spokesperson.  In total, more than 100 reserve and active-duty military personnel serve in various ministries and subordinate government agencies.  Some officers have joined out of true allegiance, others, out of a sense of duty or because they want to prevent worse things from happening.  The government is drawing heavily on individual (mostly reserve) military officers, but the military as an institution is not running the government.  This is not a return to the military’s previous political interventionism: instead, a democratically elected government is (re)militarizing politics.

  • The military’s official discourse is keen on maintaining its image as a non-partisan state institution. However, officers are aware that this will be a challenge.  The presence of dozens of reserve officers in government agencies irrevocably connects the armed forces to the administration.  Although many officers do have reservations about Bolsonaro, others have proudly displayed their satisfaction with the victory of the former paratrooper.  Many citizens and international observers will thus perceive the government’s actions as being at least implicitly backed by the military.
  • For the armed forces, this involvement comes with opportunities as well as risks. On the one hand, there is a considerable increase in the military’s veto power.  They can expect privileged treatment and an effective representation of their interests.  The military might for instance be able to draw some red lines when it comes to being included in the government’s planned pension reform.  On the other hand, the prominent role in Bolsonaro’s administration attracts unwanted public scrutiny.  Discontent with an eventual preferential treatment of the armed forces in the pensions reform might grow louder than if the military had stayed below the radar.

So far, military officers’ involvement in government appears to have boosted the military’s standing.  The generals are widely being seen as a moderating force.  They have blocked some controversial foreign policy proposals of Bolsonaro and the radical wing of the government, such as the move of the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or the establishment of a U.S. military base on Brazilian soil.  Some observers even suggest that the generals have established a tutelary role in foreign policy after the Minister of Foreign Affairs ended military cooperation with Venezuela without consulting the armed forces.

  • Particularly Vice-President General Mourão – once known for threatening military intervention in politics and even considered a liability during the election campaign due to several ill-considered statements – excels in his newly found role as “adult in the room.” As President Bolsonaro is stuck in polarizing campaign mode (for instance, he keeps on attacking Brazil’s press and recently lauded late Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner as great statesman), it is fairly easy for Mourão to present himself as pragmatic and reliable statesman.  In this role, he led Brazil’s delegation to the Lima Group meeting in Bogotá, where he clarified that Brazil would not support a military intervention in Venezuela.

In the long run, the impact of officers’ enhanced policymaking role on the military’s prestige will depend on whether they stay clear of blunders, failures, and scandals.  While the military officers in government might succeed in playing a moderating role for the time being, this development entails considerable risks.  Within and outside of the barracks, there already is a widespread perception of the military as savior that is supposed to rescue Brazil in times of extreme crisis.  This historically grown paternalistic role of high levels of political interventionism – in which allegedly competent armed forces save the nation from incompetent civilian politicians – will only become further entrenched.

March 6, 2019

*Christoph Harig is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Political Science at the Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg, Germany.

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

A Right Turn in Latin America?

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019. / Marcos Brandão / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

After a long winning streak, the left in Latin America has experienced electoral defeats in a number of former strongholds since 2015 – including Argentina, Chile, and Brazil – but the trend is not unidirectional and so far falls short of being a regional “right turn.”

  • Right wing presidents govern today in those three countries as well as Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Panama, and Peru – a scenario that is quite different from 2010, when about two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under some form of leftist government. Democratization, financial crises, and market liberalization shaped the 1980s-90s, while mounting social discontent against neoliberal market reforms helped to produce a “left turn” that spread across the region following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.  Leftist candidates won 30 presidential elections in 11 different Latin American countries between 1998 and 2014.

The current trend lines are hardly unidirectional across the region.  Mexico, which remained under conservative government when most of the region turned toward the left after 1998, has recently elected long-time leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency.  Incumbent leftist parties have been re-elected one or more times in Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.  Notably, leftist parties in some countries where they have been historically weak, such as Colombia and Honduras, have strengthened electorally and organizationally, laying the groundwork for further growth.  Leftists’ records elsewhere are mixed.  Rivalries among Ecuadorean leftists make their future uncertain.  Venezuelan President Maduro and Nicaraguan President Ortega have resorted to increasingly repressive and authoritarian measures to maintain their grip on power.

  • With the possible exception of Brazil, the right’s surge is not the result of the sort of social backlash that brought the left to power. In general, the right’s victories appear to be a routine alternation of power rather than a regional wave with common starting points and driving forces.  Argentina and Chile are the two clearest examples of routine electoral alternation of power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting in contexts of economic slow-downs, corruption scandals, and social policy discontent.  In countries like Paraguay and Honduras, on the other hand, the shifts were initiated by non-electoral means – a politically motivated presidential impeachment in the former and a military coup in the latter – and then consolidated through elections after the fact.  In Brazil, the right turn can be traced back to the social protests that broke out against Dilma Rousseff’s leftist PT government in June 2013, but former conservative allies’ opportunistic impeachment of Rousseff, along with their imprisonment of former President and PT founder Lula, seriously weakened her party – paving the way for the election of anti-establishment candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

The left in power is still strong, though probably not unbeatable today, in countries like Bolivia and Uruguay, at least in part because of their roots in and strong connections with social movements.  Unlike the PT, both Bolivia’s MAS and Uruguay’s FA have managed to preserve more of their movement character and to avoid extreme forms of top-down control and professionalization.  The ability of mass popular constituencies and grass-roots activism to hold party leaders accountable and steer public policies in desired directions—a condition largely absent in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—has helped the left maintain cohesion in Bolivia and Uruguay.  This cohesion, accompanied by significant reductions of inequality, helps to explain the continued vitality of left parties in these countries.  The recent strengthening of leftist alternatives in Mexico and Colombia, moreover, should guard against facile assumptions that a region wide right turn is underway.  Conservative forces’ recent victories are better understood as a reinforcement of the post-neoliberal left-right programmatic structuring of political competition in Latin America than a unidirectional political shift to the right.  That said, Brazil wields significant political and economic influence in the region and, traditionally seen as an “early mover” in the region, may be a bellwether of the future.  The ability of President Bolsonaro and his model of governance to deliver the results that Brazilians want—and to operate within the parameters of democratic institutions—will be key factors in determining the direction and strength of the region’s rightist wave.

January 9, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

Brazil: The WhatsApp President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Bolsonaro social medis

Graphics from Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s social media detailing his followers on Facebook (left) and Twitter (right). / Twitter: @jairbolsonaro / Creative Commons

If polls predicting a landslide victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff election are correct, Brazil on January 1 will inaugurate its first president to win by virtue of his superior social media prowess rather than the strong party bases that propelled his predecessors.  He gained strong support from different sectors of Brazilian society by delivering – legally and potentially illegally – the message his supporters wanted to hear directly to their personal electronic devices, without the validation and transparency of traditional media.  The receptivity of his young supporter base compensated for the low amount of TV time allotted to him under Brazilian law.

  • WhatsApp has around 120 million users in Brazil, around 60 percent of the population, for a wide array of personal and commercial communication needs. The polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp, and that of them a majority (61 percent) are Bolsonaro supporters likely to follow political news on the service – compared to 38 percent of the backers of his opponent, Fernando Haddad.
  • The platform is perfect for manipulation of information. Messages are encrypted and are therefore beyond the domain of electoral authorities, independent fact-checkers, or even WhatsApp managers.  Real and fake news spread like wildfire.  Agência Lupa, a fact-checker service, has found that only 50 of the most shared pictures in 347 WhatsApp groups were factually correct.  During the weekend of October 6-7, the company found that 12 of the fake news items it evaluated were shared 1.2 million times.  The Federal Electoral Court (TSE), which created a consultative council earlier this year to tackle online misinformation, has been slow to respond to the threat – perhaps out of fear it would be accused of limiting free speech.

Bolsonaro’s campaign also used Facebook effectively even after it twice shut down pages carrying content of his deemed to be fake – 197 pages and 87 accounts in July, and 68 pages and 43 accounts two weeks ago.  Many of the pages portrayed Haddad as a Communist whose Workers Party would turn Brazil into another Cuba and convert children to homosexuality.  One attack – alleging that Haddad would distribute “gay kits” to expose schoolchildren to homosexuality – was so blatant that the TSE ordered Bolsonaro’s campaign to stop it.

  • Haddad’s presence on Facebook (1.5 million followers) is minuscule compared to Bolsonaro’s (7.8 million). Some of Haddad’s followers used social media to spread rumors that Bolsonaro staged his near-fatal stabbing at a rally last month; social media have not shut down any of Haddad’s pages or accounts.

Bolsonaro’s social media campaign has also allegedly been tainted by illegal funding.  Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers, last week reported that wealthy businesspersons spent US$3.2 million on a WhatsApp fake news operation.  If true, they broke electoral laws barring undeclared corporate campaign donations and the purchase of contact lists from a third party.  Speaking on Facebook Live, Bolsonaro said Folha had no evidence, adding in an interview later that he has no control over the businesspersons anyway.

Fake news in elections – in the traditional or social media – is not a new phenomenon, but its wildfire impact has caught many in Brazil by surprise.  The mere speed that disinformation travels makes it nearly impossible for Brazilian authorities to curb its spread, and self-policing by social media platforms also seems an implausible solution given their benefit from the high traffic fake news drives.  Bolsonaro and his campaign team realized this earlier and embraced it more aggressively than Haddad, who did not enter the race until September 11, ever did.  Haddad was busy trying to simultaneously convince Lula’s supporters to vote for him and others that he was not Lula’s puppet, while Bolsonaro’s message was reaching tens of millions of Brazilians with smartphones.  The likely president’s expertise in using social media (legally or not) has clearly boosted his campaign, but governing by WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter remains an untested proposition.  It seems that Bolsonaro may also follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook into government.  Crushing his opposition under a barrage of half-truths and lies does not bode well for democratic governance.

October 26, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: A Moment of Truth

By Barbara dos Santos*

Brazil elections 2018

A group of demonstrators gathered in São Paulo last week to protest Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and show their support for other candidates like Ciro Gomes. / Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Sunday’s election has brought out deep divisions in Brazilian society and set the stage for an even more divisive runoff later this month.  This week’s polls underscore that, although most voters arguably occupy the center, the right and the left have the strongest candidates.  Populist conservative Jair Bolsonaro (31 percent) has a 10-point lead over Workers Party (PT) latecomer Fernando Haddad (21 percent), who started campaigning only after party standard-bearer “Lula” da Silva definitively pulled out of the race three weeks ago.  But both candidates have high negatives, and the polls suggest that they would be tied in a second round (42 percent each).  Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), is still hovering around 11 percent, but polls also show that he would beat Bolsonaro (39 to 45 percent) if they face off on October 28.  Everyone else is polling in the single digits.

  • Hate politics has spiked during this campaign, powered by polarization, culture wars, and fake news on social media. Uncivil discourse and even physical violence have increased.  Although Federal Police have concluded that the man who stabbed Bolsonaro last month acted alone, the candidate and allied social media are hyping the incident as a political attack.  Other rumors circulating online are that Haddad’s running mate, Manuela d’Ávila of the Partido Comunista do Brasil, ordered the stabbing (which prompted threats against her.)  A review by the national daily O Estado de São Paulo found that several of Bolsonaro’s campaign themes – defending the death penalty and vigilantism, the use of torture, and past racial cleansing – have fueled aggressive attacks by both opponents and supporters.  One of the leaders of the Facebook group Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro was assaulted by three men outside her home on September 24; their political views are clear, although their affiliation remains unconfirmed.
  • The emergence of Bolsonaro – who has publicly called women unequal, stupid, and even “too ugly to rape” – shows the stridency of the culture wars now occurring in Brazil. His campaign has also revealed greater tolerance among some sectors for misogyny going far beyond traditional machismo.  It reflects a rejection of the younger generation’s progressive and liberal values of equality and inclusion.  Bolsonaro’s proud refusal to apologize for his remarks suggests confidence that his base sympathizes with his views.

In terms of political institutions, the election is crucial to the future of the PT and the left in Brazil and beyond.  Over its 14 years in power, the party led the country on a path of decreasing inequality, a booming economy, and international prestige as a “global player.”  It all came tumbling down for external and internal reasons:  commodity prices crashed, economic recession set in, and massive corruption scandals led to deep, sustained political crises.  The PT’s opponents have cast the party as the embodiment of all that is wrong with Brazilian society and institutions, and Bolsonaro and others on the right are hoping to deal it a deathblow.  Haddad is running hard, but local observers believe he needs to distance himself more from his party’s past – such as by trying harder to avoid criticizing the judicial processes that landed Lula in jail, advocating a responsible government budget, and more aggressively criticizing Presidents Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua.

This round of elections is the most important since the re-democratization of Brazil in 1988.  While some democracies around the world are known for tumult and strident campaigning – and may even be able to weather periods of authoritarianism – those that are of more recent vintage and less institutionalized, including Brazil, can break.  A Bolsonaro victory would not necessarily lead the country to military dictatorship, but the acceptance of his authoritarian vision, including his praise for military rule in the past, poses a potentially serious threat to the continuing strengthening of Brazilian democratic institutions.  In an interview last week, he even implied that if he were not elected, he would reject the vote count and claim that PT committed fraud.  Similarly, Haddad would also pose a threat to democratic institutionalization if he does not allow the justice system to handle Lula according to the law.

 October 4, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: Diving into Uncertainty

By Marcus Rocha*

Brazilian presidential candidates 2018

Brazilian presidential candidates, from left to right: Lula da Silva, Jair Bolsonaro, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva, and Ciro Gomes. / Wikimedia, edited

With voting just a little under four weeks off, Brazil faces the most confusing, unpredictable, and consequential election since democratization in the 1980s.  The two leading contenders – former President “Lula” da Silva and firebrand conservative Jair Bolsonaro – are in jail and the hospital recovering from a stabbing, respectively, but the former is being left behind, and the latter is likely to try to use his victimhood to overcome other weaknesses.  At a point that Brazil needs stability and leadership, it is lurching toward an election that appears unlikely to produce either.

  • Lula’s Workers Party (PT) hierarchy continues to push his candidacy, but yet another rejection last week of his appeal of his conviction on corruption charges is increasingly opening the way for Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, to assume the party mantle. Haddad has polled poorly, only 6 percent as recently last week, but a serious PT mobilization will be a big asset.  (Announcement of his candidacy is expected today.)
  • Prior to Bolsonaro’s stabbing, his weaknesses seemed likely to hold him back despite a good 22 percent in recent polls. His popularity may rise as he seeks sympathy for his injury, but his strong negatives – 44 percent of people polled say they will never vote for him – will be hard to erase.  His Social Liberal Party (PSL) has a very narrow base in Congress, and the former Army captain and lawmaker’s main tactic – divisive rhetoric attacking human rights advocates and praising the military dictatorship of 1964-85 – does not conceal his lack of a serious political agenda, according to many observers.

The proliferation of other parties is also deepening confusion.  Brazil has 35 parties, and for the first time faces the possibility that neither of the two Brazilian parties with a virtual monopoly on presidential succession – the PT and Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) – will make it into the runoff in Brazil’s two-round system.  The PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin has a strong Congressional base (which under the law determines his access to media time) but continues to poll poorly (9 percent).  Marina Silva, of the Rede Sustentabilidade, and Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) – both of whom currently have 12 percent – have a shot at a place in the second round.  Another eight candidates show much less promise.

The political chaos has not brought protesters out into the streets or threatened a broader social crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign, but it has thrust Brazil into uncharted territory.  Bolsonaro’s stabbing and his certain efforts to play the victim will almost certainly continue push his rhetoric beyond that traditionally acceptable in Brazil.  The political parties, however flawed, were sources of predictability and stability, but no longer are.  Investigations into corruption, also previously thought to strengthen the political system, have contributed to uncertainty.  The courts are accused of political bias.  As the PT and PSDB slip, none of the smaller parties appears poised to gain broad enough confidence to lead the country through its numerous challenges.  In the first- and second-round votes on October 7 and 28, Brazilians will choose between trying to revive the old – clinging to PT or PSDB – or continuing the search for something that is not yet visible on the horizon.

September 11, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Brazil: Lula’s Conviction and Electoral Reforms Stirring Up Presidential Race

By Paulo Castro*

Large room in with many people at desks

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies. Presidential candidates’ TV and radio time in the upcoming 2018 election will be proportionally determined by the number of seats they hold in the Chamber. / Edilson Rodrigues / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Already overshadowed by the Lava Jato corruption investigations, Brazil’s preparations for general elections in October are likely to take place amid rising tensions – and perhaps even some violent protests.  Early campaign maneuvering intensified last month when a regional federal court raised obstacles to former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s candidacy, and electoral reforms passed in 2015 promise to fuel further disruption as election day approaches.

  • Lula’s appeal to overturn his conviction on corruption and money laundering charges was rejected by the Regional Federal Court in Porto Alegre (TRF-4). The ruling does not automatically knock him out of the race, but it drastically decreases his chances of running in October.  His best hope at this point lies with the Federal Supreme Court (STF), which has the power to overturn the regional court’s ruling.  This is very unlikely, however, because (i) a recent change in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law allows a defendant to be arrested if the original conviction is confirmed ; (ii) STF Chief-Justice Carmen Lúcia, who unilaterally has the power to set the Court’s agenda, has stated clearly that “overturning the Federal Court’s ruling against Lula would undermine the Supreme Court”; and (iii) the Clean Record Act (Lei da Ficha Limpa) prevents candidates from running for public office for eight years if they have been convicted by a second instance court such as the TRF-4.
  • The campaign climate is also affected by changes brought about by the electoral reforms of 2015, which reduced the campaign period from 90 to 45 days (with TV/radio time reduced from 45 to 35 days) and barred corporate donations to campaigns. These changes are likely to shift the balance in favor of traditional political leaders who already have national name recognition and have more influence inside their parties to get the few resources available.

Lula’s likely disqualification and the reforms have thrown the parties, especially his Workers Party (PT), into uncharted territory.  After 30 years of internal deal-making with his “mystical” name at the center, the PT will have to produce new political leaders and policy platforms.  For all parties, reduced financial resources and less TV time will increase the role of “politics as usual.”

  • TV and radio time is allocated in proportion to the parties’ representation in the Lower House of Congress, so candidates will need a strong party’s support to build a competitive candidacy. This suggests that the rise in the polls of Jair Bolsonaro – an Army reservist and congressman with a penchant for populist, authoritarian rhetoric – doesn’t necessarily make him a strong candidate; the small party under whose banner he’s running controls only 3 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The center and center-right parties, such as PMDB and PSDB, will also have an advantage because in 2016 they elected the highest number of mayors, who can bring additional resources to bear.

 The final outcome of the Lula case and implementation of the reforms could ignite further political instability.  Lula’s arrest could very well spark a new wave of demonstrations, with possible violence.  Lacking resources, Bolsonaro – who has already advocated military intervention in civilian political affairs – will try to rally right-wing groups behind his candidacy.  Combined, these opposing movements create a dangerous political landscape that brings both sides of the spectrum to doubt the capacity of democratic institutions.  A recent survey by Latinobarometro already shows that only 13 percent of Brazilians are pleased with the current state of their democracy.  Perceptions that the Judiciary has been excessive in the Lula case and that election laws have only empowered traditional (and corrupt) forces are likely to feed into the sort of authoritarian rhetoric Bolsonaro espouses and cause turmoil that harms the overall confidence on Brazil’s democracy.

February 9, 2018

* Paulo Castro is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Brasilia, where he is focusing on the political actions of the Brazilian Supremo Tribunal Federal.  He has worked as an advisor and analyst in the Ministry of Justice and private sector organizations.  He is also a CLALS Research Fellow.