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Democratic backsliding: A retrospective on the Bolsonaro years

The twin shocks of the 2007-09 financial crisis and the refugee crisis caused by the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring destabilised most major democracies. In subsequent years, economic and migration crises mushroomed across the globe, accelerating such trends. While the immediate reaction was one of solidarity with the economically dispossessed and with refugees, it quickly morphed into a reactionary backlash against liberal democracy itself.

Elected political movements started attacking the electoral process and pluralism, political participation of minorities and civil liberties, technocratic and informed governance, and democratic civic discourse itself. Often under the guise of speaking for a hitherto ‘silent majority’ of righteous people against decadent elites, authoritarians swept to power in country after country, like Donald Trump in the United States, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, the Netanyahu-Ben Gvir alliance in Israel, and the PiS in Poland. A majority of the British also voted to leave the EU on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant pretext. All of them weakened liberal democracy in their respective countries in one way or another, giving rise to the term ‘democratic backsliding.’

Such democratic backsliding has been the most acute in Latin America, with The Economist’s Democracy Index documenting a sharp drop of 0.26 points from 2020 to 2021 compared to 0.22 in North America and 0.16 in Asia and Australia. Nowhere more so than in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters, refusing to accept his electoral defeat, stormed the Congress, Supreme Court, and the presidential palace on January the 8th this year. While such scenes were a conscious reprise of the American Capitol Hill riots of 2021, in Brazil it had the backing of the security forces and involved most of the protesters demanding a return to the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. A brief post-mortem of the Bolsonaro years can thus shed light on this strange and frightening recent global phenomenon.

One of the most serious challenges posed by Bolsonarismo was its steady erosion of the institutions of Brazilian democracy alongside the degradation of norms of social discourse, a pattern observed across populist movements elected in country after country. The former president stripped FUNAI- Brazil’s federal agency for indigenous affairs- of key powers as well as Ibama, the main environmental agency. Demarcation was stalled for 241 indigenous territories and key activists and political opponents such as FUNAI agent Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips, and the opposition PT’s official Marcelo Arruda were shot dead. According to Global Witness, 26 environmental defenders were murdered in Brazil in 2021 alone.  

Given that the Amazon rainforest produces 6-9% of the world’s oxygen and acts as a major carbon sink, it constitutes one of nine catastrophic tipping points for the global climate. Alongside the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the thawing of permafrost, the collapse of Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and so on, deforestation in tropical rainforests could increase global temperature by up to 1 degree Celsius.  Yet between August 1, 2019, and July 31, 2021, Jair Bolsonaro’s policies had resulted in more than 34,000 square kilometres disappearing from the Amazon- an area larger than Belgium and a 52% increase in deforestation since before he took office. Thus, in this case Brazilian far-right politics did not play by Vegas rules- what happened in Brazil did not stay there, but had the potential to devastate the entire planet.

Like many far-right movements, Bolsonaro’s rise was underpinned by a supposed anti-corruption movement (both Trump’s ‘Drain the Swamp’ and India’s 2011 purported anti-corruption agitations-which catapulted Modi to power-come to mind). Yet corruption increased significantly during his tenure and even became institutionalised- another consistent pattern across countries and far-right parties. A particularly egregious example: using funding from a highly opaque ‘secret budget’ and strategic sinecures, he tried to buy off a large segment of Brazil’s traditional political class.

Passing over a dozen decrees to lower the restrictions on private gun ownership, Bolsonaro also encouraged vigilante violence through a series of racist, misogynistic, and homophobic dog whistles. This has echoes of the far-right gun lobby in the United States and the Indian right’s cultivation of a plethora of vigilantes to keep minorities and dissenters ‘in check’ through extrajudicial threats and violence. In Poland, such instigation even led to the assassination in 2019 of Paweł Adamowicz, the former mayor of Gdańsk.

An attempt was also made to convert Brazil into a hybrid regime in all but name, with 6175 military personnel being appointed to high positions in Bolsonaro’s democratically elected administration. Like all neo-fascist political actors, Bolsonaro and his supporters expressed nostalgia for ‘public order’ during the past military dictatorship while denying or sometimes even justifying the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the generals in power. The Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt’s scepticism of parliamentary democracy, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism was echoed in Brazilian Portuguese by ideologues such as Olavo de Carvalho.

The anti-racism programme had weakened considerably from its peak during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government by the time Michel Temer took office. However, Bolsonaro dismantled it completely with blatantly racist insinuations about Afro-Brazilian quilombos and removing Djanira da Motta e Silva’s iconic painting Os Orixás, depicting the three deities of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, from the Presidential Palace. Despite Brazil having imported more slaves from Africa than any other nation and despite emancipation coming as late as 1888, Bolsonaro insisted that Portuguese traders bore no responsibility for Brazil’s trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Ultra-conservative narratives of anti-globalism and unfettered national sovereignty, as well as the evangelical ‘family values’ movement, began to shape Brazil’s foreign policy as well. The Conservative Political Action Conference invited Bolsonaro alongside major figures of the American and global far-right, such as Steve Bannon and Viktor Orbán. In early 2018, he publicly opposed the Global Compact for Migration adopted by the UN General Assembly, airing his objections to ‘receiving undesired Venezuelans.’ Such dehumanising rhetoric had been employed by India’s home minister Amit Shah who termed undocumented immigrants ‘termites’ and by the Polish ultranationalist government which used water cannons against asylum seekers in the freezing winter of 2021.

A 2020 study by Luiz Mott revealed an LGBTQ+ person was murdered or took their own life every 26 minutes in Brazil. In this context, Bolsonaro’s instigation of violence against the community was particularly frightening. In a TV interview on Participação Popular he even said “If a kid begins to look gay-ish, you just beat him up really bad and this will fix him. …” Bolsonaro’s borderline theocratic base of supporters lapped it up, furthering endangering this vulnerable minority. Leaning on the anti-abortion agenda Brazilian evangelicals share with their American counterparts, Bolsonaro even publicly denounced as ‘unacceptable’ the abortion of the foetus of an 11-year-old rape victim. In common with other such movements, control over the bodies and lives of women and queer people dominated the far-right agenda in Brazil.

The attacks on Brazilian elections and media independence have been the most egregious. In 2021, Bolsonaro’s defence ministry sent more than 80 questions about the electoral process to the Supreme Court and later announced that it would organise its own parallel ‘inspection plan’ and vote count. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist from Intercept Brazil, exposed the politicised nature of the Operation Car Wash trial against the progressive PT party and its top leaders such as Lula and Dilma, including collusion by the prosecutors such as judge Sérgio Moro who went on to become Bolsonaro’s justice minister. In reaction, Brazil’s federal prosecutors attempted to charge Greenwald with cybercrimes, in a flagrant abuse of power intended to chill investigative reporting. This is also in line with recent policies adopted by elected authoritarians such as AMLO who weakened the Mexican government agency overseeing elections (though he is from the left, not the right), Polish, Hungarian, and Israeli attempts to do away with judicial independence, and Rodrigo Duterte’s concerted, all-out assault on press freedom in the Philippines.

Last but not least, the Bolsonaro years showed the power of social media to spread disinformation, to normalise hate speech against immigrants and vulnerable sections of the population, to subject regime opponents to doxing as well as death and rape threats, and to spread anti-democratic narratives about history, national identity, and the climate crisis. Such asymmetric polarisation of the information space resulted- for example- in vaccine scepticism, fake news about the pandemic, and pseudoscientific cures such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin being promoted as Covid-19 cures by Bolsonaro and his followers. As a result, 698,928 people have died from the coronavirus in Brazil- one of the most devastating fatality figures of any country. Despite all this, Bolsonaro retained the support of 49.1% of the Brazilian population in October 2022!

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman now conceptualise such internet bot-enabled state propaganda, attacks on independent media, co-opting of the elite, and equipping pro-government vigilantes and the security forces to repress attempted resistance- financed at the expense of the public’s consumption, as ‘informational autocracy.’ Unlike old-fashioned authoritarian regimes, this new class of elected authoritarians use botnets on Twitter, fake news forwards on WhatsApp, propagandist TV media et cetera to shape a narrative that keeps voters loyal to them despite visible material deterioration of their own living conditions. Determined fact-checking and holding the line in the information war are imperative for progressive movements and activists alike.

In a world slowly turning away from the liberal democratic consensus of the 1990s and early 2000s, we must learn from the successes and failures of democracy around the world and fight back. But Brazil (and to an extent the US) offer genuine hope- despite the horrific denouement of the Bolsonaro and Trump years. They demonstrate that if we adopt the great Indian scholar and revolutionary BR Ambedkar’s words and ‘educate, agitate, and organise,’ we will find that the enemies of democracy, human rights, social fairness, and individual freedoms might look scary, but are far from invincible.