Brazil faces an existential threat – but it is not too late to fight back

Yascha Mounk

Yascha Mounk on the far-right, pro-torture populist who has been elected as Brazil's next president

29 October 2018 12:37

The election of Jair Bolsonaro is the most significant event in Brazilian history since the fall of the military dictatorship. The country’s democracy now faces an existential threat. Over the next few years, Brazilians are going to be fighting for the very survival of liberal democracy, the political system that aims to afford its citizens both a modicum of individual liberty and a degree of collective self-determination.

Observing the election campaign from afar, I have found it uncanny just how closely Brazil’s newly elected president fits the mould of the authoritarian populists whom I describe in my latest book, The People vs Democracy. Like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and, yes, Donald Trump in the United States, he claims that all of the country’s problems are the fault of a corrupt and self-serving elite. Like them, he vows that he, and he alone, can stand up for ordinary people. And like them, he denigrates unpopular minorities and assails independent institutions including the courts, the media, and the political opposition.

The case of Hungary shows just how quickly this kind of rhetoric can turn into reality. In the span of a few years, Orban has attacked the liberal elements of his country’s political system. He started to discriminate against immigrants and ethnic minorities; turned state media into propaganda outlets; forced critical newspapers out of business; and put his loyalists in control of the courts. Under his leadership, the country quickly turned into an illiberal democracy: as the rule of law waned, the freedom of individuals was increasingly curtailed.

Hungary also shows that the attack on a country’s liberal institutions is often just a prelude to an assault on its democratic elements. Once Orban had amassed outsized power, he changed the electoral system; put loyalists in control of the country’s electoral commission; and fined opposition parties vast amounts of money. As a result, this spring’s elections were, according to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mostly free but barely fair. In Hungary, at least, illiberal democracy has turned out to be no more than a waystation on the path to electoral dictatorship.

Will Bolsonaro really be as bad as all of that? Might he not, like Donald Trump in the United States, be hamstrung by the usual checks and balances?

In Brazil, a much more openly authoritarian ruler is about to assault a much more brittle set of democratic institutions.

From the perspective of political science, there are three reasons to believe that Bolsonaro will likely have a worse impact than Orban, and a far worse one than Trump: Brazil is both poorer and vastly more unequal than Hungary, let alone the United States. Polls suggest that the popular disenchantment with democracy runs much more deeply in the country. And Bolsonaro’s admiration for authoritarian styles of government is far more naked.

In Brazil, a much more openly authoritarian ruler is about to assault a much more brittle set of democratic institutions. The outcome is far from certain, but the omens look very poor. So what can Brazilians do to save their democracy?

The experience of other countries suggests four primary lessons. First, it is crucial not to underestimate Bolsonaro, nor to have disdain for his supporters. He is the most powerful adversary Brazilian democracy has faced in a half century. Don’t underestimate him.

Second, it is crucial for all Brazilians who are committed to liberal democracy to work together despite their huge political differences. They can resume fighting about the right tax rate, or the proper extent of the welfare state, once this acute danger is banished. For now, they need to work together.

Third, Brazilians need to demonstrate that Bolsonaro does not speak for the whole people. Take to the streets. Show their opposition. But they should pace themselves: they’re facing a marathon, not a hundred yard dash.

And finally, they should be sure to talk as much about their vision for a better Brazil as they do about the failings of its current president. To win the country back, the partisans of liberal democracy need to make their fellow citizens believe not only that Bolsonaro is bad, but also that they can do better.

The fight for the survival of Brazilian democracy is not yet lost. Unlike the citizens of Turkey or Venezuela, Brazilians, for now, retain the ability to stand up for your values. So if they care about protecting their freedom, it is their duty to exercise this right before their new president takes it away.