A second Bolsonaro term could be the point of no return for Brazilian democracy

Bolsonaro's first term saw a decline in democracy and human rights in Brazil. Recent attacks on the media and judiciary, arguing election fraud, show how a second term for the far-right populist would only enhance Brazilian autocratisation. Democracy is on the line as the run-off elections approach, writes Eduardo Burkle

According to Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) data, autocracies are now home to 70% of the world's population. A global decline in democracy, starting in the last decade, has led scholars to refer to this period as the 'third wave of autocratisation'. Democracies, even those that seemed immune to instability, showed their fragility. As a sign of autocratisation, many countries elected far-right populists – or were on the brink of doing so.

The recent rise of far-right populism began in the last decade. The phenomenon has damaged democracy, and has affected countries with diverse political backgrounds.

Amnesty International Brazil defines Bolsonaro's administration as 'disastrous for human rights'

In Brazil, it arose with the election of Jair Bolsonaro. His election also represented the return of the military to the political stage. Bolsonaro's victory had echoes of Brazil's 1964–1985 military dictatorship, and reflected the shortcomings of the country's transitional justice experience.

The decline of Brazilian democracy

Bolsonaro's first term led to a significant decline in democracy and human rights in Brazil. According to the latest V-Dem data, Brazil is among the top five autocratising countries in the world. Bolsonaro accelerates this process by promoting the 'large scale militarisation of his government and public distrust in the voting system'. Amnesty International Brazil defined the Bolsonaro administration as 'disastrous for human rights'.

Under Bolsonaro, the right to freedom of expression and opinion in Brazil has suffered. Since 2018, Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) data shows a decline in Brazil's scores relating to the rights of assembly and association, and to opinion and expression. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Brazil 111th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. RSF points out how the president uses a 'finely tuned strategy of coordinated attacks' on the press.

Bolsonaro's disastrous pandemic mismanagement was a human rights crisis in itself

The Brazilian government's disastrous pandemic mismanagement marked Bolsonaro's first term. It was a human rights crisis in itself. The president's denial of Covid-19 informed his government policies. Almost 690,000 Brazilians died from the coronavirus. An Amnesty International study revealed how 120,000 deaths could have been avoided during the first year of the pandemic alone, had Bolsonaro's government adopted 'appropriate public health measures'.

Still, despite his government's record, Bolsonaro performed better than expected in the first round of Brazil's 2022 elections. He attracted more than 50 million votes; six million less than former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The two will face each other in a run-off election on Sunday 30 October. Bolsonaro's unexpectedly strong performance proves the resilience of bolsonarismo, showcasing how populist logic works.

What could a second term under Bolsonaro mean?

Sudden democratic breakdowns, like the ones caused by military coups, are now rare. Aspiring autocrats reach power through legal elections and tend not to reveal their anti-democratic plans before being elected. A common far-right populist strategy is to gain power via traditional democratic institutions then, once elected, to undermine democracy from the inside.

A second Bolsonaro term would deepen the autocratisation process in Brazil. Elections, after all, can be opportunities for autocrats to expand their congressional representation and stay connected with their political bases. Bolsonaro's Partido Liberal (PL) secured 99 seats in the lower house in an already right-leaning congress. His allies' electoral performance indicates there would be fewer restraints on Bolsonaro's political project if he were to win a second term.

During this latest election campaign, Bolsonaro has attacked the judiciary and made unfounded claims about the safety of Brazil's electronic voting system

We saw a glimpse of this during his first-round election campaign. Bolsonaro doubled down on his attack on the judiciary, which organised the elections, and spread disinformation about the electoral process. Bolsonaro's campaign also cast doubt, without evidence, on the safety of the country's electronic voting system.

Vice president Hamilton Mourão, now elected senator for the state of Rio Grande do Sul, revealed Bolsonaro's plans for the future of the Brazilian Supreme Court. They include raising the number of court members, granting more nominations for Bolsonaro and all but giving him control of the judiciary. Court-packing is a standard far-right populist strategy, and we have seen recent instances of the phenomenon in Poland and Hungary.

Democracy on the line

The latest polls show Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from the Partidos dos Trabalhadores (PT), ahead of Bolsonaro. In contrast to 2018, PT gathered coalition partners from different sides of the political spectrum. The party has therefore been able to form a broad pro-democracy alliance to fight Bolsonaro's Partido Liberal. Lula's supporters include Geraldo Alckmin, runner-up in the 2006 elections, who is now running as his vice president. Simone Tebet, third in the first round of the 2022 elections, also joined Lula in his campaign.

These imminent elections are the most important in Brazil since its democratisation in 1985. The results could define Brazil's political landscape for decades to come. Lula's victory, if confirmed, is essential to stop the country's creeping autocratisation. Brazil plays a hugely important role in global environmental politics. And Bolsonaro has international relevance as a far-right leader. The world will be watching these elections closely.

A rise in political violence has also marked the Brazilian 2022 elections. One week before the run-offs, Bolsonaro's ally and former congressman, Roberto Jefferson, attacked police officers with a rifle and grenades.

The president still hasn't confirmed he would accept the ballot results in case of defeat. A transition of power from Bolsonaro to Lula would therefore be yet another challenge for Brazilian democracy.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Eduardo Burkle
Eduardo Burkle
Human Rights Measurement Initiative

Eduardo holds an MA in Human Rights and Democratisation from the Global Campus of Human Rights.

His research interests include the transitional justice experience in Brazil, collective memory and the rise of far-right populism in contemporary Brazilian politics.

Follow him on Twitter @EduardoBurkle

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