RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The arrival in power of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – the first ultra-right-wing president since its return to democracy in 1985 – has been of great concern to his opponents and minority groups.
The first year in office included confrontations with other government branches, attacks on the press, science, history… controversial decisions and endless controversy. The retired military officer, who keeps alive the discourse of ‘us against them’ from his campaign and is openly hostile to the left, has tested the democratic institutions of Brazil.
Support for democracy has dropped seven points, at 62 percent since his inauguration, while those indifferent to his form of government increase and the percentage of those who believe that in certain circumstances the dictatorship is better, remains at 12 percent, according to Datafolha’s survey released in the New Year.
Congress, in which he does not have a majority, has stopped his most radical legislative initiatives, such as exempting police and military from responsibility in shootings with criminals and purging leftist schoolbooks.
The Supreme Court was also a barrier. But in areas such as cultural politics, he destroyed everything that did not match his vision. Editorials against his authoritarian instincts abound.
The United Nations sounded the alarm bells as early as September through its high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean President Michele Bachelet. After criticizing the increase in deaths from police shootings, she said: “In recent months we have seen a reduction in the civic and democratic space, characterized by attacks against human rights advocates and restrictions imposed on the work of civil society.
Bolsonaro reacted crudely by insulting the memory of her father, a military officer murdered by the dictatorship whom he accused of being a communist.
The latest annual report on the quality of democracy in the world by V-Dem, an institute of the University of Gothenburg, places Brazil in the top 30 percent of the most democratic countries, but alerts to its shift towards autocracy (joining the US, among others). The balance report for 2018, before Bolsonaro, already pointed to deterioration since the troubled years of the impeachment of the leftist Dilma Rousseff.
Although the report on 2019 will only be ready within a few months, the director of V-Dem, Professor Staffan I. Lindberg, cautions that, based on his observations, Brazil is experiencing “one of the fastest and most intense autocracies in the world in recent years”.
What worries academics the most, he says over the phone from Sweden, are the efforts of the president and his government to silence their critics, be they political opponents, judges investigating corruption, journalists, academics or members of civil society. “That’s what Erdogan did when he led Turkey from democracy to dictatorship, what Orban does in Hungary, which is about to cease being a democracy, and exactly what Modi is doing in India,” Lindberg alerts.
The examples are numerous. Bolsonaro dismissed the director of the agency that carries out the official assessment of deforestation in the Amazon; called for a boycott of the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo and its advertisers; suggested that US journalist Glenn Greenwald could be arrested in Brazil for journalistic leaks; praised Pinochet while in Chile and in Paraguay, former dictator Stroessner. The list goes on and it is long.
The director of V-Dem states that “Bolsonaro is the president with the least restrictions (of democratic institutions) since the end of the military regime “because when he took office the institutions – from Congress to the Prosecutor General’s Office – were already weakened. In fact, since 2017 the entity does not consider Brazil a liberal democracy, but rather an electoral democracy.
The opinion of the constitutionalist attorney Vera Chemim is less bleak. She states that the president “does not mean a real threat to democracy even if he continues shooting himself in the foot” with unnecessary controversies that can become counterproductive to his interests, because they strengthen the left-wing and overshadow the action of his government.
Chemim states that “the democratic rule of law is sufficiently solid and relatively mature to survive any attempt at the political-ideological intervention that could deconstruct the democratic regime won at a hard cost in 1985” and enshrined in the Constitution.
She says that the president “has not affected the democratic institutions even though he has, in fact, stirred up the political and juridical conjuncture when he expresses himself and acts in an impulsive and explosive way, feeding even further the deep ideological division between the supposed right and left-wings”.
Bolsonaro makes constant references to the need to govern for the majority and to eliminate even the last traces of his leftist predecessors, as he stressed days ago when mentioning textbooks.
He addressed the subject without being asked by any of the journalists who were waiting for him in front of his residence in Brasília, his favorite place to communicate with the press. “From 2021, all the books will be ours, made by us. The parents will love it. They will have the flag on the cover. They’ll have the anthem. Today, as a rule, books are a bunch of written things (…) They can’t be like this garbage that is the rule today”.
The Swedish expert alerts to two factors: once the critics and the press are quiet, governments have absolute control over information. And “no legal changes are required for a country to become an electoral autocracy. Look at Belarus”.
Source: El Pais