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King’s Votes: Bolsonaro’s Unsurprising Rise to Power

Staff writer Carolina Claudino discusses democratic backsliding in Brazil over the last decade and how the public has turned a blind eye to abuses of power.

Brazil has a particularly rocky relationship with democracy.

The last dictatorship ruled the country from 1964 to 1985 and was marked by extreme violence and a domination by the military elite. Now, nearly 30 years later, it seems that we have learned little of the importance of democratic values.

Former presidential candidate (for the Brazilian Democratic Movement) and current Lula ally (the candidate of the Brazilian Labour Party), Simone Tebet released a video on social media with the intent to raise awareness of the problem that is the rise of the extreme right in Brazil and the possibility of Bolsonaro’s re-election. In her video, she questions where we went wrong as a society and what signs we missed during the rise of ‘Bolsonarism‘.

I would argue that there were no missed signs – only ignored ones. Over the last few years, even before Bolsonaro was president, we have passively witnessed government officials undermine Brazilian democracy with impunity. Not only that, but we have seen a considerable share of citizens defending these undemocratic acts. So, why do people act so surprised by the growth of Bolsonarism? What is so shocking about the current threat to our democracy if we have failed to hold our government accountable for undemocratic behaviour for years?

In 2016, two years before Bolsonaro’s election, former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached. History is yet to judge if we will collectively recognise this event as a legitimate impeachment or as a coup, but the mere questioning of the legitimacy of the procedure already showcases how unstable politics has been over the last decade. She was elected in 2014, after a very competitive election against candidate Aécio Neves (of the Social Democratic Party).

After her election success, the opposition reacted quickly to destabilise her by ordering a vote recount and mobilising the population against her. People were frustrated with the economic situation of the country and the anger was mostly directed towards her – not only because of the position she held, but also because of the investigations and discoveries about corruption inside the Labour Party. Around 30 impeachment requests had been filed before any crimes were tied to her – eventually a fiscal court detected a special manoeuvre on the government budget and she was accused of ‘pedaling’. To this day, this is a frequent practice amongst politicians, even if it is illegal.

Up to this point, Eduardo Cunha was the leader of the Lower Congress and the one who had the power to veto the impeachment requests. When he started being investigated by the ethics committee for having secret bank accounts, three Labour Party representatives voted against him and a few hours later he had accepted an impeachment request. Yet the impeachment process wasn’t so much about the crime she committed, but a technical strategy to oust her from power. Her vice president, and political opposition, described her as honest and claimed that her biggest fault was having problems regarding her relations to other politicians. It is important to highlight that the inquiry against Dilma Rousseff has now been archived and, as she stated, “it took long, but justice is finally being done”.

Operação Lava Jato‘, also known as ‘Operation Car Wash’, is another example of questionable government practices being uncovered since 2014. It consisted of an investigation covering money laundering and corruption led by Judge Sergio Moro targeting Brazil’s biggest political parties and state companies. The investigation was successful to the extent that it uncovered the biggest corruption schemes in the country and resulted in many successful arrests. The exposure of the widespread corruption going on for years had big effects on the financial and political stability of the country, resulting in a deep-seated hatred for the Labour Party, which had been in power for over 10 years, and fuelled the desire to get President Dilma Rousseff out of office.

During this investigation, Moro illegally taped cell phones to obtain proof of corrupt activity about former president Lula. He was idolised by a big part of the population for his anti-corruption work, when, in fact, it was later on recognised that he was biased and targeted left-wing parties, while protecting the right-wing ones.  Furthermore, Moro was responsible for Lula’s arrest, which was strategically planned to prevent him from running for his third mandate as president. His arrest caused a lot of debate in the international community, since that it was broadly recognised as illegitimate and unjust.

In 2018 the UN Human Rights Committee ordered that Lula were to be granted political rights while in prison and in April 2022 the same committee published an analytical review stating that there was partiality in the decision made by Sergio Moro. The Judge proceeded to become Minister of Justice in Bolsonaro’s government and is now campaigning for his re-election. The convictions against Lula have been annulled by the Supreme Court, allowing him to run for another mandate. This is not to say that Lula is completely innocent and, as leader of the Labour Party, that he can be detached from all that was uncovered in Operation Car Wash.

However, it is common to overlook the questionable legitimacy of the investigative procedure and instead to focus solely on its conclusions. It is not just a debate about whether he is innocent or guilty, but also about if the procedures were biased or ethically questionable. The issue exemplifies how anti-democratic behaviour was present in the Brazilian government far before Bolsonaro’s election.

The undermining of democracy grows side-by-side with increasing disregard for human rights in the country. In 2018, councilwoman Marielle Franco (of the Socialist Party), one of the few women of colour in parliament representing minorities, was brutally murdered by three gunshots to the head. The gun she was shot with is not sold to civilians and the ammunition had been bought by the Federal Police.

She was a Human Rights activist, who focused on racial, gender issues and worked closely with militia-related issues in Rio de Janeiro. The investigation into her murder has been exposed by several newspapers to have been flawed and resulted in no answers even after two years. The crime has been tied to the extreme right – Ronnie Lessa, one of the main suspects and part of a Rio de Janeiro militia, lives in the same building as Bolsonaro. According to the doorman, the suspect who was sighted driving the getaway car was seen entering that building complex the day she died, claiming that he was going to Bolsonaro’s apartment.

There is much evidence of the relationship between the president’s family and those involved in the crime including pictures, the grant of diplomatic passports, homages and more. Bolsonaro has been called out internationally for all of the problematic statements he has made. We cannot deny that they are very impactful, as they propagate hate and are ultimately propagate violent acts and encourage political polarisation.

Yet what is potentially more pressing than hate speech is that these crimes against democracy go unaccounted for. When democracy has been undermined so many times and without any consequences, it was just a matter of time before someone assumed power and blatantly ignored all democratic values. There is a reason why Bolsonaro feels free to make eulogies to authoritarian regimes, praise important figures of the military dictatorship, joke about the killings and tortures that took place during that time and disrespect the rights of minorities.

It’s naïve to be shocked by the fragility of our democratic rights when we’ve had all of the signs of backsliding for over 10 years. As Brazilians go to the polls this Sunday, there are two major things that need to be realised. First, we have lost the power to hold our government accountable when we allow major crimes to go unpunished. Second, close to half of the Brazilian voting population does not seem to mind, as long as it does not affect them personally.

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