Democracy in Brazil

Explaining the challenges to democracy in Brazil, the continuing influence of the military in politics, and division in the age of ‘Bolsonarismo’.

Explainer Published 24 January 2023 9 minute READ

Is Brazil a democracy?

Brazil is a democracy with a presidential and federal system of government. Its current constitution provides strong protections for civil liberties. It also guarantees many rights including to employment, childcare and healthcare.

There is an independent judiciary, media and central bank and the country has seen a peaceful transition of power since it became a democracy in 1985 following decades of military dictatorship.

However, Brazil’s democracy has been challenged by increasingly polarized politics, a weak central state and the erosion of trust in the ruling class.

Successive governments have struggled to maintain law and order in all Brazil’s vast territories particularly parts of the Amazon and in the Favelas (the vast slums surrounding some Brazilian cities). In some cases, police and security services lack a consistent presence in those areas, ceding control to illegal groups and undermining faith in the strength of the democratic state.

Corruption is also a persistent problem in Brazilian politics. Justice is slow due to a constitutional amendment that allows any case to be appealed to the Supreme Court and an overburdened judicial system.

Corruption is a persistent problem in Brazilian politics

‘Operation Car Wash’ (2014-19) was an investigation that exposed corruption at state-owned oil firm Petrobras and contracting companies.

The prosecution, led by judge Sérgio Moro, saw former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) jailed for accepting services from companies involved in the scandal.

The case drained faith in Lula’s Workers Party, which had promised a cleaner form of politics in the early 2000s. But it also created division and suspicion of the justice system and, by extension, Brazil’s democratic institutions. Moro, briefly hailed as a hero, was later revealed to have communicated with the prosecutors investigating the case. This, combined with his decision to briefly join the administration of President Jair Bolosono as justice minister, stained his reputation as an objective jurist. 

In part, the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 was a result of disillusionment with these continual political scandals and deeper shifts in Brazil’s historically fluid system. Voters placed their faith in someone perceived as a political outsider and a strongman, much in the mould of Donald Trump.

However, under Bolsonaro, a former military officer, polarization in Brazil’s politics worsened and public discourse coarsened.

What kind of democracy is Brazil?

Brazil has a US-style presidential system with power divided between the executive (the president), the legislature (the National Congress) and the judiciary (headed by the Supreme Court).

The National Congress has two houses: the Chamber of Deputies whose members are elected on four-year terms and the Senate with members elected on eight-year terms. As in the US, individual states have their own considerable autonomy.

There are 24 political parties represented in the Brazilian congress but even the largest traditional parties tend to be amorphous. This leads to a great deal of horse-trading in politics as small parties promise support to larger parties in exchange for incentives in deals that are made beyond the scrutiny of ordinary citizens. This drives corruption and erodes accountability for Brazilian voters.  

The emphasis on coalitions does, however, help restrict the worst excesses of presidential power. Presidents are elected every four years using a two-round system. At the second round, the two remaining candidates are usually forced to align themselves with various parties in order to form governing coalitions, limiting their ability to force through legislation.

Participatory democracy in Brazil

In the 1990s, some Brazilian cities became renowned for their efforts to deliver more participatory democracy. The intent was to give citizens direct control of decision-making and allocation of funds in government.

Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, led a widely-admired movement to deliver participatory budgeting from 1991 to 2004.

The mayor opened the city budget, allowing public meetings to decide how city funds should be spent, and other Brazilian cities followed its lead.

However, the experiment never trickled up to the federal level, which is still dominated by coalitions managed by political bosses. The movement has dwindled in the cities too.

Racial democracy in Brazil

Many Brazilians claim that the country does not suffer from significant racism. They state that there is no discrimination against non-whites and that the country enjoys a ‘racial democracy’ with a mix of cultures and races.

Brazil was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery

But the country has a lingering legacy of racism. It was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery and its class structure remains very clearly demarcated by race. This is reflected in standards of living and in sectors like education where schools serving populations of African descent are generally significantly poorer than those serving other communities.

National politicians of African and indigenous origin are also rare. There are some exceptions, like former senator and minister of the environment, Marina Osmarina da Silva Vaz de Lima. However, there are no parties of Afro-descent. Even workers’ organizations, like the Communist Party, have failed to reflect the racial dimension to class division in the country.

The army is perhaps Brazil’s most racially integrated institution with a greater proportion of people of African and indigenous descent represented in the non-officer corps than political parties or even other branches of the military like the navy.

Meanwhile Bolsonaro made openly racist comments at the expense of Brazil’s African and indigenous populations before and during his presidency arguably using it to energize his supporters. However, Bolsonaro did appoint Brazil’s first indigenous vice president, Hamilton Mourão, another former army officer.

Article part 2

A history of democracy in Brazil

The military has played a leading role in Brazilian government throughout its history. Brazil won its independence from Portugal through a series of military campaigns waged by Portuguese prince, Pedro I, who founded the Empire of Brazil on 7 September 1822.

The empire was a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. But the empire only lasted until 1889 when a military coup established the First Republic.

The military has played a leading role in Brazilian government throughout its history

This undemocratic period saw politics dominated by powerful landowning interests. The army was the country’s most powerful institution and helped to suppress numerous rebellions.

In 1930, a revolution saw President Getúlio Vargas come to power. Vargas would rule a Second and Third Republic as a quasi-Fascist leader inspired by Benito Mussolini in Italy until he was overthrown by the military in 1945.

Fresh elections were held and a Fourth Republic was declared with a new constitution. But the Fourth Republic was an equally tumultuous period in Brazilian history. Vargas remained an influential figure, re-elected in the 1950s before shooting himself. Army leaders continually interfered with government, culminating in the coup of 1964 which established military dictatorship.

The army characterized the coup as an anti-communist national security operation but 21 years of dictatorship followed. During this period, the National Congress was dissolved, elections were suspended, the media censored and opposition forbidden. Opponents of the regime, including future President Dilma Rousseff, were imprisoned and tortured or forced into exile. It is thought that hundreds were murdered.

The army also played a major role in economic development during this period, creating development banks and major state industries, like Embraer and Petronas, and building the new capital, Brasília. The army also helped create the largely closed economy, by erecting high tariff barriers and providing support to targeted industries in an attempt to jumpstart the country’s industrialization. While many companies were later privatized, either partially or completely, Brazil’s economy remains relatively closed.

Many in the army leadership believed in their promise to restore Brazil’s civilian government and, as Argentina, Peru and Uruguay all returned to democracy following military governments, the Brazilian army began the transition back to democracy. This culminated in the declaration of the Sixth Republic or ‘New Republic’ in 1985.

The army is still held in very high regard by many in Brazil

The transition to democracy was slow, and the military played a stewardship role, dictating the terms of its leaving power.

That meant it could avoid being held accountable for its crimes. It controlled the selection of the republic’s first president. And, unlike Argentina or Chile, it was able to ensure that there was never a truth and reconciliation commission into its activities while in government.

The army is therefore still held in very high regard by many in Brazil unlike in Argentina where the military was responsible for 10,000 murders (though some put the number even higher).

Army influence in Brazil’s government has continued to be strong and the army takes a leading role in areas like policing, where state and local police are seen as ineffective.

The army also protects the Amazon, breaking up illegal logging and other illicit activities. However, following 1985, there has not been a serious threat of a new military coup.

Fernando Affonso Collor de Mello was the first directly elected president of the New Republic, serving from 1990 until 1992, but the National Congress initiated an impeachment proceeding leading Collor de Mello to resign, although he is currently a senator.

His successor, former vice president, Itamar Franco, oversaw the 1993 referendum on Brazil’s form of government, in which a presidential system was chosen.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso was the first president of the New Republic to be re-elected, serving from 1995-2002. His first election, opposing Lula, remains the largest margin of victory in a free Brazilian presidential election. His second victory over Lula in 1998 was almost as impressive.

His administration launched initiatives to address the enormous disparity between rich and poor but lost popular support in his second term due to economic issues and criticism of his privatization of state-owned assets.

Lula’s election in 2002 briefly appeared to pose a threat to the establishment. As someone with minimal education and a former union leader, he was feared by many in industry and traditional politics. But he quickly tacked to the centre, honouring the country’s public debt to international creditors and courting international investment. 

During his presidency from 2003-10, new programmes invested heavily to address hunger, extreme poverty and housing issues. In May 2010, the UN World Food Programme awarded Lula the title of ‘World Champion in the Fight against Hunger’. Around 20 million Brazilians left poverty and joined the middle class during his presidency.

Dilma Rousseff succeeded Lula, representing his Workers Party, becoming Brazil’s first woman president. She held the position from 2011 until her impeachment and removal from office in August 2016. A member of a Marxist guerrilla group during the military dictatorship, her government removed taxes on energy and food staples and enjoyed high approval ratings throughout its first term.

This declined rapidly in her second term, a time of increasing unemployment and inflation, until, in 2015, Rousseff was accused of budgetary trickery. After large protests swept across Brazil, she was impeached and convicted. She was succeeded by her vice president from a more centrist party.

President Jair Bolsonaro was then elected president in 2018. He built an electoral coalition closely tied to Brazil’s enormous evangelical movement, its beef industry and gun lobby, playing on popular nationalist resentment against international environmentalist ‘interference’ with its management of the Amazon.

Bolsonaro consistently praised the record of the military government. He also openly promoted military influence in the state.

He appointed an army officer to the vice presidency and another, General Eduardo Pazuelloto, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro also raised the number of former and current military officers in government to a level not seen since the dictatorship.

In the run up to the October 2022 elections, Bolsonaro repeatedly questioned the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system, claiming it was only through fraud that he could lose the vote.

In the 1990s, Brazil adopted a fully electronic voting system. The system has no paper trail and therefore made an easy target for Bolsonaro’s claims that it is vulnerable to fraud.

The Supreme Court ruled that there could not be a paper trail reintroduced to the voting system but this allowed Bolsonaro to claim the ‘deep state’ was working against him much as President Trump did in the US elections in 2020. In fact, Donald Trump Jr, the president’s son, has attended pro-Bolsonaro rallies in Brazil.

Bolsonaro went on to lose the October 2022 election to Lula in a close second-round election, with a mere 1.8 per cent of the vote separating the two. It was a remarkable political comeback for Lula, following impeachment and imprisonment.

Is Brazil an autocracy?

Brazil is not an autocracy. Under Bolsonaro the country had an authoritarian president who was held in check by democratic institutions. To become an autocracy, President Bolsonaro would have had to both deny the legitimacy of the October 2022 election and find a way to neutralize opposition and the checks on executive power – such as the judiciary and the congress. But the Supreme Court and congressional leaders accepted the election results.

Bolsonaro’s base remains committed to his message and future leadership. After losing the election, Bolsonaro said nothing for almost 48 hours despite large protests by his supporters, including lorry drivers who blocked roads. When he did speak, he did not concede but neither did he question the result, even though Lula had only won by a narrow margin.

In December 2022, following official ratification of the election result, Bolsonaro supporters attempted to storm the Federal Police headquarters in Brasília. On 8 January 2023, a week after Lula’s inauguration, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed and vandalized government buildings, including the congress and Supreme Court.

The insurrection appeared to echo the events of 6 Jan 2021 in Washington, DC. But unlike in the US, rather than trying to disrupt the certification of the election results, Bolsonaro supporters were calling for the military to intervene. Fortunately, the military refused.

Political and military leaders across the spectrum voiced their condemnation of the attack in the days immediately after. For now, Brazil’s democracy seems to have survived and has even come out, temporarily at least, stronger.

However, much like the US, Brazil’s democracy has a serious problem, in that it is failing to offer fresh faces and new ideas. Its candidates for the 2022 election were both flawed.

Lula is in his late seventies, dogged by allegations of corruption and seen as representing Brazil’s establishment. Bolsonaro, in his late sixties, embodies the populism that accelerated the polarization of Brazil’s politics, modelling himself in large part on Donald Trump.

In this atmosphere, new leadership has been choked off, and party allegiances are considerably more fluid than they once were. There are no clearly identifiable new leading candidates waiting in the wings. As with many other nations, this lack of regeneration – and its citizen’s distrust of their ruling elite – is perhaps the greatest threat to the strength and dynamism of Brazil’s democracy.

This article was originally published on 17 August 2022 and updated on 19 December 2022 and 24 January 2023.