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.
‘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.
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.