The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Tropical Trump’ takes Brazil’s democracy to the brink

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For half a decade, we have drawn comparisons between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Donald Trump. In many ways, the two right-wing ultranationalists are birds of a feather: They both surged to power on a tide of anti-establishment anger; they counted on the enduring support of evangelical voters and certain business elites; they gained politically by the spread of misinformation on social media; they stymied collective global action on climate change; they raged at the strictures imposed by (and the science behind) pandemic-era lockdowns; they waged a relentless culture war against supposed enemies in media, state institutions and schools.

Throughout, Bolsonaro and Trump have referred to each other as allies and fellow travelers, locked in the same battles against the Western liberal establishment. Earlier this month, in his typically self-regarding style, Trump offered Bolsonaro an endorsement ahead of upcoming national elections: “‘Tropical Trump’ as he is affectionately called, has done a GREAT job for the wonderful people of Brazil,” Trump wrote on his social media site, Truth Social. “When I was President of the U.S., there was no other country leader who called me more than Jair.”

As Brazilians head to the polls Sunday, the putative “Tropical Trump” is reading directly from the Trump playbook. For more than a year, Bolsonaro has derided Brazil’s election processes and called into question the integrity of the imminent vote. He insists that the country’s electronic voting system is compromised, contrary to the preponderance of evidence and the rulings of independent experts and state authorities. Sound familiar?

Opinion polls show Bolsonaro trailing his main rival and nemesis Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by a considerable margin. Should Lula, as the leftist former president is known, win more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round it would be enough to secure the presidency without the need for a direct second-round runoff against Bolsonaro. The incumbent, though, has repeatedly suggested that any electoral defeat would be only due to fraud — and an outcome his supporters would never accept.

Bolsonaro vs. Lula: A referendum on Brazil’s young democracy

The question on many people’s minds is whether Brazilian democracy can stand up to the challenge. The current clash has raised all forms of hoary specters in a country that’s no stranger to anti-democratic coups and plots. Bolsonaro, of course, has expressed nostalgia for the years of Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship. And while few analysts believe the country’s top brass would go along with an anti-democratic usurpation of power, Bolsonaro may have other tactics in mind.

“He could summon his supporters to take to the streets and cause turmoil, especially if there’s a second round,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, to my colleagues. “He could try to subvert the results or force a state of emergency so he could postpone the second round until next year.”

Mario Braga, analyst for international consultancy Control Risks, predicted that Brazil “may have political instability in the coming months,” but not necessarily “democratic rupture.”

“We are talking about a polarized environment and higher degree of radicalization in some parts of the electorate,” he told me.

Still, Braga added, “Bolsonaro is a credible threat to democracy” and represents “the biggest test of the country’s institutions” since the country clawed back its democracy from the military dictatorship in 1985.

Even if Bolsonaro can’t overturn or thwart the results, he can opt to refuse to leave office. And the prospect of a Brazilian Jan. 6-style event remains, with Bolsonaro supporters, fueled by an almost-existential animus against Lula and his leftist party, attempting to interrupt the statutory certification of the votes in Brasilia.

“Bolsonaro retains the fervent devotion of millions of people who believe they too are acting to save democracy,” wrote Brian Winter, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly. “Many of them, uniformed and otherwise, have guns.”

Bolsonaro boosts funding for poor, still trails in presidential race

Lula was jailed for a year and a half on alleged corruption charges that his defenders always believed were trumped up. The conviction was later overturned and Lula stormed back into public life, buoyed not just by his long-standing popularity among a segment of the Brazilian electorate but the support of voters who fear Bolsonaro’s corrosive impact on the country’s body politic. At a recent rally, he cast the choice facing Brazil as one of “democracy or barbarism.”

Lula “is far from the ideal candidate, but he is squarely within the realm of the normal — and he is a supporter of democracy,” noted Britain’s Economist, not known to back charismatic leftists. “Bolsonaro, by instinct, is not. He may operate within a democratic system, but he is constantly looking for ways to evade its strictures. And the worry is that the system constraining him is less robust than the one that constrained Trump.”

Some analysts suggest a possible Bolsonaro defeat would have global implications, marking a setback for illiberal demagogues at a time when liberal democracies are under strain in many parts of the world. “If Bolsonaro loses, that will be significant,” said Richard Youngs, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to my colleagues. “The fact that Brazil has gone backward in terms of democratic quality is quite a large part of the story in explaining these negative overall trends. I think a number of autocrats could very well be put on the back foot.”

In recent months, campaigns by Brazilian civil society activists have focused international attention on the stakes of the election. On Wednesday, dozens of members of the European Parliament urged the leaders of the European Commission, including President Ursula von der Leyen, “to make it unequivocally clear to President Bolsonaro and his government that Brazil’s constitution must be respected and attempts to subvert the rules of democracy are unacceptable.”

On the same day in Washington, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution defending Brazilian democracy that was proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It urged the U.S. government to “immediately recognize” the results of the election once announced by the country’s electoral authorities and to “review and reconsider the relationship” with Brazil in the event of a seizure of power through undemocratic means.

“It is important for the people of Brazil to know we’re on their side, on the side of democracy,” Sanders said in a statement. “With passage of this resolution, we are sending that message.”

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