Democracy in question in Brazil


Bolsonaro's constitutional changes seriously call into question the state of democracy in Brazil

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Image by Isac Nóbrega/PR

By Gracie Daw

When Jair Bolsonaro was elected as Brazilian President in 2018, he was nicknamed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ because both his policy and strategy was similar to that of the former US President. Now Bolsonaro is employing constitutional tactics to try and ensure his re-election next year.

He has implied that he will refuse to accept the result if he is not re-elected as President, using tactics similar to that of Trump in 2020. He is not only using rhetoric to question the legitimacy of the electoral system but has proposed reforms to the system which could favour him and his allies.

Firstly, he has proposed changes to legislation which regulates campaigns, more specifically campaign finance. It would, in effect, remove the legal requirement for parties to distribute funds proportionally to candidates of all genders and races. Furthermore, it would weaken the rules on the reporting of campaign funds and would lessen the punishment for the breaking of electoral law to small fines in most cases. This would, in effect, mean that campaigns could raise funds from sources which did not acquire the money legally. It would also be more difficult for the opposition to find potential corruption as there would be less information available about who donates to a campaign and the amount they donate.

An especially significant part of this proposed legislation is that any rulings by the Superior Electoral Court would have to be issued at least a year before the election and they could be overruled by Congress. This would seriously weaken the power of the court to maintain the legitimacy and fairness of elections and could lead to further court powers being removed which would ultimately increase the power of the executive branch. It could also allow Congress to have a say in the election result which would mean that it would be far more difficult for opposition parties to gain power.

Another piece of proposed legislation attempted to change the entirely digital voting system to a hybrid one, which would produce print receipts after a vote was cast. The reasoning used to justify this was that it would provide a means to validate the election result as Bolsonaro maintains that the current system is open to fraud. Critics argued that the current system is suitable and has not presented any problems at previous elections. This proposed change failed to pass because it did not receive the 3/5ths majority required for a constitutional amendment.

Alongside Bolsonaro’s attempts to change the electoral system, he is now facing an investigation having been charged by Congress with crimes against humanity, amongst others. These charges are in response to the government’s Covid-19 response which saw over 600,000 Brazilians die. Although he is facing investigation, he is expected to be protected because the Prosecutor-General, who is responsible for the investigation, was appointed by Bolsonaro.

He has also attempted to show that he is still popular through holding rallies, despite a large drop in the polls. Many spectators see his attempts to demonstrate his support in the opposite light though, as they fear it could lead to an event similar to that of the January 6 attacks in America. Left-leaning politicians from across the world, including Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas, have signed a letter which warns that Bolsonaro could launch a military coup to maintain power.

Although Bolsonaro has lost popularity in the polls, it is clear that he still holds influence and some levels of popularity. There have been over 100 requests to impeach him filed in the Chamber of Deputies, but its leader has not followed them up. Furthermore, some of his policies have been hugely popular within Brazil. Part of his campaign was to relax gun rules and make them more widely available. This has clearly succeeded given that police say there are now 1.3 million guns in Brazil which is double the number recorded in  2017. Whilst it is clear he still has support; it is unclear how far-reaching it is and therefore how much success he will have at the polls next year.

Bolsonaro himself has claimed that there are only three possibilities for next year: “being arrested, killed or victory”. The propositions to change the Brazilian constitution all provoke serious worry about the state of democracy in the country as fair elections are threatened and the checks and balances across the branches of government are minimised. Not only does it create concern immediately, but there are risks for the future of the country given that another leader will need to restore democracy to prevent it happening again.