President Bolsonaro: The Perfect Storm That Might Steal Away Brazil’s Democratic Future

This week’s inauguration of Brazil’s far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has dominated political analysis worldwide. Bolsonaro is a former army captain and was a Brazilian congressman for 27 years, elected to represent the interests of the military and old political elites.

He openly praises Brazil’s military past and unashamedly praises colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most sadistic torturers of Brazil’s military regime. Additionally, Jair Bolsonaro stated numerous times that “human rights have paid a disservice to Brazilian society.”

Bolsonaro’s controversial views and statements include the support of gender based violence towards homosexuals and that parents should “beat homosexuality out of their children” from a young age.

It is well known to the Brazilian and international press that in 2014 Bolsonaro openly stated that his female political opponent congresswoman Maria do Rosario from the Worker’s Party (PT) was “not worth raping; she is very ugly”.
Bolsonaro will roll back indigenous tribes protections and has declared that will loosen Brazil’s gun control laws, and is a supporter of extra judicial killings of “vagabundos” (bums).

Many argued that Bolsonaro is Brazil’s Donald Trump. Nevertheless, his blatant disregard to minority rights and his narrative in support of extra judicial killings are similar to Philippino strong man’s Rodrigo Duterte.

Brazil is a country marked by huge social contrasts and where the gap between the extremely rich and those living below the poverty line is marked along racial lines.

The question is: how someone upholding such repugnant views could seize the presidency through democratic means? This question can only be grasped by reflecting upon the perfect storm leading to the resurgence of authoritarian far-right ideals in the country.

National Commission of Truth

Brazil was ruled by the Worker’s Party (PT) for approximately 13 years. One of the greatest achievements during the Workers Party’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva years was the creation of the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance).

It is argued that this was the first time in Brazil’s political history that a president was taking seriously the structural disadvantages faced by the poor.

Brazil is a country were former African slaves have never been given a fair go, with most of them living below the poverty line. Colored Brazilians who ascend socially usually do so through the arts or sport, and very rarely through the sciences or education.

In spite of Brazil’s myth of racial democracy, Brazil is a country were the colored population has never been fully incorporated in mainstream society. Brazil’s masters and slaves worldview continues mostly unquestioned to this day.

President Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, a former member of the leftist militant group National Liberation Command (Comando de Liberação Nacional), was imprisoned and bitterly tortured during the military dictatorship by Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.

During her presidency, Dilma Rousseff vowed to open the files of the military dictatorship and investigate human rights violations and abuses committed during the regime.

Countries such as Chile and Argentina have opened the military regime’s files and have attempted to compensate victims of torture during the times of political repression.

It is argued that the Chilean and Argentinean military regimes have killed in the thousands, whereas Brazil’s military regime have killed far less political dissidents.

But the wrongs committed during authoritarian times should be brought to light. The Commission of Truth (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) was initiated during Rousseff’s presidency, lasting from 2012 to 2014.

Due to the Amnesty agreement with the military, the Commission lost its teeth and could not investigate further the crimes and atrocities committed during the military rule.

Political Witch Hunt?

In March 2014 Brazil’s Federal police arrested Paulo Roberto Costa, former refining and supply chief of Brazil’s state run and oil giant Petrobras, on corruption charges related to his dealings with money laundering and black market money dealer Alberto Youssef.

Since then the world has witnessed Brazil’s political, institutional and corruption crisis, with intrigues and political games that would dwarf the House of Cards.

The Car Wash and Petrobras crisis made international news, leading to the impeachment process of Rousseff and the arrest of Lula da Silva.

It is important to stress out that corruption is a structural problem in the Brazilian society. For instance, it is argued that politicians involved in the Petrobras improbity scandal were in influential positions since the times of Fernando Collor de Mello’s from the National Reconstruction Party (PRN), one of the most corrupt administrations in Brazil’s political history.

Collor de Mello stepped down from the presidency back in the 1990’s to avoid an impeachment process due to corruption allegations. Having said that, the Workers Party has inherited a system, which is intrinsically and structurally corrupt. And this scenario facilitates a witch hunt towards your political opponents.

Interestingly, Rousseff was impeached in 2016, not much after the closure of the National Commission of Truth. Notwithstanding, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote in support of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in memory of Brilhante Ustra, her former foe.

In last year presidential race, Brazil’s most popular contenders were Lula from the Workers Party (PT) and Bolsonaro from the Social Liberal Party (PSL).

However, Lula da Silva was convicted to 12 years in jail for his involvement with the Car Wash and Petrobras scandals, and his appeal to the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) for an habeas corpus was rejected in a 6 to 5 vote, clearing the way for his arrest.

Even after his arrest, Lula still had 47% of popular approval. Hence, Lula da Silva’s arrest was pivotal for Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential bid. The Bolsonaro team built a strong anti-Workers Party narrative, associating the Worker’s Party with corruption and administrative improbity.

And with Lula behind bars, there were no heavy-weight political opponents capable to water down Bolsonaro’s politics of hate and division.

Moreover, Bolsonaro has targeted Brazilian Evangelicals and the conservative vote. One of Bolsonaro’s main political strategies was targeting a Workers Party program called Brazil without homophobia, regarded by Bolsonaro as the ‘kit gay’.

Bolsonaro argued that the Worker’s Party was teaching gender ideology in Brazil’s primary schools and would corrupt Brazil’s traditional values.

In 2011 the material’s distribution was suspended by then Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and the program never came to fruition. But Bolsonaro’s ‘gender wars’ scare campaign and demonizing the Workers Party as anti-family values were not based on facts, only ‘fake news’.

Judge Moro and the Car Wash Operation

A matter of growing international concern is the lack of impartiality of Brazil’s judiciary while dealing with Dilma Rousseff impeachment probe, and Lula da Silva’s alleged involvement with the Car Wash scandal.

The Car Wash trials were conducted by judge Sergio Moro, convicting scores of high profile Brazilian politicians and business elite for a sprawling corruption scheme.

These trials also led to the conviction and arrest of Lula da Silva. Moro installed taps on Lula da Silva’s and his extended family’s phones, recording a conversation of Lula with former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

The legality and validity of tapped conversations are a controversial issue in the Brazilian legal system. Many argued that Moro’s taps were illegal and that this evidence could not be used in trial.

In 2016, the president of São Paulo’s Bar Association (OAB-SP), Marcos Costa, argued that Lula and Rousseff’s conversation could not be used as evidence in a Brazilian court of law, as there was not judicial authorization to tap Lula’s and his extended family’s phones.

He argues that: “It needs to be clear whether there was judicial authorization for the taps or not. If there was not judicial authorization, he (judge Moro) could not validate the recording without judicial authorization.’

In spite of that, judge Moro and Brazil’s Public Attorney’s understood that the taps were legal. Moreover, judge’s Moro waived the confidentiality of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff’s phone conversation, which was aired in Brazil’s national television most popular news broadcast – Jornal Nacional.

Several legal scholars raised concerns over the lack the impartiality of the Car Wash and Petrobras trials. For instance, PUC-RJ Law Professor Gisele Cittadino argues that there are several questions regarding the accusations against Lula, as there were never found direct evidence linking him to the corruption scandals.

Additionally, Brazil’s is one of the few countries in the world which has inquisitorial criminal trials. In such trials judges are actively involved in investigating the facts of the case as opposed to an adversarial system, where the judge’s role is of an impartial referee between the prosecution and defense teams.

In the case of Lula, the inquisitorial trials together with a highly publicized trial have significantly compromised the impartiality of the Judiciary.

According to Australian Human Rights scholar Geoffrey Robertson QC, the outcome of the criminal case against Lula was already predetermined, as judge Moro would continue to preside unchecked throughout the case and achieve his ultimate political goal: to condemn Lula to prison.

Additionally, it is argued that Operation Car Wash was an inquiry unfairly targeting left leaning politicians, and the Workers Party in particular.

In a final twist, Bolsonaro invited the prominent anti-corruption judge Moro to lead the country’s justice ministry, which will be a ‘super ministry’ comprising of justice and public security.

Judge Moro stated that he was ‘honored’ to be asked to integrate the ‘super ministry,’ fueling speculations that the Car Wash and Petrobras probe was politically motivated.

Ironically, in a 2016 interview Moro stated to Brazilian news outlets that he would never enter politics, saying “I am a justice man, not a politics man’. Recently, some argued that Lula’s arrest and the Car War and Petrobras probes are the “frauds of the century.”

Furthermore, Moro’s appointment as Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice raise concerns that the super ministry of justice will be an attempt to concentrate powers in the executive branch.

This could pave the way for an unchecked executive branch facilitating an authoritarian rule. As a result, Brazil might suffer United Nations sanctions due to the lack of due process in the criminal case against Lula.

And sadly, Brazil’s never ending house of cards and political witch hunt against the left comes at a cost: a diminished democracy and civil society, and a questionable Judiciary.

But in Bolsonaro’s brave new world of ‘new speech’ and fake news, this should not be a matter of concern.

Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Western Australia, School of Social Science, Political Science and International Relations. She holds a Graduate Diploma of International Relations and Security Studies from Curtin University, Western Australia, and a Bachelor of Laws with first class hon ours from the Pontifical Catholic University from Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ), Brazil. Flavia is also associated with the University of Western Australia Centre for Muslim States and Societies. She is the Commissioning Editor for the Australian Institute of International Affairs blog The Australian Outlook, voted the top think tank in South Asia and the Pacific in the Global Go-To Think Tanks Index in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Flavia has wide interview experience and has published several opinion pieces in the field of international relations. She is also the Outreach Program Co-Chair for Oceania for the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), with headquarters in the Netherlands.


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