Bolsonaro’s Brazil the world’s latest dysfunctional democracy
Many people around the world saw in the New Year in a foreign country. Among them, it appears, were over 200 million Brazilians. Jair Bolsonaro, the former army captain and firebrand far-right politician who won the Brazilian presidential election in October, took charge on Jan. 1 and immediately made it clear that the country in which he fought his campaign was a thing of the past.
His inauguration, he declared, marked “a day in which people have rid themselves of socialism, of inverted values, of statism, and political correctness.” If this seemed a lot to have achieved in a single day, one might reflect that this was actually Bolsonaro at his most restrained. In the week leading up to the face-off with his second-round rival, Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party (which held power in Brazil from 2002 to 2016), Bolsonaro was seen in a video promising his followers “a cleansing never before seen in the history of Brazil.”
Have we heard this kind of language before? Sadly, we have. Three of the world’s four largest democracies — the US, India and Brazil — are now helmed by politicians (unsurprisingly, all men) who believe that, even in a democracy, there is only one truth: Theirs.
They effectively want to bend democracy in their own countries toward the goal that communist states sought for their societies at the height of global communism 70 years ago: A polity in which there is no difference between the party and the state. But, since it is a foundational truth of democracy that governments with different ideologies must come and go, this puts them at odds not just with the opposition but with the very concept of democracy itself. Although they come to office by legitimate means, having won an election, everything they do from that point on makes them dysfunctional democrats, as they transform and polarize their societies into two (or three) just as dismal factions: A giant, cultish support base and an angry or jittery resistance, with some non-aligned members or political moderates caught in the crossfire.
Already, in the two months between his victory and his taking oath, Bolsonaro — a very public fan of Trump — has shown that his will be a dialogue-free, slash-and-burn style of governance.
Already, in the two months between his victory and his taking oath, Bolsonaro — a very public fan of Donald Trump — has shown that his will be a dialogue-free, slash-and-burn style of governance. The image is especially apt because of the new regime’s attitude to environmental issues. One of the first things he did on winning the 2018 election was rescind Brazil’s offer to be the host of the proposed UN conference on climate change scheduled for 2019.
Ostensibly it was because Brazil did not want to bear the expense of such a large event. But an equally good reason can be found in the assertion made by Brazil’s new foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, that climate change is actually a “Marxist plot” to stifle economic growth in Western countries and help buttress Chinese power. Immediately upon taking office, Bolsonaro also issued an executive order transferring control over the reserves for Brazil’s indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest away from a ministry dedicated to them and over to the agriculture ministry, which is controlled by Brazil’s powerful agribusiness lobby and will now surely open that region up to increased farming and resource extraction. Home to much of the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the world,” Brazil has abruptly ceased to be part of the progressive coalition on climate change and has instead lined up with Trumpian thought.
Throughout the ranks of the Bolsonaro government, there is a remarkably candid admission of regime change as a purge, exemplified by a remark made by his chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, that there would be an immediate cull of existing government contractors with left-wing leanings. To be sure, ideological zeal is part of a party cadre’s make-up everywhere. But, when it is applied with such a cavalier attitude to political institutions, it not only hollows them out but turns every member of society into either a collaborator or a conspirator.
In fact, we can find a very potent metaphor for Trump-Modi-Bolsonaro politics in the current shutdown of the US government over the impasse between the Trump government and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives over his plan to build a wall on the US border with Mexico. The wall Trump seeks to build is on the border, but the more real and consequential wall he has erected is within his own country: The inability of disagreeing parties to talk to each other in good faith. Whoever eventually succeeds him in America — and Narendra Modi in India and, judging even by his first two weeks in office, Bolsonaro in Brazil — will face the difficult task of undoing the “cleansing” and making their countries real, rigorous and reasoning democracies once again.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets