—Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development
Democratic backsliding is certainly a hot topic in Brazil, especially after the election of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Such a trend could already be observed in an empirical study Zachary Elkins wrote based on the Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) Index 2017, where Brazil is placed in what he calls “trouble spots” among other eight countries: Nicaragua, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Hungary, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. Although Brazil still presents, according to this data, a relatively high level of democracy among the eight (only comparable to Poland and Hungary), an interesting phenomenon is visible: a fast improvement of democracy from a very low standard, followed by a fast decline of democracy. Interestingly enough, such a pattern is also found in Poland and Hungary, and possibly this is due to the remarkable transition from authoritarianism to democracy and the growing institutionalization of practices in these countries right thereafter. The decline also seems to follow, at least graphically, a similar path and is related to the rise of Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party in Hungary, and the political crisis that culminated in President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and the subsequent rise of Jair Bolsonaro (though his electoral victory was not yet captured by the Varieties of Democracy data).
Nevertheless, Poland and Hungary are not normally seen as the main points of comparison with the recent events in Brazil. In fact, the Bolsonaro phenomenon looks quite distinct. Perhaps more apt are comparisons between Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, regardless of the distinct degrees of democratic resilience and strength of institutions in both countries. Omar G. Encarnación, in a column for Foreign Policy, for example, argues that Bolsonaro is, in fact, “an outright reactionary and the best manifestation yet of the ‘Trumpinfication’ of the Latin American right,” which appears to be a good definition. Ishaan Tharoof, from the Washington Post, argues that “Bolsonaro joins Trump’s right-wing axis”, as he identifies similar behaviors between the two leaders. In fact, Bolsonaro has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” or “Trump of South America,” this last by Trump himself. Context also matters. Perhaps the fact that both countries are presidential and part of Americas may help explain this perception. The way their elections took place, with massive use of social media and a radical shift from traditional campaigning, also adds to such a comparison.
But now that President Bolsonaro is in office, such comparisons gain a new dimension, and it is striking to observe how turbulent his first days in office have been, with scandals popping up on a regular basis through a series of investigative reports by the main news media outlets – a phenomenon which has also taken place in the United States with Trump. There is in Brazil a fascinating movement by news media that has challenged the communication through social media that President Bolsonaro and his entourage have adopted as their direct link with their base. Brazil, similarly to what has taken place in the United States, is an attractive country to observe this conflictive relationship between old and new media, journalism and Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp. This dynamic adds, in any case, some nuance to the conventional wisdom that, in young democracies like Brazil, the rise of a figure such as Bolsonaro will inevitably lead to a takeover of the news media or to mounting pressure on journalists, as in Hungary and Poland. Though Bolsonaro himself and his followers, the so-called “bolsominions”, have continuously attacked the press and journalists, at least for now, the main news media keep providing, almost on a daily basis, bombastic revelations involving his administration and allies.
One can also observe an interesting divergence in behavior among the main news media companies, with some visibly carrying out critical, investigative journalism, such as Folha de S.Paulo and Globo, and others maintaining a more favorable tone towards the government, such as Record and SBT. Since the electoral campaign, Bolsonaro has continuously attacked some serious investigations carried out by Folha de S. Paulo, the biggest daily newspaper, and, more explicitly, adopted Record, a direct rival of Globo, as his preferable media company – some even dub it “Bolsonaro’s Fox News”. For instance, the last scandal, which related to a leaked audio of President Bolsonaro with his former advisor, Gustavo Bebbiano, received, during the Jornal Nacional from Globo, 26 minutes of coverage. At the Jornal da Record program from Record, the coverage of the same scandal was much shorter and more conciliatory. Though Brazilian news media are still quite concentrated, the limited pluralism that exists in this sector may be crucial to exerting an effective check on Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Naturally, President Bolsonaro has already showed some of its cards: his cabinet is largely staffed with generals (which recalls the military dictatorship from 1964-1985); he signed an executive orders to monitor NGOs in the country and another that increased the number of public servants allowed to designate information as classified; he appointed a cabinet whose discourse is clearly anti-environment, anti-freedom to learn and teach, hostile to minority groups, and which believes in an international conspiracy of the Left and of globalism. His divisive discourse, sparking polarization, has been a common strategy before and after his election. Yet, on the other hand, his administration has also faced crisis after crisis in its two months since taking office, possibly at a pace never before seen in previous administrations.
Investigative journalism has provided, in less than two months, a series of reports that affected the core of his administration. His son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, was embroiled in a corruption scandal related to suspect financial transactions from a bank account belonging to his aide, Fabricio Queiroz, in 2017, when Flávio Bolsonaro was a Representative of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Such transactions reached Michele Bolsonaro, President Jair Bolsonaro’s wife. The Minister of Tourism, Marcelo Álvaro Antônio, is suspect of diverting money originally destined to the electoral campaign of four phony female candidates running for state representative to companies linked to Álvaro Antônio’s aides, in clear violation of electoral laws. More recently, the Secretary-General of the Presidency, Gustavo Bebianno, one of the strongmen behind Bolsonaro’s election, was accused of participating in similar deeds while working as President of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Bolsonaro’s party. Unlike the Minister of Tourism, however, Bebianno was fired after Carlos Bolsonaro, President Jair Bolsonaro’s other son and a Representative of the City of Rio de Janeiro, accused him of lying on twitter, in what could be interpreted as a possible attempt to defend his father from being engulfed by the crisis. Most recently Veja, the biggest weekly magazine, just published the audio of the conversations between Gustavo Bebbiano and Jair Bolsonaro where the version told by both members of the Bolsonaro family- father and son – is proven false.
Investigative journalism has provided rich material for the police and prosecutors to launch criminal probes against influential and leading figures of Bolsonaro’s entourage. The government, which is rushing to approve a pension reform and a bill against corruption in Congress, is, nevertheless, seeing his support, though still high, beginning to dwindle. The influence of his three sons, Eduardo, Carlos and Flávio (all politicians), in his administration is causing serious debates over who is really in charge. Especially for a President who, during the electoral campaign, avoided any live confrontation with the other candidates by not participating in any debate, the perception of his deep incapacity to rule the country is gaining traction. He surrounded himself with members of the military, who are also quite worried that they might be engulfed by the crisis, and congressmen, even from his base, are increasingly unsatisfied with the way the government and its leadership are carrying out negotiations in both Houses. For example, in his first defeat in Congress, the Lower House approved a bill by a large majority of 367 to 57 that suspends the executive order that increased the number of public servants able to designate information as classified. The term “impeachment” is again on the radar, though most say it is very early and Bolsonaro still holds some political capital.
The tide may turn and President Bolsonaro may regain some leverage if he succeeds in approving his economic agenda in Congress. However, the prospects are unsettling. Up until the current moment, most of the setbacks are the result of internal affairs of President Bolsonaro’s group, not really of actions by the opposition, which is still trying to reassemble after the loss of the presidency and many seats in Congress. Brazil’s fragmented party system, with 30 parties and the largest number of freshmen in Congress in history, helps explain the difficult relationship with the government – President Bolsonaro’s majority in Congress seems more volatile than first expected. As those scandals have increasingly popped up in the news, the costs of bargaining with Congress amid such fragmentation have naturally increased. Unlike the United States, Brazilian Presidents need to form a coalition with various parties to govern, and their support can rapidly wither once the costs of being part of the government increases. The impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 is the most recent traumatic example of such an outcome.
Maybe the best description of this sequence of events comes from former Bolsonaro’s strongman Gustavo Bebbiano’s words after being fired: “I should apologize to Brazil for enabling Bolsonaro’s candidacy. I never imagined that he would be such a weak President.” This is indeed a dramatic turn for a country that has just emerged from a presidential impeachment and a series of scandals involving its political class. Still, it is also a remarkable context for a country that, once challenged in its democratic credentials, is seeing, at this moment, the rise of investigative journalism as one relevant form of social check on the government. The questions that lie ahead are how institutions will operate based on these developments, how Bolsonaro and his acolytes will react once their political capital wanes, and, most importantly, whether Brazilian society will finally learn from its recurring historical mistakes. These are the three main questions that will shape the resilience of Brazilian democracy in the coming years.
Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The News Media and Democracy under Bolsonaro: A “Trump of the Tropics”? Int’l J. Const L. Blog, Feb. 28, 2019, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/02/the-news/media-and-democracy/under-bolsonaro-a-trump-of-the-tropics/
 Zachary Elkins, ’Is the Sky Falling? Constitutional Crises in Historical Perspective’ in Mark A Graber, Sanford Levinson, and Mark Tushnet (ed.), Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? (Oxford University Press 2018) 58.