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Bolsonaro’s First Year: Trying to Erode Democracy

Antonio Moreira Maués, Federal University of Pará             

The first year of the Bolsonaro government had poor results in the economy and was marked by a high degree of political instability. Although he managed to approve pension reform, Bolsonaro does not have a stable parliamentary base in the National Congress[1] and has also lost a significant portion of his popularity, becoming the President with the worst approval rating in the first 12 months of government since redemocratization. Bolsonaro has raised questions about his capacity to manage the country and has sought to prop himself up on the support he still has in the business community and among his most faithful voters.

Despite these weaknesses, in his first year in office, Bolsonaro proved that he can cause serious damage to democracy. As we anticipated at the beginning of his government,[2] Bolsonaro has sought to reduce the bureaucracy’s capacity to halt his arbitrary actions and has tried to limit the exercise of the freedoms of speech and association, following the democratic erosion script adopted by other authoritarian leaders.[3]

Within the executive branch, Bolsonaro has interfered in the regulatory and oversight functions of public administration in favor of sectors that support him, even if the fulfillment of his interests contradicts the law. Environmental protection has been one of the most impaired areas in Brazil because of this policy. Until November 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture authorized the registration of 439 new pesticide products,  maintaining the previous year’s increasing trend. These authorizations were facilitated by a set of changes in the evaluation and toxicological classification criteria adopted by the National Health Surveillance Agency (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária – ANVISA). After visiting Brazil in December, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances, Baskut Tuncak, expressed his concern about the seriousness of the situation in the country.

In the environmental area, a series of measures led to the weakening of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis – IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade – ICMBio). The Minister of the Environment himself, Ricardo Salles, routinely criticizes the Ministry’s oversight actions and, in some cases, has directly acted to paralyze them. The Minister also promoted changes in leadership in almost all regional IBAMA offices and sought to restrict the operations of the National Environmental Council (Conselho Nacional de Meio Ambiente – CONAMA) and to hinder the receipt of international resources through the Amazon Fund. The sum of these actions meant that the number of environmental actions carried out by IBAMA in 2019 reached its lowest number since 2000; however, there are no data indicating improvements in environmental protection in Brazil, and the number of burnings has increased in the country.

Other negative consequences of these policies affect indigenous peoples. The National Indigenous Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio – FUNAI) has decreased its activities and ignored several recommendations made by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office. According to the Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário – CIMI), 21 indigenous lands with the presence of isolated peoples are presently invaded, which demonstrates the government’s deliberate omission. The seriousness of the situation caused the Arns Commission for Human Rights Defense and the Human Rights Advocacy Collective to denounce Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court for inciting genocide and for promoting systematic attacks against the indigenous peoples.

Public universities have also been subjected to interventions. In the quest to expand government control over these institutions, the President has used his power to appoint federal university provosts, who are chosen based on a list approved by the academic community. Until August 2019, Bolsonaro had appointed 12 new provosts, and on six occasions, the candidate chosen was not the one receiving the most votes in the three-name list of candidates, which disrupted the practice of respect for university autonomy that had been established by previous governments. The ideological profile of the candidates appears to be the decisive factor in the choices made by Bolsonaro. In addition, the government has sought to restrict freedom of speech in universities.

In the field of human rights, the current government has attacked policies that were adopted decades ago. In addition to establishing that the Coup of 1964 would once again be celebrated in military units,  Bolsonaro sponsored changes in the Amnesty Commission, to which 27 new members were appointed, including individuals acting against reparations for the victims of the military dictatorship and the establishment of the National Truth Commission. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office on Citizen’s Rights (Procuradoria Federal dos Direitos dos Cidadãos – PFDC) recommended to the Ministry of Human Rights to revoke the appointment of these new directors to ensure the Commission’s impartiality and independence.

The National Mechanism for Preventing and Combating Torture (Mecanismo Nacional de Prevenção e Combate à Tortura – MNPCT) was also the target of government attacks. In June, through Decree n. 9,831, Bolsonaro removed all members of the MNPCT and ordered that the work performed in the agency cease to be remunerated. Responding to the actions of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Public Defender’s Office, the court ordered, in a preliminary injunction, that the MNTCC members be reinstated,  and in December, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture declared that the new regulation weakens the prevention of torture in Brazil and recommended its repeal.

Still in the field of human rights, there has been a weakening of public policies focused on women’s and gender issues in favor of religiously inspired agendas that compromise the secular character of the Brazilian State. The set of government actions contrary to human rights led several entities in Brazil and abroad to express opposition to the country’s candidacy to the UN Human Rights Council.

Even the agencies responsible for oversight of the government have not escaped Bolsonaro’s interference. The new Prosecutor General was chosen without considering the three-name list drawn up by the National Association of Federal Prosecutors, contrary to the practice that had been adopted since the Lula government. Bolsonaro’s decision was justified by political arguments. On more than one occasion, the President stated that he needed a Prosecutor General to limit the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office against his government and who was aligned with his ideology. The new Prosecutor General could not have an activist profile nor treat environmental issues with “radicalism” or defend “minorities”. Bolsonaro’s choice, Augusto Aras, soon demonstrated his alignment by naming as Secretary of Human Rights of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office a prosecutor known for his criticism of the rights of minorities and the exercise of freedom of speech in educational institutions.

In addition to using public administration in his favor, Bolsonaro has acted to limit the freedoms of speech and association, maintaining, in the exercise of the Presidency, the same violent discourse against his opponents and any other group, including the press, that opposes his measures.

Some media outlets have been retaliated against by the government. In the case of Folha de São Paulo, after successive statements against the newspaper, which he called an “ordinary pamphlet” and “sewer,” Bolsonaro announced that all federal government subscriptions to Folha would be canceled and made veiled threats against the newspaper’s advertisers. Next, Folha de São Paulo was excluded from the public bidding call made by the President’s Office for digital access to news, but the reactions of the Brazilian Press Association and the Prosecutor’s Office in the Court of Audit forced the government to retreat.

In another illustrative episode, Bolsonaro made a live broadcast on his Facebook page to criticize a report by TV Globo on his possible contact with one of the individuals accused of murdering city councilor Marielle Franco. Screaming and using foul language, the President intimated that he might not renew the television broadcaster’s license.

The other side of these attacks on certain media outlets are the benefits granted by the government to media outlets that support it. According to a report by the Federal Court of Audit, in the first half of 2019, the highest percentage of television advertising funds was allocated to Rede Record and the Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão, rather than to Rede Globo. Although the first two networks have much lower ratings, they received 42.61% and 41.01% of the funds, respectively, while Globo received 16.38%, reversing the relationship from previous years.

The damage caused by government actions to public debate also derive from its cultural policies. In this sector, Bolsonaro has kept strict control over the Secretariat of Culture and associated agencies, nominating to its main offices individuals who share an ultraconservative view and who are willing to promote ideological persecutions in the artistic milieu. The current government’s vision can be exemplified by a recent statement made by Roberto Alvim, Secretary of Culture, at a UNESCO meeting, in which he stated that Brazilian art has become “a means to enslave the people’s minds in the name of a violent project of leftist power.” Afterwards, this same official evoked Nazi propaganda in a speech and was dismissed. In addition to the constant statements against several of the major figures in national culture, the “cultural war” launched by the government directly affects several sectors through resource cuts, such as the National Film Agency (Agência Nacional de Cinema),  or through the imposition of censorship and ideological control over public funding of artistic productions and even over government advertising. These government actions were challenged before the Federal Supreme Court, which will decide whether they violate the freedom of expression.

The strengthening of public debate requires civil society to have channels for dialogue with the government and freedom to criticize it. In this area, Bolsonaro also acted contrary to the practice of democracy. In addition to attempting to create control over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by the General Secretariat of the Presidency, which was repealed by the National Congress, the government issued Decrees n. 9,759/2019 and 9,812/2019, which extinguished the National Policy for Social Participation and hundreds of collegiate organs of the federal administration created to enable the participation of society in the formulation and oversight of public policies. The effects of these decrees were partially suspended by an injunction from the Federal Supreme Court, which kept the collegiate organs that had been created by law.

Attacks on opponents also occur through the dissemination of fake news by Bolsonaro himself, his sons and his closest advisors. This practice had already been widely used during the presidential campaign and continues to serve as an instrument to distort the public debate. In December, Congresswoman Joice Hasselmann, who was the government leader in the National Congress, denounced that the President’s Office itself directs the dissemination of fake news, with the aid of bots and the use of public funds. Among the many lies put forward by Bolsonaro and his supporters are accusations that burnings in the Amazon are conducted by NGOs,  the denial of crimes committed by the military dictatorship, and the accusation of terrorism directed against the opposition. A study by Folha de São Paulo concluded that Bolsonaro makes at least one false or inaccurate statement every four days.

Another serious problem is the use of social networks commanded by Bolsonaro to directly attack the other branches and the democratic institutions. Both the members of the National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court have been constant victims of defamatory campaigns carried out on social networks. The synthesis of these manipulations appears in a video released by Bolsonaro himself, in which he appears as a lion attacked by hyenas, which are identified as the opposition parties, the press, and the Federal Supreme Court.

It is impossible to consider that so many attacks on democracy are the result of chance or mere excesses and have no major consequences. Quite the opposite, what is observed is a constant strategy of weakening critical democratic institutions, which serves an authoritarian project. Understanding the true purpose of these actions is necessary so that society and the other branches can prevent the advance of authoritarianism in Brazil.

Suggested citation: Antonio Moreira Maués, Bolsonaro’s First Year: Trying to Erode Democracy, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 1, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/02/bolsonaros-first-year-trying-to-erode-democracy/


[1] Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Shield Against Authoritarianism? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 24, 2019, at http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/10/the-party-fragmentation-paradox-in-brazil-a-shield-against-authoritarianism/

[2] Antonio Moreira Maués, Brazil’s New Government: Risks to Constitutional Democracy, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 27, 2019, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/02/brazils-new-government-risks-toconstitutional-democracy/

[3] Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (The University of Chicago Press, 2018).

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Published on February 1, 2020
Author:          Filed under: Analysis
 

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