Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Symposium on the Challenges of the Lula Government in Reversing Democratic Erosion in Brazil: Introduction

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and Conrado Hübner Mendes, University of São Paulo

 Bolsonaro is gone, but not bolsonarism. Neither the shadow of Bolsonaro, who left the country before Lula’s inauguration and, without recognizing electoral defeat, has been living in Florida ever since. His contribution to the continuing mobilization of extremist groups who ask for military intervention and to the coup d’état attempt on January 8th are under inquiry.

The resilience of bolsonarism is a mantra that has been repeated in analyses of the current moment in Brazilian democracy. Lula won the presidential election in the run-off by a slim margin (50,83% v. 49,17).  Almost half of the country voted for Bolsonaro despite the atrocities he committed during his four years in office.

What sounds a success story – after all, Brazil was one of the few countries where a would-be autocrat was ousted through regular democratic elections – is also a worrying global warning of the significant degree of democratic erosion and social disruption that figures like Bolsonaro can inflict in such a short period of time.

Autocratization movements aim at the destabilization of democratic institutions and the disruption of civic conventions. The bolsonarista method is an ode to the grotesque, a “dull and shabby [parody] that mocks [democracy] to put itself above it”. Its agenda invests more in chaos production than governmental action and bureaucratic efficiency.

Despite some peculiarities, there is a significant level of affinity between bolsonarism and trumpism. They very likely represent the most polished and advanced  cases of a global far-right movement built on new technologies and reshaped psychologies of mass communication, whose reach goes far beyond borders and whose strategies and developments are way too similar to call them spontaneous or accidental.

Still, there are nuances. Brazil suffered its January 6th US Capitol Attack on January 8th of 2023, when the  National Congress, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court were invaded and ransacked by a mass of rioters. 

The contrasting scenarios between the inspiring inauguration of Lula government a week earlier, on January 1st, with lots of symbolic gestures towards change and inclusion, and the invasion  of the three palaces a week after by Bolsonaro’s supporters say much of the country troubling’s present. This can continuously place Lula government under threat while putting fuel in the political environment as a strategy of this movement to control the communication agenda. On the other hand, such a radical and destructive event may help catalyze political consensus and change, bringing some hope for democratic revival. It might prove to be one of those turning point when social disruption leads to a political and institutional reaction in support of more union and more democracy.

If it were already obvious that a major target of Lula’s agenda was to put Brazil back on track of democratic normalization, after January 8th, such a target became far more urgent and imperative. Brazil has been continuously challenged by the unsolved legacies of the civilian-military dictatorship (1964-1985), whose transition to democracy was marked by a general amnesty that placed torturers and tortured as equals in oblivion. The high price was paid when Bolsonaro and the far-right, through new technologies of mass disinformation, incited such legacies to foster insurrection.

It seemed the perfect match for putting democracy under siege. It is no wonder that, after January 8th, President Lula admitted loss of confidence in part of the military. Unlike the Capitol Hill invasion in the United States, Brazil’s January 8th was a ticking bomb that went off after years of growing politicization of the Armed Forces and militarization of politics. Like the US, however, it was also a storm  of misinformation that led to a sweeping immersion into a parallel reality by many. The coup failed, but the simple fact that it was attempted and that part of the military and security forces supported it speaks volume why Brazil’s democracy narrowly escaped disaster.

It is Brazil’s democracy – not merely Lula government – that is at stake, and this matters for the democratic world.  Defeating Bolsonaro through the electoral process does not mean  overcoming democratic erosion. It was, in reality,  a first and necessary step in decelerating the autocratization process that Brazil has been going through. The warning signs remain critical everywhere, and the danger of a Bolsonaro’s come back  – or a new figure from the far-right – is not negligeable.

Przeworski wrote that “democracy works when something is at stake in elections but not too much is at stake.”[1] At least since the country’s 2018 presidential elections, this “too much” has been the terms of Brazil’s political life and social cohesion. It was overwhelmingly so during the 2022 presidential elections. It may still be radically so in the 2026 presidential elections. The next four years will be critical.

Democracies tend to move slow to challenge this frenetic pace of destruction that such far-right movements promote. Quite often, the failure is resounding and contagious. Brazil’s autocratization process would very likely reach the point of no return if Bolsonaro had won the presidential elections. The  backsliding speed has been fast and severe. This is the reason why, after four years of deliberate corrosion of the country’s institutions though a bunch of techniques, it is striking that former President Lula da Silva could beat Bolsonaro in a highly unequal electoral dispute, in which all means to rig the result were attempted – luckily without success.

In the 2022 V-DEM report, Brazil was depicted as one of the fastest countries undergoing autocratization Its record track is quite worrisome: “7 of the 10 top autocratizing countries over the past decade” saw their democracies crashing. The causes why Brazil, at least for now, has not fallen into that expected trajectory is certainly a discussion that deserves further attention and discussion by comparative scholars. 

Some enclaves of institutionality outside the federal Executive power, however, managed to survive.  Brazil has a prestigious and reliable electoral system organized and controlled by the judiciary, a strong – though sometimes dysfunctional – Supreme Court in matters of interbranch conflicts,[2] and a multiparty and fragmentary political system in Congress, all features that raise the cost of co-optation and power takeover. Federalism also plays a role despite Brazil’s longstanding centralizing feature towards the federal government. Though some key accountability institutions were critically affected and co-opted, notably the Attorney General of the Republic (the only authority capable of filing criminal lawsuits against the president, for instance), there were some rearrangements of the institutional framework to set up a new dynamic equilibrium as well institutional bypasses[3] to overcome stalemate and provide some, even if limited, checks on the government.

At such a crucial electoral moment, when normally would-be autocrats facing a challenging competitor do whatever it takes to rig the election, the Superior Electoral Court could manage some stability and control over the damaging effects of Bolsonaro grossly illegal campaign practices and his refusal to openly accept the electoral results. Bolsonaro’s behavior during the electoral campaign and after his defeat are currently under scrutiny by the Superior Electoral Court and the Supreme Court, which could result both in his ineligibility and arrest for inciting insurrection and a coup.

Notably Chief Justice Alexandre de Moraes was assertive and decisive during the electoral process despite all machinations and abuses Bolsonaro put forward. Moreover, the Supreme Court took the lead of democratic defense when Congress, initially rather reactive to Bolsonaro, was later co-opted by his government through sheer corruption and pork barreling. It has become a peculiar case of militant democracy led by the judiciary, which certainly raises some controversies but is also praised since it could preserve democracy in the end. As Celso Rocha de Barros wrote for Folha de S. Paulo: “either you punish a coup d’état while it is still an attempt, or it takes 50 years to set up a truth commission.”

Curiously, presidentialism, which has been long criticized for being more prone to instability and authoritarianism,[4] may raise, in such circumstances, a further barrier to autocratization as fixed terms and elections combined seem to mobilize society in defense of democracy. Such a hypothesis clearly needs further empirical evidence. But one can wonder whether such a system of government has some impact on the positive outcomes of the United States and Brazil, unlike what took place in some parliamentarian countries like Hungary and India. Presidential systems look, indeed, more “vulnerable once a government crisis explodes,”[5] but are they necessarily so when a would-be autocrat is challenged by more rigid executive-legislative relations and diverse independent agencies and checks that presidential systems normally feature?

In comparison to the United States, Brazilian presidentialism seems less affected by toxic polarization in Congress, because its multi- and fragmentary party system implies a higher share of political dividends across diverse political lines. Bolsonaro is far from controlling his own party, for instance. However, the toxic polarization hit hard the minds and hearts of those who praise authoritarianism as a medicine for their resentments and, above all, became a political strategy of communication and permanent threat to the opposition, now in government.

In Brazil, this entails the strong association of bolsonarism with militarism, which possibly places Brazil in a much more worrisome scenario than the United States, where polarization is highly social and political, but not really military. “The nexus between militarism and presidentialism” as the main cause for “the higher level of instability of presidential democracies” was Cheibub’s thesis in his magnificent book Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy.[6] The question is how far such nexus may still impact Brazil now under Lula.

What is more, important sectors of civil society stayed active and vigilant, especially the press, the universities, and non-governmental organization. Perhaps most importantly still, Brazil’s democracy, despite its flaws and the last turbulent decade, is almost forty years old.  This naturally raises the costs of a potential coup. Autocratization could well happen through “autocratic legalism”[7] or “abusive constitutionalism,”[8] as it has taken place elsewhere, but this hinged on Bolsonaro’s re-election. Yet, bolsonarism will attempt to find a way to remain in power.  Therefore, it is not really shocking that, since electoral defeat was off the table, bolsonaristas were reckless to devise and attempt a traditional, though extremely costly, coup on January 8th.

Such a combination of factors did matter to avoid disaster, but were they enough? After all, it was less than 2 million votes separating  Lula from Bolsonaro in a country where roughly 140 million Brazilians went to the ballot box. This is very little difference to provide certainties about causes and effects. Perhaps Lula could only win because he was a very popular politician, with a tracking record of successful governments and a strong political recall. Perhaps institutions could only manage a measure fairness of the electoral process, despite several Bolsonaro’s machinations and abuses to rig the result, because there was a Supreme Court justice with iron hands to protect democracy, having his decisions been confirmed by most of his peers on the bench. Perhaps, it all came out better than expected because, despite their entrenched interests and gains during Bolsonaro’s years, the high ranks in the military were not willing to risk their necks on a reckless adventure. This is not trivial: Brazilians won this battle not due to its institutionality per se, though it played an important role, but because lucky contingencies nudged the system to work more pointedly in such challenging circumstances.

This symposium will address the challenges that Lula government will face to rescue Brazilian democracy from the Bolsonaro’s years of destruction. What are the prospects of Brazil now that Bolsonaro is gone, even though bolsonarism may still linger for long? How could President Lula reverse the course of such destruction? And what are the lessons that Brazil may provide to the world?

We invited prominent scholars to discuss diverse and central topics that will define the challenges that Brazil faces as a consequence of the direct attack on its democratic institutions.

Talita São Thiago Tanscheit, from the Institute of Social Sciences of the Diego Portales University, writes “Challenges of the Lula Government in the Context of Latin America”. This piece describes how the former government has broken with a Brazilian tradition of international relations and leadership in Latin America, characterized regionalism and multilateralism. Lula’s government, she claims, represent a comeback to that longstanding tradition.

Estefânia Maria de Queiroz Barboza and Melina Fachin, from the Faculty of Law at the Federal University of Paraná, write the piece “The return of Brazil to the International Arena of Human Rights”. They show the damage of Brazilian authoritarian escalation and how this has turned it into an international pariah and caused the isolation of the country in international human rights protection forums.

Adriana Marques, from the Institute of International Relations and Defense at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, writes the piece “The Armed Forces after Bolsonaro is Gone”. The civil-military relationship is a historical and resilient drawback of Brazilian constitutionalism, one of the heaviest authoritarian legacies that has threatened democratization. Bolsonaro’s government politicized the Armed Forces to the highest degree and made it his governmental ally. Turning back this tide is the most taxing challenge of Lula’s government

Finally, Heloisa Camara, from the Faculty of Law at the Federal University of Paraná, writes the piece “Holding Bolsonaro accountable: learning from the past to build the future”. She shows how the Bolsonaro’s government radicalized “deconstituent practices” and argues for the importance of holding the former president accountable as a condition for revitalizing constitutional project and for rejecting tolerance with autocracy and impunity.

This is the beginning of a new and uncertain era of Brazilian democracy, a heavily embattled regime that, even despite its recent victory, is still far from overcoming the autocratization danger. We are very grateful to the authors that accepted to contribute to this symposium and to the readers that can certainly help us refine comparative insights to better understand and tackle how democracies around the world can survive this historical wave and be innovated.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo and Conrado Hübner Mendes, Symposium on the Challenges of the Lula Government in Reversing Democratic Erosion in Brazil: Introduction, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 10, 2023, at:

[1] A Przeworski, Crises of Democracy, (Cambridge University Press 2019) 9.

[2] See G Helmke and J Rios-Figueroa, ’Introduction’ in G Helmke and J Rios-Figueroa (ed.), Courts in Latin America (Cambridge University Press 2011) 1-26

[3] See MM Prado and MJ Trebilcock, Institutional Bypasses: A Strategy to Promote Reforms for Development, (Cambridge University Press 2018)

[4] See JJ Linz, ‘The Perils of Presidentialism’ (1990) 1 Journal of Democracy 51-69.

[5] A Przeworski, Crises of Democracy, (Cambridge University Press 2019) 36

[6] JA Cheibub, Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy, (Cambridge University Press 2007) 3.

[7] KL Scheppele, ‘Autocratic Legalism’ (2018) 85 University of Chicago Law Review  545-83.

[8] D Landau, ‘Abusive Constitutionalism’ (2013) 47 University of California, Davis 189, 189-260.


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