Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Tomorrow Knows Better: A New Inflection Point in Brazil’s Democracy?

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

Brazil is again in the spotlight, and, as has been a common narrative at least since President Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, not for a good reason. News from everywhere has underlined that the country is not only under a health crisis due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which has killed over 50,000 Brazilians (the world’s second in deaths, behind only the US), but, strikingly, also because of the serious threats to its democracy. A typical authoritarian vocabulary pops up on a daily basis in media and academic analyses of Brazilian politics. The New York Times published an alarming report saying that “President Bolsonaro and his allies are using the prospect of military intervention to protect his grip on power.” Yascha Mounk wrote a column for Folha de S. Paulo – Brazil’s leading newspaper -, arguing that “Brazil is already a democracy under military supervision”, and Steven Levitsky, though acknowledging that he is more concerned with the United States and its decline as a world leader, said that “Bolsonaro is more authoritarian than any other elected leader”.

The sequence of events more than support such a vocabulary. Just by reading the last week headlines, there we find: “It is time to put things in their right places, said Bolsonaro after Supreme Court’s decisions”, “Bolsonaro: I won’t be the first to break bad”, “The Armed Forces will not carry out absurd orders nor accept political judgments, says Bolsonaro”. Academic posts have also expressed this feeling. Emilio Meyer and Thomas Bustamante wrote “Authoritarianism without Emergency Powers: Brazil under Covid-19”, Antonio Maués wrote “Bolsonaro’s First Year: Trying to Erode Democracy, and João Victor Archegas and Letícia Kreuz were even more straightforward: ”The ‘Constitutional Military Intervention: Brazil on the Verge of Democratic Breakdown”. All the apprehension is more than justifiable in view of the sequence of events that have struck the country, and the past dictatorship from 1964-1985, though already quite distant after years of democratic life, is always a reminder of how things can turn out really badly.

However, those fascinating discussions are good examples of the difficult balance between, on the one hand, the importance of exposing and interpreting the fast and radical pace of events, and, on the other, the methodological challenge to patiently bide our time in order to more accurately understand and assess the reality. Constitutional lawyers and political scientists constantly deal with such a dilemma, especially when the situation changes so rapidly that it is like quicksand, swallowing some of our immediate, though well-founded, conclusions about a certain phenomenon.

This difficulty was already outlined in my previous post We Should Learn From Historians: Seeing the Future in Brazil’s Political Landscape. Written just after the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s President, the serious concern about the country’s future was clearly outlined there. The sequence of events was indeed astounding for distinct observers and analysts worldwide, and there was an urgency to bring to light some key facts underlying Bolsonaro’s rise as President. Yet, at the same time, there was also the feeling that any emphatic argument could rapidly be rebutted, even more so in a scenario of serious emotional and polarized perceptions. Tony Judt’s words on the fall of the Berlin Wall expressing that “what had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air”,[1] must be taken seriously. Long-term analyses sometimes do a better job of balancing our expectations; short-term analyses naturally compromise accuracy in favor of urgency.

Brazil’s current sequence of events is nothing short of appalling because they are radical not only in their own severity and significance, but also in their pace. Their defiance extends well beyond common wisdom, reaching various analytical tools that constitutional lawyers and political scientists hold dear. At least since the 2018 election that culminated in Jair Bolsonaro’s victory, it was clear that those tools could not accurately understand why such an outsider coming from an insignificant political party and visibly displaying authoritarian impulses could have won the support of 55.13% of Brazilians. More currently, they have been challenged in their ability to grasp how and why, despite his erratic government, threatening political behavior, and profound lack of empathy towards the victims of COVID-19, Bolsonaro can still show off the support of one third of Brazilians. True, there is an increasing rejection (43% according to the last Datafolha poll), but it is striking that 33% approval has been maintained for months. It is no wonder that, in Brazil and elsewhere, the typical standards to assess popular behavioral dynamics in democracies are under review.

In addition, by sticking to the same analytical patterns and tools, there is the risk of oversimplification and raising even further the struggles that comparative studies usually have between the breadth and reach of their conclusions and the imponderable variables of context analysis. Time, after all, strongly amplifies the differences normally seen between large-N and small-N analyses.[2] For instance, it is expected that, once an authoritarian figure such as Jair Bolsonaro takes power, red flags about the future of democracy spread out. Several analyses concentrate on describing and interpreting various authoritarian movements while exposing the alarming threats that are made on a regular basis by a President who visibly despises democracy. A common argument is that Brazil, like other cases of democratic backsliding such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela, is about to be subjected to Bolsonaro as an autocrat who adopts the typical mechanisms for expanding his grip on power, constraining accountability institutions, and disrupting the rule of law.

In fact, recent events corroborate this claim: in the last few months, Bolsonaro has interfered in the Federal Police, appointed an Attorney General of the Republic (who can exclusively prosecute the President) whose behavior is nothing short of controversial, and has attacked the constitutional autonomy of universities and research institutions as well as the freedom of press. The already strong presence of the Armed Forces in the government has escalated even further while largely extending benefits and privileges to this group. This is the recipe for authoritarianism already seen elsewhere: step by step, democracy is eroded from inside until there is no way back. It is as if there is already a recipe of what autocrats and populists of the twenty-first century have to do to achieve their goals. Brazil would be no exception to this pattern, and the fact that Brazil is a democracy in Latin America, a region historically marked by political instabilities and rampant social inequality, would add even more ingredients for that recipe to once again materialize.

But time can disrupt short-term analyses. Just last week, these were some headlines in Brazil’s main newspapers: “Queiroz – Bolsonaro’s longstanding aide involved in alleged numerous crimes – is arrested in the house of Bolsonaros’ laywer, President sees himself besieged”; “Brazilian Supreme Court reaches majority in favor of actions targeting Bolsonaro’s supporters”; “Moraes – a Supreme Court Justice – lifts the bank secrecy of 11 lawmakers investigated in the inquiry on antidemocratic acts”, “Why do they want to revoke Jair Bolsonaro’s term?”; “Bolsonaro criticizes again the Superior Electoral Court and says that the court’s judgment of the action aimed at revoking his term is ‘shameful.”

In a timeframe of about two weeks, President Bolsonaro endured a fierce reaction by the Supreme Court in a case involving the spread of fake news and threats to democracy by Bolsonaro’s supporters and aides, and another one related to Bolsonaro’s alleged illegal interference in the federal police. At the Superior Electoral Court, there are currently eight cases pending judgment that can revoke Jair Bolsonaro´s and Hamilton Mourão’s (the Vice-President) presidential ticket based on illegal election campaigning in 2018, especially through mass messaging using WhatsApp. More impactful still, the arrest of Fabrício Queiroz, who used to work directly with Jair Bolsonaro and his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, in a house of Bolsonaro’s lawyer, uncovered potential connections with militias in Rio de Janeiro and some serious crimes. Impeachment is gaining momentum – there are 48 impeachment bids now in Congress -, though the fact that President Bolsonaro still has some popular support, has advanced in pork-barrel politics with Congress as a protection strategy, and most importantly, Vice-President (and retired general) Hamilton Mourão is not trusted by the political class, have all served as a shield against such a move. On the other hand, there is an increasing reaction in civil society, and, as the economic shortfalls become even more severe, the odds are clearly advancing against his presidency

Time also allows imponderable facts to express their long-term effects. COVID-19 and the tragedy catalyzed by a government that has not only mocked science, but also mismanaged the federal support to the states while undermining the state governors’ efforts to tackle the crisis, and expressed no empathy whatsoever for the victims will charge Bolsonaro a high price. COVID-19 also exposed the weakness of a government whose continuous threats to democracy seem more and more desperate bravados and accelerated its authoritarian impulses when it had not yet captured all the institutional spaces. A second term could lead him to go even further down this path, but the central concern now is not whether he will be reelected, but rather whether he will be able to finish his first term. Jornal Nacional, the daily primetime national news whose audience is the widest in the country, summed up perfectly the national sentiment when Brazil reached 50,000 deaths by COVID-19: “…History will also record those who omitted, those who were negligent, those who were disrespectful. History attributes glory and attributes dishonor, and history is forever.”

Brazil’s future is a vast unknown, and, if there is any certainty, it lies in accepting and acknowledging that Brazil’s democracy, like many others, is much more nuanced than short-term analyses can indicate. At this moment, the prospects are pointing out a growing instability and unsustainability of Bolsonaro’s presidency. He may be impeached or have his term revoked on grounds of a criminal conviction; his and his vice-president’s ticket may be invalidated based on electoral fraud; or he may be “normalized” by ordinary politics until the end of his term (though such a scenario goes against Bolsonaro’s erratic behavior). Any other more radical move looks unlikely despite his continuous threats. It seems that Brazil is once again in an inflection point, which can be towards more or less democracy. Time, however, has a powerful capacity to disrupt our immediate perceptions. Tomorrow may “never [know]”, but it certainly knows better.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, Tomorrow Knows Better: A New Inflection Point in Brazil’s Democracy? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, July 1, 2020, at:

[1]   Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (The Penguin Press 2005) 1

[2]  See Hirschl, Ran. 2014. Comparative Matters: The Renaissance of Comparative Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


2 responses to “Tomorrow Knows Better: A New Inflection Point in Brazil’s Democracy?”

  1. Kishor Dere Avatar
    Kishor Dere

    Let us not be in a hurry to judge others. Time ia great healer. Academic analyses known for methodological rigour and clarity of objectives ought to differ from any short-term approach, narrow-mindedness or short-sightedness.

  2. […] a trial by fire for governance around the world, at all levels. But commentary on countries like Brazil, Hungary, India, the United States and the United Kingdom tends to focus narrowly on presidents or […]

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