Brazil: Between Democracy and an Ongoing Coup

by | 1 Nov 2022

Last Sunday (October, 30) it became clear that a coup d’état is underway in Brazil. It is a coup of a new kind whose course is not substantially affected by the outcome of the elections. Only its pace may be. It is a coup that began to be set in motion in 2014 with the contestation of the results of the presidential elections won by President Dilma Rousseff; it continued with the impeachment of President Rousseff in 2016 and with the illegal imprisonment of former President Lula da Silva in 2018 to prevent him from running in the elections that were won by President Bolsonaro, the main beneficiary of the coup in its current phase. With the election of Bolsonaro, the first phase of the coup ended and a second one began.

Like Adolf Hitler in 1932, Bolsonaro made it clear from the first moment that he had used democracy exclusively to come to power and that, once this goal was achieved, he would exercise power with the exclusive purpose of destroying it. In this second phase, the coup took the form of a slow emptying of democratic institutionality and political culture, whose main components were as follows.

Regarding institutionality: exploitation of all the weaknesses of the Brazilian political system, particularly the legislative branch, by deepening the commodification of politics, the buying and selling of votes of the people’s representatives between elections, and the buying and selling of votes of voters during election periods; the complicity of the conservative judiciary, incapable of envisioning the equality of citizens before the law, and used to living comfortably with both the rule of law and the rule of illegality, depending on the interests at stake; the co-option of the armed forces through the massive distribution of ministerial and administrative positions.

Regarding democratic political culture: the apology of the dictatorship and its repressive methods, including torture; the massive use of social networks to spread fake news and promote the culture of hate and an ideology of well-being emptied of any content other than that of the malaise or suffering inflicted on the “other” constructed as the enemy; the capillarization in the core of the social fabric of conservative US religious imperialism (neo-Pentecostal evangelicalism) in force since 1969 as the preferred counter-insurgent policy. This phase concluded at the end of the first round of the presidential election last October 2.

From then on, there entered a new phase based on a frontal attack on the hard core of liberal democracy, the electoral process, and the institutions charged with guaranteeing its normal course. This phase is qualitatively new because of two factors. First, the internationalization of the attack on Brazilian democracy through global right-wing extremist organizations originating in and financed by the North American plutocracy has become clearer. Brazil has become the laboratory of the global extreme right where the vitality of the global fascist project is evaluated in which neoliberalism is playing a new (last?) breath. The main goal is the election of Donald Trump in 2024. Reliable sources tell us that the disinformation and electoral manipulation companies linked to the notorious fascist Steve Bannon were installed in two apartments of one of the main streets of Sao Paulo from where they directed operations.

In this electoral phase, the two main strategies were as follows. The first was intimidation to prevent the “wrong vote” and the benefits in exchange for the “right vote” offered by the lower business class and local politicians. The second, long used by conservative forces in the US, was vote suppression. This was a set of exceptional measures, always under the veneer of legal normality, aimed at preventing the social groups most inclined to vote for the candidate opposed to the coup plotters from exercising their right to vote: roadblocks, overzealousness in the inspection of vehicles transporting potential voters, intimidation in order to provoke dropouts, suspension of free transportation decreed by electoral law to promote the exercise of the right to vote for the poorest.

What now, Brazil? Brazilian democracy has survived this new phase of the ongoing coup d’état. Contributing to this was the remarkable performance of Lula da Silva and the fearless involvement of Brazilian democrats who saw in their vote the proof of a minimally dignified life, the affirmation of their civilizing self-esteem, the active principle of democratic energy for the difficult times ahead. The firmness of the institutions of electoral justice also contributed, in the midst of pressure, deauthorization, and intimidation of all kinds. But it would be irresponsible folly to think that the coup process is over. It has not ended and will rather enter a new phase because the conditions and the national and international forces that have been calling for it since 2014 remain in place and have only grown stronger in recent years. The continuing coup will enter a new phase.

Immediately, there will probably be the contestation of the election results to compensate for the failure of the coup plotters to achieve the results they wanted with their multiple frauds. Then, the coup will take other forms, now more subterranean, with the use of organized crime to intimidate the democratic forces, now more institutional, with the devious mobilization of the legislative power to create a situation of permanent ungovernability, namely with the threat of impeachment of the elected government and the upper echelons of the judicial system. Although the mid-term goal of the coup plotters is to prevent President Lula da Silva from finishing his term, the coup process will continue and will only be truly neutralized when Brazilian democrats realize that the vulnerability of democracy is to a large extent self-inflicted, because of the arrogance of pretending to be the only condition for the legitimacy of power instead of assuming that its legitimacy will always be on the verge of collapse in a socioeconomically, historically, racially, and sexually very unjust society.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Coimbra (Portugal), and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

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