Democrats sound alarm as Bolsonaro tests Brazilian democracy


The attempts by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro to engineer social media regulation to keep his messages and those of his supporters safe from removal is yet another move which appears to be taken straight from the authoritarians’ playbook, says analyst Carolina Caeiro.

Disinformation has long been a feature of Bolsonaro’s social media activity, with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube already removing several of his posts due to unfounded claims about COVID-19. But some analysts such as Direitos Na rede – a coalition of Brazilian civil society and academic organizations – say social media platforms are not doing enough to contain Bolsonaro and are tolerating alleged repeated violations to their terms of service, she writes for Chatham House.

U.S. Senators today registered their growing concerns over Bolsonaro’s defiance of basic democratic norms in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Biden administration should “bolster U.S. support for Brazil’s democratic institutions in the face of Bolsonaro’s undemocratic proclivities” and “make clear that further attacks on the country’s democracy will jeopardize the underpinnings of the U.S.-Brazil relationship,” wrote Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Bolsonaro will undoubtedly continue to use the levers of office to assault civility and push the limits of institutions that constrain him. Bleeding allies and popularity, he’s unlikely to succeed, but he will try, adds Mac Margolis, the author of “Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

What keeps Brazilian democracy from going off label is pushback by the Supreme Court, an ordinarily fractious bunch miraculously galvanized by his excesses and public opinion, which is darkening by the week, he writes for the Washington Post. Not even the indulgent legislature — ordinarily eager to swap support for sugarplums — seems so accommodating anymore. The Senate’s Sept. 14 vote to reject a presidential order barring Internet companies from removing fake news was only his latest legislative rout.

Shock and scandal have long been favorite weapons in Bolsonaro’s political arsenal often deployed to inflame situations, but the frequency and specificity of his rhetoric in recent months, combined with the mobilization of his radical supporters, has generated a wave of concern for Brazil’s democracy, the FT reports:

In July, he warned “there will be no election” next year if Brazil does not modify its electronic voting system to include printed paper receipts. He insists these are necessary to stop fraud, even though the country’s top electoral court has repeatedly demonstrated the integrity of the system. He then threatened to act outside the “boundaries of the constitution” in a stand-off with the Supreme Court, which has emerged as a focus of Bolsonaro’s ire after repeatedly striking down initiatives close to the president’s heart, such as relaxing gun controls. It has also ensnared the president and one of his sons in an inquiry into the orchestrated spread of “fake news”.

“Bolsonaro has crossed the line,” says Maria do Socorro, a political scientist at the Federal University of São Carlos. “[Yet] the demonstrations in São Paulo show that the Bolsonarismo movement has political strength and conservatism in Brazil is greater than many think,” he tells the FT.

The incumbent has been clear about his authoritarian aspirations but has failed to realize them, due both to his own missteps and to an effectively mobilized opposition, according to experts V. Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Calla Hummel, Sam Handlin and Amy Erica Smith. Civil society groups popped up around the country and continue to spur Brazilians to take to the streets. As the Bolsonaro administration scoffed at the covid-19 pandemic, civil society mobilized to address the state’s failures. Opposition parties looked inward and reorganized, capturing seats in local midterm elections and filling them with civil society activists, they write for the Journal of Democracy. 

Bolsonaro slammed the country’s Supreme Court and cast doubt on the integrity of next year’s elections as his supporters and critics rallied in major cities at a time of heightened tensions in Latin America’s largest democracy, Reuters adds (above).

The Instituto Tecnologia e Equidade (IT&E) – a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy – combats disinformation in Brazil through training programs and cutting-edge research on the ethical use of technology.

Bolsonaro is threatening democratic rule, said Human Rights Watch, by pursuing campaigns to intimidate the Supreme Court, signaling that he may attempt to cancel the 2022 election or otherwise deny Brazilians the right to elect their leaders, and violating critics’ freedom of expression.

“Bolsonaro, an apologist for Brazil’s abusive military dictatorship, is increasingly hostile to the democratic system of checks and balances,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “He is using a mixture of insults and threats to intimidate the Supreme Court, which is overseeing investigations into his conduct, and with his baseless claims of electoral fraud seems to be laying the groundwork to either try to cancel next year’s elections or contest the will of the people if he is not re-elected”



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