Experts Reflect on the Challenges to Democracy in Brazil and the Implications for Lula’s Presidency
On January 20, the Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI) hosted a conversation with Monica de Bolle and Matias Spektor to discuss the state of Brazil’s democracy.
On January 8, 2023, supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brazil’s federal government headquarters in the nation’s capital in an attempt to overturn the recent election of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. To reflect on these developments and analyze the broader challenges to Brazilian democracy, GAI hosted a conversation with Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and Matias Spektor, associate professor at the Brazilian Institute of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas. Both panelists agreed that Brazil is more polarized than ever and the new administration must tread lightly in order to maintain the country’s delicate stability.
Misinformation and Polarization
Since the turn of the millennium, Brazil has transitioned from a decade of commodity-driven economic growth and stable democratic governance to a period of economic stagnation and social and political polarization. The deceleration of the Brazilian economy and the eruption of the Lava Jato (carwash) corruption investigation in 2014 destabilized the country, weakening and delegitimizing the leading political parties.
“Lava Jato opened the box to the public of how in Brazil presidents need to dispense money to achieve the support they need.” -Matias Spektor
The chaotic environment that ensued allowed for a reactionary conservative movement to emerge as voters punished a political elite they perceived to be corrupt. Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018, supported by a disaffected middle class and a coalition of neo-Pentecostal evangelicals, agribusiness, security forces, and members of the military. His use of messianic rhetoric and misinformation were key in entrenching unprecedented levels of polarization. Spektor and de Bolle pointed to the participation of the armed forces in the Bolsonaro administration as a source of concern that explains why protestors had been camping outside the military’s headquarters for weeks before the January 8 attack.
“The earlier use of the military for policing in places like Rio de Janeiro in the crisis years allowed them to be increasingly perceived as a moderating force that was attractive for people who were frustrated with the system.” -Monica de Bolle
What to Expect from Lula’s New Administration?
The new Lula administration has a very slim margin for maneuverability to enact the transformative policies expected by its supporters. A distrustful military, a polarized population, and virulent misinformation work in tandem with an unstable global economy to constrain the new government.
“The military in Brazil know they can’t have a coup, not in the near term. Brazil is now a house divided with a frail economy, and in this context Lula needs to be very careful.” -Matias Spektor
Lula is also limited in his foreign policy. Both Spektor and de Bolle believe that Brazil could become a leader in environmental diplomacy. Other goals on the international agenda, such as deeper South American integration or stronger ties between the European Union and Mercosur, will be more difficult for the administration to achieve. The panelists concluded that for now, Lula’s mission will be to keep the country together for the next four years.
is available on the GAI YouTube channel.