By Ana Addobbati, CIVICUS Board Member and Feminist Activist
Brazil has one of the largest democratic populations in the world. But democracy has not been around for very long in the country whose dictatorial past of the 1980s continues to haunt it in the 21st century. Now that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has defeated Jair Bolsonaro in the second round with less than 2% of the votes in an election marked by threats of a military coup, the need to reinforce the importance of democratic debate and to challenge misinformation is necessary.
The strategy for the extreme right who wished to end social policies that support most Brazilians was to quickly dominate Congress and the Executive to create an authoritarian regime. Like Trumpism, Bolsonarism used fear to reinforce the image of a saviour. Bolsonaro and his supporters sought to taint the right to protest by equating it with vandalism. They promoted the idea that any opposition to his rule was an obstacle to follow through with the plan to fight corruption. They even spread fake information on social media that electronic voting machines, one of the most sophisticated and secure systems for running elections in the world, were being rigged.
Moreover, in the current era of fake news and biased algorithms which create opinion bubbles, we had a scenario in which memories and historical records of exile about restrictions on freedom of opinion and widespread torture were swapped for a simplistic discourse based on the image of Bolsonaro as a hero fighting corruption. We had conspiracies that a coup was being set by the communists to make Brazil the new Venezuela of South America. Images of demonstrations supporting the right to land and housing were manipulated and projected as demonstrations of violent attempts to usurp private property.
We can see how key democratic values such as the right to protest and having a voice were misrepresented in an effort by extreme right-wing groups to generate fear and legitimise authoritarian acts by the former president, who denied existing racism in the country (with the largest Afro-descendant population in the world), and the existence of COVID-19 (Brazil being responsible for 11% of the world's deaths during the pandemic). The strategy was wrapped with the fight for family values, God and honor.
In the recent elections, President-elect Lula had to unite forces with several parties, in what he called the Alliance for Democracy, to win votes against the extreme right. Bolsonaro resisted admitting defeat at the polls. As a result, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters blocked roads, causing chaos and violence in the country. They didn’t allow hospitals and markets to be supplied. After negotiating with his base of supporters, Bolsonaro finally admitted defeat and called for the violence to end. However, there is still a chance for a coup to take place since Bolsonaro is supported by the Army.
Looking ahead to 2023, Brazilian Congress has challenging prospects with a large number of legislators allied with the Center-right. However, democracy and its mechanisms will enable civil society to keep up the pressure to respect the Constitution and support Brazilians facing deprivation. Brazil has returned to the UN Hunger Map after being cited an example of combating malnutrition in the world.
Our request to the international community is to consider investments in support of democracy and accountable governance. Recently, the Norwegian government reinvested in the Amazon Preservation Fund. Support will be needed through development cooperation to overcome the turmoil in democracy in the past few years. Brazil’s take over by the extreme right should not be seen as an isolated event.
Finally, we need to engage new generations of voters on the value of democracy as a complex process that demands debate and patience beyond the instantaneous or immediate gratification of social networks. On the other hand, we need to see transparency and fighting corruption as an agenda that belongs to all sides to prevent it from becoming hostage again to a demagogue who was able to undermine secular values, freedom of expression and even life by delaying the acquisition of vaccines.
We must reinforce critical thinking and appreciation for democratic values to make them so strong that no algorithm or fake news can overcome generational struggles for freedom.