The invasion of government offices in Brasília on 8 January by mobs of protestors and vandals forces us to revisit a fundamental question: is Brazil’s relatively recent move to democracy too fragile, or is this just part of its evolution? The protestors’ support for a far-right politician who would prefer to see the demise of the country’s indigenous peoples (and others marginalized groups) points to their lack of understanding of democratic processes. The country’s hierarchical and exclusionary social structures and political processes also play a significant role in how and why things played out as they did. Can these change?
Brazil’s transition in the mid-1980s from an authoritarian regime to an aspiring democracy was a slow process marked by lumps and bumps, for instance the death of a leader and installation of caretaker ex-military regime supporters. The year 1988 saw the presentation of a new Brazilian Constitution, one marked by significant civil society participation and a swathe of proposed clauses and provisions that were quite progressive and socially inclusive. The early 1990s, on the other hand, saw a national referendum on the desired form of state (including a monarchy option!) and the effective impeachment of Brazil’s most recent democratically elected president, Fernando Collor de Mello.
All in all, this suggests that the road to democracy has been one of turmoil and questioning. When I interviewed workers in the 1990s, they even questioned what democracy meant. Would it bring better times for them and their families compared to the earlier period of military rule? The answer wasn’t so obvious to them.
The most recent rise and level of popularity of former president Jair Bolsonaro suggests that many are still not so sure what value there is to a social democratic model. Are people blinded or ignorant to the benefits of a thriving social democracy, or is a view that democracy represents the undeniable centre ground upon which society must be based in fact misfounded? Both presidents of the post-Labour Party era (Temer and Bolsonaro) consistently questioned the appropriateness of the 1988 Constitution given “Brazilian realities”. Certainly, if income distribution figures, the level of genocides/ imprisonment of blacks and domestic violence are noted, Brazil is still not doing so well in the racial/ social equity and social ‘voice’ departments. What this may underline is why the Bolsonaro movement has managed to sway a large number of people to support its idea of a ‘democracy’.
What, then, do we make of Bolsonaro’s continued popularity and the latest attacks on the country’s democratic institutions? This does not seem to be a call for democracy – it seems to be more like a call for “the way things were” before the (still very moderate) social welfare/social justice advances of the Labour Party (PT) presidencies of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The question is whether there is enough groundswell out there to say, “No, this is not the way. Let’s move forward in a different way!” Much will be seen in coming weeks pro-democracy protests (already starting) and from (anticipated) further local or national-level protests/espionage by the so-called ‘Bolsominions’.
It was always risky putting Lula (PT) up for another try at president – Brazil is very divided. Yet it probably had to be done as a high-level sign of resistance, as both he and Dilma had been slandered and dismissed (effectively removed from public affairs) by a network of conservative forces. While strong grassroots and broad-based factions and members of the population no doubt exist who are strongly committed to democracy and social justice reform, it takes massive force to fight against such embedded hierarchies and authoritarian, elitist views. Even if the Brazilian state apparatus, e.g. Itarmarty (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) or the Supreme Federal Court (SFT) has sometimes shown its fighting spirit, it is not just the ‘foot soldiers’, but also important elements of the state and military who have offered support to the right, for example by stopping voters or letting protesters get past security barriers.
Arguments emerging are that key promoters of the riots should be identified and charged, but also that Bolsonaro should be deported from the USA, charged with inciting violence in Brazil, and then sent to The Hague to face charges for crimes against humanity for his response to the COVID pandemic.
Yet we will have to see how the many wheels of protest and politics turn, as has been the case many times before. Moving towards greater social healing and a more solidified democratic outcome may require considerable compromise and will only be brought about by those with great political skills.
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the author:
Lee Pegler currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS. He spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers.
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