Rioting in Brazil Over Disputed Electoal Results
The ongoing turmoil in Brazil over disputed electoral results is a stark reminder of fragility of the entire idea of democracy in most parts of the world. It appears increasingly unsustainable in countries with long traditions of authoritarianism, heavy clout of corporate leaders or organized crime networks and deficient mechanisms of rule of law.
Barely a week after incoming President took office, violent supporters of his predecessor and right-wing populist former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the main city centre in Brasilia. Wrapped in yellow green colors of national flag or official jersey of Brazilian soccer team, they shouted slogans in favor of their fatherland and liberty to claim their rioting as acts of patriotism to salvage the nation. They tried to avoid confrontation with police by shouting at them “may God bless you and prevent you from attacking us patriots”
Protestors vandalised Presidential office building - Planalto Palace, Congress and Supreme Court premises and occupied the main public square in the area, in what appeared a clear replay of insurrections at Capitol in Washington DC two years back. Security forces claimed that by the evening of January 8, they had cleared all government buildings from rioters, arresting nearly 1200 of them and charging 700 of them with violence. But thousands were on the run following five hours long pitched battle with the police. The incident has scarred democracy in Brazil and invited world-wide condemnations.
These attacks have been described by sections of media as the biggest assault on rule of law and democracy since 1964 military coup that had deposed the elected government of President Joao Goulart a.k.a. ‘Jango’ of Brazillian Labour Party. It took 21 years for this Latin American behemoth to transition to what is described as 6th Republic since 1985 through protracted negotiations with Military leadership that had led to enactment of 1988 Constitution, which came into force on Jan 01, 1990.
A Planned Insurrection?
Available media inputs suggest that the so-called mass-eruption in Brasilia was not spontaneous. Rather it was well-planned and well organised. Social media posts have been detected inviting “patriots” to take part in this march with promises of free food and free bus rides. Bolsonaro supporters, from countryside and other cities, had started milling around the protest venue as the weekend approached.
There are videos of Bolsonaro instigating violence by urging his supporters to take arms much before these protests. In fact, there are far too many indicators suggesting that more than a year back, he had expressed apprehension of elections being rigged to deny him a second term. Many Brazilian experts had predicted in 2021 itself that in case Bolsonaro lost lections, he could act like Trump to debunk results, cry foul, and incite his supporters to take up arms to overthrow democracy.
One such video of discussion of 2021 by David Rockefeller Centre of Latin America, captioned as “The State of Democracy in Latin America” is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3YVP1Shpyc.
Bolsonaro did not disappoint such predictions. Once he lost elections, he skipped inauguration ceremony of the incoming President Lula. Rather he left the country and camped at a location in Florida in the United States and kept drumming up charges of stolen election results. He not only kept quiet when the riot was building up, he rather actively abetted it. There are also videos, though one does not know how authentic, where he describes Brazilians as martial race, urging them to take up arms or spurring even military to take over government. Even his supporters demanded military takeover to prevent Lula from returning to the helm after 12 years. He showed immense reluctance to even condemn the violence initially. Later when he did so, he only disapproved of invasion of public buildings but added qualifiers that protests were part of democracy. In the same vein, he also went on to charge his opponents of organising unlawful protests in the past to overthrow democracy that needed to be investigated.
Brazil's Record On Democracy
Brazil has never been a model democracy. As per leading institutions like freedom House and V-Dem, Brazil ranks much lower on parameters of democracy, governance, social peace and corruption perception compared to its smaller neighbour like Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile. This is despite its early foray with democracy and republicanism that commenced way back in 1889, when a cartel of coffee planters of Brazil, who accounted for nearly 65% of the world-wide coffee output, had overthrown 67 years of independent monarchic rule that had parted ways with imperial homeland of Portugal in 1822.
Frequent disruptions of democracy, with phases of authoritarianism and military dictatorship, have hindered rise of robust institutions and traditions of participative governance in Brazil. But following last transition to democracy in 1985, Brazil had shown immense promise. At the turn of the Century, as the biggest South American state, and the fifth largest in the world, accounting for more than half the population of the continent, Brazil was hailed as one of the rising major economic powers along with China, India and South Africa.
With its formidable economic and military prowess and world-wide influence, Brazil was expected to play a stabilising role in the region and spearhead the larger process of democratisation in whole of Latin America. The region is known for fragile democracies and weak institutions. We already have serious conflict going on in Peru where dozens have been killed. Democracy deficit has resulted in serious misgovernance, with transnational organised crime cartels perennially influencing politics in many neighbouring states and sparing virtually none. Under these circumstances, political stability and efficient governance in Brazil gains significance for security and stability of the entire region.
Tumltuous Journey Of 6th Republic
The 6th Republic in Brazil has had a somewhat tumultuous journey so far. The first President– Tancredo Neves of Brazilian Democratic Movement - who took over in 1985, following negotiated transition, fell sick even before taking oath of office and died soon. Democracy took some time to take off as the transitional era, from the term of Acting President and Neve’s Deputy - Jose Sarney- until the inauguration of new Constitution in 1990, continued to be governed by authoritarian Constitution of 1969.
The first President who got elected under the new Constitution in 1989 and took office on Jan 01, 1990– Fernando Collor de Mello – had to resign in 1992 following charges of Corruption. His Deputy Itamar Franco, who served remainder of the term until 1994, has probably been the only President in the history of Brazil who enjoyed reputation of a gentleman leader with unquestionable records of personal integrity besides delivering well on governance front. He stabilised economy and democracy both and accommodated various shades of political forces in the cabinet. He abdicated office after completion of the tenure as the new Constitution did not allow an incumbent President, even if he or she served part of the tenure, to run for re-election.
Franco’s successor Henrique Cordoso, a noted academic and politician with a left of the centre orientation, had come on reputation of his sound performance as Finance Minister under Franco. He had mixed results on governance and democracy with some of his pro-poor policies receiving popular endorsement but he struggled on many and few backfired. But before completion of his first tenure, he got the constitution amended in 1998 and got re-elected for another 4 yr term from Jan 1999 to 2002. This was first major tinkering with the new Constitution by an ambitious leader that came too soon in a nation that had barred an incumbent President to run for re-election, fearing return of dictatorship.
Subsequent Presidents Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), who is again back at the helm, kindled great power aspirations for Brazil through faster growth rate during his tenure but with a tinge of rampant corruption. He was later himself indicted on corruption charges well after he demitted office and was sentenced and had to spend some time in prison. He eventually succeeded in overturning the verdict by citing the bias of prosecutors and came clean on all charges. His successor Dilma Rousseff faced more ignominy, when she was impeached during second year of her second term on corruption charges only.
There is a strong possibility that even Bolsonaro too may face similar charges at some point of time in future. There are already few cases against him and Lula is likely to institute more. Bolsonaro's fall from grace is not likely to do any good to his future.
Democracy, development and corruption have converged in Brazil. Judiciary has been selectively assertive but has not remained immune to influence. Further, local and global ecosystem have made it extremely difficult for Brazilian democracy to preserve integrity of its institutions, provide a robust governance and a strong mechanism of rule of law. A country that is so rich in natural resources and with its vast size and fairly large population, it is crying for efficient governance to translate its great-power potentials into reality.
Manifestation of a Global Trend: Lessons For Democracies
Recent developments in Brazil are indicative of a larger global trend of erosion in integrity and credibility of democratic institutions, notwithstanding some exceptions and few variations. Elections have turned into high stake battles for warring elite not only in arena of politics but also corporate sector, sections of military and probably those in the grey world who probably need state support for their survival and clout. Hence, the phenomenon of populist leaders seeking to build their personality cult needs far closer examination and evaluation. Exploitation of nationalist or identity sentiments have potential to generate such levels of mass frenzy, at least among their supporters, that can knock out rule of law from list of key governance priorities. This can reduce democracy into arbitrary rule by elected dictators. Simultaneously, emotive strength of nationalism and identity provide a brilliant cover to deflect popular attention from governance failures and corruption.
The most striking feature of the Brazilian protests have been initial police reluctance to crack down on the rioters. Sections of Western media have suggested that Bolsonaro had been seeking to cultivate cartels within the security forces. While key figures in military or police who were part of the erstwhile military regime have faded out but progenies and proteges of those stalwarts continue to retain significant clout due to sheer inner dynamics of these institutions. Bolsonaro has been rather soft on military and security officers who have been found indulging in excesses or violating rule of law or what some would suggest a suspected nexus with regional crime cartels to run various shades of grey world operations. Eventually sanity prevailed and security forces could bring situation under control. But a lot of damage had already been done by that time.
Political options that Brazilian democracy offers may not be ideal. Both Lula and Bolsonaro have been accused of corruption and knocking out their political opponents through ruthless manipulation of institutions. Rule of law and robust governance capacity automatically become a casualty under these conditions. Besides, rising influence of China, through a set of local collaborators, and clandestine clout of organised crime syndicates further ensure continued decline of Brazilian democracy and sustained pilferage of its economy, especially the rich natural resources.
Such phenomenon reinforces my belief that democracies need to re-discover themselves to optimise their latent and real potentials. Legitimate political, economic and social stakeholders in democracies need to work out a mechanism to address their differences, if they genuinely care for comprehensive and sustained defence of universal access to freedom, equality and opportunities. Otherwise, despite an outward façade of democracy, even larger states, with not so robust institutions, run the risk of being controlled by a combination of local and global cartels to the detriment of collective interests of their communities and even the entire nation. There may not be easy answers in this direction. Brazil appears too fractured and divided at this juncture, where robust institutions do not appear sustainable. It needs to heal internally for which both incumbents of state and society need to contribute. It shall also require exceptional statesmanship from incoming President Lula to negotiate a combination of highly complex internal and external challenges threatening his nation at this juncture.