The crisis of democracy in Brazil


By Leonardo Avritzer*

Brazil is experiencing a moment of doubts and questions regarding democracy. In the last four years, we have witnessed an election with legitimate but strongly contested results, two presidential impeachment attempts, one of which led to the removal of the elected president based on extremely fragile legal arguments. We also witnessed the removal and subsequent arrest of the president of the Chamber of Deputies who had led this impeachment process. Since 2017, we have followed spectacular and also tragic conflicts involving the Federal Supreme Court involving issues as important as habeas corpus. In this chaotic scenario, a president, Michel Temer, without any legitimacy and with very low levels of approval still brought to Congress reforms that profoundly alter the organization of the Brazilian State. Finally, the country experienced a chaotic electoral process with the proliferation of false news and elected a president who seeks to rehabilitate the authoritarian period and calls the widow of the most famous torturer of the period for tea. How to understand such changes that make democracy in the country fragile, if not uncertain, and undermine core elements of the rule of law?

When we look closely at all these elements, we realize that Brazil is experiencing a process that fits in with international discussions about “the crisis of democracy”. He is experiencing a degradation of democratic institutions from the inside, a different concept from the one known as a coup.

The coup, according to political theory, consists of a complete break with the law and with any form of order and justice. Not by chance, the military coup in Latin American history involved exactly elements of rupture with the legal and institutional order present in Institutional Act number 1, in the case of Brazil, or in the first communiqué of the Argentine military junta that suspended the political activities of Congress .

None of these elements is present in the Brazilian reality. On the contrary, what we observe is a continuous process of institutional degradation, similar to that discussed by Levitsky and Ziblatt in the book how democracies die (Zahar).

In Brazil, in 2016, we had elements that suggest an approximation with a parliamentary coup. Even so, the attack on the exercise of power at its political center, which would be the main characteristic of the parliamentary coup, dispenses with an element of rupture pointed out by Gabriel Naudè, the first theorist of coups d'état. In addition, in this new format of discontinuity of government, another dimension appears that is absent in classic coups and that I would characterize as follows: a complete rupture with legality.


What we have seen in Brazil since 2016 is a huge gray area between legal and non-legal, between respect and disrespect for legal rights and guarantees. It is possible to perceive that the parliamentary coup is located at the intersection between the coup and the non-coup in the sense that the strong and immediate rupture is located only in the field of the exercise of power and does not extend to the fabric of legal relations that, even so, were shaken by the legally questionable act of removal of the president and by subsequent manipulations in the appointment of Attorneys General of the Republic.

The situation of democracy in the country deteriorated even more with the strong signs of manipulation of the trial of former President Lula and the other trials carried out by the 13th Federal Court in Curitiba. We know what the most flagrant illegalities are: coercive conduct with media visibility, preventive detention outside the legal precepts, undue pressure on the STF.

All these facts that ended up being proven by the leaks of the conversations of the prosecutors of the MP in Curitiba seem to point in the direction of a judiciary that, in articulation with other judicial institutions, exceeds the autonomy granted by the constitutional framework constituted in 1988 and advances to the field of a juridical praetorianism with regard to political institutions.

Thus, we have the affirmation of a non-sovereign representation of the public interest by the judicial institutions of control. The greatest example of this distorted idea of ​​public interest was, once again, offered by judge Sérgio Moro when he opposed public interest and legality in the leak of recordings obtained illegally in the Lava Jato operation and later when he went beyond his functions in the conviction of the former President Lula.

All these elements are new in Brazil in relation to the authoritarian experience of the 60s and 70s and are probably related to the rupture of an informal tolerance concept associated with the role played by Catholicism in the country. In the absence of these structures we have intolerance associated with the absence of civil guarantees offered by the rule of law.

Jair Bolsonaro is a consequence of this situation. His victory expresses several elements that allow us to declare both the end of the New Republic and new problems in our democracy, namely: the radical interference of the judiciary in the process of determining political sovereignty through elections and, even more serious, the relativization by the president of the negativity associated with the authoritarian period experienced in Brazil since the 1964 coup, a reference hitherto shared by the main political forces in the country and by all presidents since 1985.

Since the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro, new elements have been added to the anti-democratic trend, such as the attack by the judiciary and the institutions of control over the political system. This attack and, at the same time, the intervention in Rio de Janeiro and the new public security policy in the state complete the equation of violation of rights and adherence to a public security policy that constitutes a threat to the lives of the low-income population. and mostly black.

The Pendulum of Democracy

In my new book, The Pendulum of Democracy (Editora Hoje) I discuss all these elements through the theory of the democratic pendulum in Brazil. Since the post-war period, the country has lived a pendular structure of democracy in which there are moments of strong democratic optimism and expansion of participation that are alternated by other moments in which the elites and many popular sectors adhere to the rejection of democracy or anti-politics.

The conjuncture presented in 1945-6 brought elements in the direction of the expansion of democracy, both with regard to elections and the new Constitution elaborated in the following year. The 1985-8 conjuncture followed, in the same way, a logic of uncritical optimism with the obstacles of the process of democratic construction.

The regressive moments in relation to democracy in the history of Brazil were also diverse and allow us to establish an analytical pattern. In general, these moments involve political divisions, economic crisis and deep disagreement in relation to the country's project. This was the scenario in which the crises of 1954 and 1964 unfolded. This is the scenario in which the current crisis is inserted. Only this analytical key allows us to understand the 2013-8 conjuncture as a turbulent moment of continuous institutional degradation and movement of the elite and the middle class against popular sovereignty and the democratic order.

The decrease in the importance of elections in the discussion on impeachment and the judicial alignment against the Dilma Rousseff government are the main characteristics of this situation and are accentuated with the election of Jair Bolsonaro. His victory adds an element to this situation that reinforces the pendulum thesis itself, the open attack on other democratic institutions such as Congress and the STF. We thus have all the ingredients for a democratic regression. Institutions corroding from within and attacking each other are the biggest sign of this crisis. For the pendulum to stop regressing, the main institutions need to return to operating within their normal limits, that is, in a structure of division of powers in which each one of them does not feel strong because it has taken power from another or managed to abuse its prerogatives more efficiently. Only then will it be possible to stop the pendulum of democratic regression

*Leonardo Avritzer is professor of political science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

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