In 2018, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – commonly referred to as Lula – was convicted on charges of corruption and money laundering. The conviction, though it had validity, was strategic, and prevented Lula, the leading figure in his Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, or Workers’ Party), from running in the 2018 election. Jair Bolsonaro then won the election with 55 percent of the popular vote, running on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption, economically libertarian, and socially conservative platform. 

Since then, President Jair Bolsonaro has maintained a tight grip on power by quashing leftist movements and protests all across the country. To go along with this suppression of leftist mobilization, Bolsonaro has put a great deal of trust in the American model of police militarization and increased gun ownership. Bolsonaro is hoping that these moves will benefit him if Lula – now the leading contender for the 2022 federal election – were to defeat him at the ballot box come October 2nd, 2022. 

The Impact of the 2018 Election

To understand the context of this escalation, we must go back to the 2018 election. After a two-term presidency in Brazil from 2003 to 2010, Lula was publicly considered the most popular leader in Brazilian history. Although his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from office due to a controversial and blundering presidency, Lula rode on a large wave of public support and quickly became the front-runner in the election. However, federal judge Sérgio Moro quickly caught on. 

In 2014, Moro launched Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), a criminal investigation into corruption allegations against state-owned Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras, politicians, and business people all over the country. The prosecution investigated 429 individuals, resulting in 159 convictions and 429 indictments. Despite corruption allegations spanning the entire political spectrum, the overwhelming majority of those charged had links to the PT. The Operation was called a “witch hunt” by Lula who was convicted in the investigation for accepting 3.7 million reais (about 1.15 million US dollars) in bribes and sentenced to 9 years and 6 months in prison. Lula has since been released, and the charges have been annulled by the Brazilian Supreme Court. While some of the convictions in Operação Lava Jato had some merit, what they really did was show Moro, Bolsonaro, and other right-wing populist figures in Brazil that they could use the levers of power and Brazilian political and legal institutions to tear down any opposition. 

Throughout the investigation process, judicial foul play was blatant. Judge Moro, along with other right-wing politicians and judiciaries, was secretly instructing the state prosecutors on how to prosecute Lula through online messages. After Lula’s conviction, Bolsonaro then ran relatively unopposed; Fernando Haddad, who lacked public appeal, recognition, and support ran against him. Bolsonaro promptly rewarded Moro with a powerful post as Minister of Justice and Public Security. These electoral results manipulated the constitutional rights of millions of Brazilians and became a precedent for the Bolsonaro administration. 

Bolsonaro’s Campaign of Suppression

Since his electoral victory in 2018, Bolsonaro has taken every opportunity to stop civil society from organizing. Bolsonaro has concentrated his efforts on the northeast and other regions with strong PT support, repeatedly used intimidation tactics against left-wing parties and their electorate. He has also abused the 1969 National Security Law to jail and silence critics

In the Amazon, volunteer firefighting brigades have been disbanded by Bolsonaro, who baselessly accused them of starting the fires and blamed “environmentalists and Indigenous leaders.” The arrests of firefighters came despite fires ravaging the region. Bolsonaro has, therefore, used a variety of tactics to intimidate his opposition. 

Judicial Intimidation

Moro has repeatedly directed his Ministry of Justice and police to arrest activists, members of the media, and leftist political party members. These groups include the Periphery Revolution, who vandalized statues of infamous slaver Borba Gato in São Paulo; the protesters were charged with terrorism and denied their constitutional right to a fair trial. The label “terrorist” has been stuck to various other groups and individuals participating in civil disobedience exercises. The demonstrations have mainly occurred in the northeast where the PT’s home base is located, and the region is most associated with poverty and Brazilians of colour. 

In August 2021, Bolsonaro directed the military to hold a massive parade through the streets of Brasília – Brazil’s national capital – to drum up support for his newly-introduced authoritarian changes to Brazil’s voting laws. The laws would add hurdles to the way votes are cast, counted, and represented in government. Military parades have not taken place in Brazil since the country’s commitment to democracy in 1985, nearly 40 years ago. Five months prior to the parade, the President ordered the Air Force to perform a fly-over of the Supreme Court, shattering the windows during an important ruling. As a result, some of his generals resigned in protest. 

Cold War Tactics

Bolsonaro has repeatedly painted left-wing activists and journalists in Brazil as tied to authoritarian regimes across Latin America in an attempt to demonize them. In his 2019, 2020, and 2021 speeches before the United Nations General Assembly, Bolsonaro emphasized the foreign influence of the regimes of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela within Brazil, explicitly linking them to the PT and other left-wing organizations in the nation. His hardline anti-Communist stance and overt support for the old military dictatorship – which he helped consolidate as a Captain in the Brazilian Army in the 1970s and 1980s – has also threatened Brazilian democracy and rule of law. Bolsonaro’s ideology hints at a return to the Brazilian government of the Cold War, which was politically repressive, right-wing, and in close proximity to the United States government.

How Has Bolsonaro Enforced His Grip on Power

Bolsonaro’s opposition towards democracy is part of his strategy to defend his power if challenged. First, he has carefully chosen a devoted and powerful voting base. Strategically, Bolsonaro has adopted the Evangelicals, older generations, members of the military and law enforcement, and the predominantly rich and white population in the south as his electoral base. These demographic groups have lent unwavering support to Bolsonaro, resulting in a free flow of campaign donations. In return, Bolsonaro has appointed representatives of these communities to his cabinet and has promised to maintain this direction if re-elected in 2022. 

“A Gun in Every Home”

Secondly, Bolsonaro has drastically increased civilians’ ability to procure weapons for self-defence purposes. More recently, the Bolsonaro government has been following the US model of an armed citizenry by implementing a series of laws to increase gun ownership and authorizing the use of guns for self-defence purposes. As a result of these new laws, 200,000 licenses were issued to gun owners in 2019 alone, which is more than double that of the previous year. Prior to Bolsonaro’s tenure as president, the distribution of annual gun licenses was in the low thousands. An armed base of supporters could help Bolsonaro maintain his grip on power, as the threat of violent unrest could allow Bolsonaro to contest the election results, unchallenged. 

The final tactic employed by Bolsonaro to intimidate the electorate has been to appoint hardline military generals at all levels of government. Under Bolsonaro’s leadership, the military has become the fourth branch of government, completely under the president’s thumb. This new branch includes Vice President Hamilton Mourão, who has continuously praised the military dictatorship and anticipated a “scenario of chaos” that would warrant the return of the military dictatorship. Bolsonaro has himself hinted at challenging the results of the election were they not to be in his favour, a move borrowed from his northern ally, Donald Trump. 

Eroding Democratic Norms

All of these political, socio-economic, and judicial measures threaten the health of Brazilian democracy and its institutions. Furthermore, these measures tighten Bolsonaro’s grip on power. If the 2022 election were to bring unfavourable results, Bolsonaro could very well direct his supporters and government to contest the results or void them. On September 7th, 2021, Brazil’s independence day, Bolsonaro ordered his supporters to protest en masse across the country to show their unrelenting support for him and denounce allegations of potential voter fraud in the upcoming election. The event showed a January 6th-style violent popular demonstration against democracy in Brazil, or worse, a plausible response to a Bolsonaro defeat.

Where We Are Now 

As it turns out, the three front-runners for the 2022 election are former President Lula, incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, and Sérgio Moro, who defected from Bolsonaro’s cabinet after serving as Minister of Justice. Moro resigned as Minister of Justice in April 2020, displeased with Bolsonaro’s lack of commitment to fighting corruption. Bolsonaro allegedly prevented Moro from having free range on fighting corruption, given the Bolsonaro family’s long history of corruption. Bolsonaro and Moro have been engaging in frequent public spats, with Bolsonaro calling Moro a “liar” and a “clown” who “learned nothing”, and Moro responding that voting for Bolsonaro would be “suicide.” 

While vote-splitting between Moro and Bolsonaro could ensure Lula the victory this year, in theory, Brazil’s two-turn electoral system and the hurdles placed by Bolsonaro would surely complicate the task. Still, a Lula victory would be, at the very least, a marginal improvement in the currently catastrophic state of political affairs in Brazil. The Lula administration, when in power two decades ago, introduced various poverty-reduction programs, implemented reforms towards economic and political democracy, and reduced social, regional, and racial inequality in Brazil (Green and Skidmore 2021). This included the Bolsa Familia program, which was the largest government program to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger in the history of Brazil and cut extreme poverty by half in just its first five years. The Bolsa Familia program has since been gutted by the Bolsonaro government.

What was once a remarkable example of democracy not too long ago, compassionate progressive leadership, and rapid economic and technological development in Latin America has since plunged into fascistic governance nostalgic of one of Brazil’s most repressive and bloody periods. Whether the trend will be reversed or continued will be decided on October 2nd, 2022.

Edited by Bethlehem Samson and Chase Kelliher

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...