The tamed and the untameable: How the establishment is serving Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism

It is precisely this political framework, and plan to stay in power, that is often underestimated as amateurish and haphazard. Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro has maintained the approval…

It is precisely this political framework, and plan to stay in power, that is often underestimated as amateurish and haphazard. Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro has maintained the approval of about one third of the Brazilian population. While fluctuation occurs, this one third has proven particularly resilient in its support of the president throughout the different periods of his time in office so far. This base, although by no means homogenous or uniform, is particularly attracted to Bolsonaro due to his non-conventional and often inflammatory ‘politically incorrect’ style. As Nobre has suggested, Bolsonaro is really interested in keeping this base loyal, because with the approval of one third of the population he does not only shield himself against an impeachment process, but also guarantees good chances of reaching the second round in the next elections. Hence, while some of the president’s ‘extreme’ or authoritarian moves continue to be seen as unsustainable in the long term, they are precisely what appear to make his 2022 candidacy viable. And Bolsonaro sustains the support of the one third by attending to their demands and, not unfrequently, to their grievances.

Filipe Martins has described the government’s ‘ideological wing’ as the group that comprises the original and most loyal support base to Bolsonaro, one that remains true to the president’s proposals and values that garnered enthusiastic popular support in 2018. Belonging to this group – together with such figures as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, and the former Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub – Martins, with Bolsonaro, is defending the radical uprooting of all vestiges of the ‘leftist hegemony’ and a fierce fight against ‘globalism’. Their crusade only partly overlaps with Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric but it is essential for mobilising (at least part of) the one third and hence also crucial for Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project.

If far-right populisms are often described as political projects that surreptitiously erode democracy from within, Steve Bannon has openly spoken about the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’. The Brazilian government’s ‘ideological wing’ is envisioning a similar purge-and-rebirth process. And while this may be imagined as a project of national exorcism, it fundamentally challenges the very existence of a democratic project in Brazil – whether liberal or illiberal. The country is slowly drifting towards an anti-democratic regime and stakeholders allying themselves with the government are contributing to this drift.

Unlike what is often thought to be the case, Bolsonaro is an openly authoritarian leader who has never hidden his admiration for the military dictatorship (1964-1985) – the only ‘true democracy’ in Brazil’s recent history – or his resentment for the 1988 ‘leftist’ Constitution. When launching his candidacy for president, he side-lined his anti-democratic views and through key alliances with credible ‘guarantors’ of moderation, he won by a landslide. A notable example of this is the current Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes, who acted as the financial market’s guarantor in Bolsonaro’s future administration and conferred on him the support of voters more concerned with the government’s financial and economic policies. Guedes had admitted, in an interview to Malu Gaspar a month before the 2018 elections, that he would ‘tame’ the ‘crude, coarse guy’. Nearly two years later, it looks as if Bolsonaro is the one who ‘tamed’ Guedes instead.

Those who saw Bolsonaro defeated in the 2020 Municipal Elections are likely to see his agreements with the Centrão as a bitter compromise – and it may well be. But it is not a compromise that undermines his government nor one that will eventually moderate it or steer it towards a democratic path. As political scientist Flávia Biroli observed, the strengthening of Centrão parties in the municipal elections is likely to ultimately benefit Bolsonaro’s 2022 candidacy since they form the government’s support base in the two houses of Congress. If re-elected, the president will, in all likelihood, seek to consolidate his anti-democratic project.

Bolsonaro showed he never abandoned his authoritarian project when after participating in anti-constitutional protests that asked for military intervention and the closing of Congress and Supreme Court, he decided to go through with a coup d’état last May. And it appears that he would have done so if he weren’t deterred by the Head of the Institutional Security Cabinet, retired Army General Augusto Heleno, who convinced him that ‘it was not the time for this’.

There is little doubt that the incumbent government in Brazil has no real commitment to liberal democracy. In light of this, it is urgent to turn our attention to those who compact an alliance with it and hence foster its political project. For how long is the political establishment willing to turn a blind eye to Bolsonaro’s authoritarian plans? How far does Bolsonaro need to go in order to be considered a liability to democratic politics and not a prestigious partner? Or, to put it provocatively and schematically: Who is more threatening to Brazil’s democracy? Bolsonaro – an openly and unapologetically authoritarian politician-cum-populist leader or the Centrão – a party coalition always prioritising financial gains and positions of power over political agendas?


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