Bolsonaro Is Putting Brazil’s Democracy in Danger

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Already suffering from the world’s worst surge in coronavirus deaths, Brazil is now verging on political meltdown. Since late March, six members of President Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet and the heads of all three armed services have left office, raising fears that Bolsonaro, facing re-election next year, will exploit the crisis to tighten his grip on power. The possible unraveling of South America’s most populous country and the world’s fourth biggest democracy puts the onus on Bolsonaro’s opponents to offer Brazilians a credible alternative to populism.

Bolsonaro’s cabinet shakeup is a sign of his political vulnerability. His approval ratings have plummeted due to his handling of the pandemic, which has killed more people than in any country apart from the U.S. Mounting public debt forced the government to scale back its latest stimulus package, reducing direct payments to poor Brazilians and denting the president’s popularity even more. With lawmakers threatening impeachment over the government’s failure to contain the virus, Bolsonaro ousted his foreign minister, a right-wing loyalist who’d enraged members of Congress by bungling deals with foreign vaccine suppliers.

That firing may help to placate Bolsonaro’s critics, but unease persists about the president’s attempts to impose more control over Brazil’s military. Most alarming was the removal of defense minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a general who had vowed to keep the military out of politics — no small thing in a country ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. His successor, another general, is the president’s former chief of staff. The possibility that Bolsonaro might try to use the armed forces to intimidate his opponents caused the chiefs of the country’s army, navy and air force to resign. Bolsonaro will expect more loyalty from their replacements, as well as from the many retired and active-duty officers he’s placed in government positions. Bolsonaro and his allies have already warned of voter fraud in next year’s elections and hinted at a Jan. 6-style uprising if the result goes against them.

This prospect demands vigilance. The military’s new commanders should stress the independence of the armed forces and require officers to remain apolitical. Leaders of Brazil’s private sector have tolerated Bolsonaro’s mercurial governance up to now in exchange for market-oriented economic policies. They should speak out against further concentration of presidential power. The courts should ensure that Bolsonaro abide by the constitution, and block interference into ongoing investigations of alleged corruption by his associates and family members.

Above all, centrist forces must develop a compelling alternative to the populist extremes of Bolsonaro on the right and the far-left Workers’ Party of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. (Lula served more than 18 months in prison on corruption charges of his own.) In local elections last year, centrist parties swept mayorships in nearly every major city, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where voters soundly rejected the pro-Bolsonaro incumbent. At the national level, the centrist vote is divided among several prospective presidential candidates. To avoid a choice confined to the populist extremes, moderate parties need to unite behind a single contender.

Voters in democracies all over the world have gravitated to populism because of weak governance, economic insecurity, and technological and cultural change. The pandemic has accelerated the trend, with a recent U.S. intelligence report warning of more “political volatility, erosion of democracy and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance.” Political turmoil is to be expected in a country as large and diverse as Brazil, but Bolsonaro’s leadership has exacerbated its dysfunction, contributed to the spread of the coronavirus, and put economic recovery at home and across the region at risk. It’s up to Brazilians to choose a better path, but they aren’t the only ones with a stake in the outcome.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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