Top Brazil Judge Backs Protests Against Bolsonaro Authoritarianism
(Bloomberg) -- Protests that erupted in Brazil over the past two weekends are evidence of the resilience of the nation’s young democracy, and fundamental to shield it from President Jair Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies, according to a top court judge.
Gilmar Mendes, one of the longest-serving justices in the country’s top court, said congress and the judiciary provide counterbalances to presidential powers that are natural in any democracy, but they’ve been increasingly active during Bolsonaro’s administration because there have been more “provocations,” including threats to close down the institutions.
“We are tested all the time, and we have been responding well,” Mendes said during an interview at his office in Brasilia when asked whether he was worried about rhetorical attacks by the president and his supporters. Brazilian institutions “have shown resilience,” and society is awakening from a “certain state of numbness” to “react to this sort of provocation,” he added.
Bolsonaro’s office declined to comment.
Mendes, who was appointed during the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 2002, is one of the most vocal justices of a court that has not been shy about taking decisions seen by some as political, including stopping former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from running in the 2018 election. While justices often have heated disagreements during court sessions, rhetorical attacks from Bolsonaro and his allies have unified them in ways unseen in decades.
Among examples of recent checks and balances, Mendes cited congress’s refusal to approve Bolsonaro-supported bills that would greatly ease restrictions on owning and carrying guns, and, just two months ago, a top court’s decision to side with state governors who’ve been imposing restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Bolsonaro has repeatedly called on Brazilians to resume work and, in an April cabinet meeting, went so far as to say that citizens should carry guns to resist governors’ orders.
Brazilians took to the streets of the country’s largest cities for a second weekend in a row on June 7, carrying signs in defense of democracy and against racism, many encouraged by U.S. demonstrations that followed the death of George Floyd. Although they weren’t as large as the 2013 nationwide protests joined by millions of Brazilians, they were bigger than the weekends’ pro-government marches organized in some cities. Additional demonstrations are scheduled for June 14.
Bolsonaro won election in 2018 due in no small part to a fiery rhetorical style that resonated with many Brazilians who saw him as an anti-establishment, “tell it like it is” type of politician, but at the same time further polarized Brazilian politics and society.
More recently, he has been rallying his base against Supreme Court justices, who he accuses of overstepping their duties and curtailing his right to govern.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, increasingly relies on members of the military to govern, currently giving them 10 of 22 senior positions in his cabinet. He’s also suggested that the country’s military would stand with him if he were to disobey court orders.
Mendes described a meeting he had with Bolsonaro in March to discuss the need for more coordination among the states, federal government and the courts to fight the pandemic. He says he found a president who was extremely concerned about the post-pandemic economy, and possibly about his re-election chances.
“To me, he didn’t seem to be acting in bad faith. He came across as an anguished soul, a tortured soul,” he said.
Members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle, however, lack an understanding about the president’s role and believe his office should have nearly imperial powers, Mendes said. The president’s office declined to comment on that characterization.
Yet Mendes says he isn’t worried about an intervention in the democratic process, uninterrupted since the 1985 resumption of civilian government after more than 20 years of military rule.
“The military of this generation are democratic,” the judge said.
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