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The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Introduction: The fall and rise of authoritarianism in Brazil

This report assesses the threats facing Brazilian democracy at the most difficult and dangerous moment for the country since re-democratisation. Bolsonaro’s government has attacked democratic institutions, workers’ and human rights, and environmental protections. Women, Black, Indigenous and LGBT+ Brazilians, all of whom achieved important victories in their struggles for rights during the early years of the century, have faced a vicious backlash. But this challenging context is giving rise to new forms of resistance, and to new alliances between workers and historically oppressed groups committed to building a brighter future for Brazil.

Today’s Brazil provides a dramatic example of the popular authoritarianism that has, over the past decade, reshaped the political landscape of from the United States to India. Brazil’s new right, which propelled Jair Bolsonaro to power, has gained support and influence by posing a radical challenge to progressive social institutions established since the country’s return to democracy in 1985. It was Bolsonaro’s previous failure to achieve political prominence that now allowed him to become a symbol of identification for many Brazilians, disillusioned with their diminishing prospects and distanced from the political establishment. However, his politics emerged from the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 until 1985. Considered an extremist even during the years of military rule, Bolsonaro, who took office at the beginning of 2019, now promotes the destruction of Brazil’s fragile social state, as well as its natural environment. And he incites violence against those he considers internal enemies – those at the forefront of progressive politics in Brazil today: workers, trade unionists, environmentalists, feminists, Black and Indigenous activists, members of the LGBT+ community, those engaged in historic struggles for rights and social change.1  
This chapter explores Brazil’s post-dictatorship democracy, and how the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent imprisonment and disqualification from political office of former President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) under the discredited Lavo Jato anti-corruption investigation, set the conditions for a full-scale attack on social progress in Brazil.

Bolsonaro in power

The long-term damage that the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the imprisonment of Lula and the election of a proto-authoritarian president have inflicted on Brazilian democracy and on workers’ rights is hard to calculate, but it is certainly severe. More immediately, Bolsonaro’s government has had devastating effects for the health and wellbeing of Brazil’s population and natural environment. By deliberately undermining the frontline health response during to the Covid-19 pandemic, and promoting a culture of denialism, Bolsonaro is responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess deaths.2 He initially attempted to stoke opposition to vaccines, promoting unproven ‘pre-emptive’ treatments instead, before opportunistically claiming credit for the country’s vaccination programme.3  Meanwhile, his role in accelerating the destruction of the Amazon rainforest over the last three years represents an equally dire threat. 

Brazil’s armed forces have played a key role in Bolsonaro’s rise and in his government. In the run-up to the 2018 election, senior members of the armed forces overtly sought to boost Bolsonaro’s candidacy and undermine his opponents.4 Bolsonaro’s government comprises more than 6,000 military personnel – significantly more than at any point under the military dictatorship. Many members of the armed forces are directly implicated in the government’s crimes, including the accelerated destruction of the Amazon and the corrupt and negligent handling of the pandemic.5  Bolsonaro’s government therefore represents a remilitarisation of Brazil in a very literal sense, even if their association with it may ultimately harm the image of the armed forces.

At time of writing, Bolsonaro still maintains a substantial, if declining support base. As demonstrated on 7 September 2021, he and his most zealous supporters have the capacity to mobilise large demonstrations and intimidate opponents. But the end of emergency payments to informal workers during the pandemic, the huge death toll from Covid, and revelations of corruption have contributed to a substantial drop in his approval rating over the last year. 

Meanwhile, in March 2021, in a dramatic about-turn, the Supreme Court restored Lula’s political rights, opening a path for him to run for the presidency once again in 2022. Polling from September 2021, by Datafolha, has projected that Lula would defeat Bolsonaro in a landslide second round victory. But, with Bolsonaro regularly hinting at the possibility of an ‘auto-coup’ and questioning the credibility of Brazil’s electronic voting system, it is far from clear that there will be a ‘free and fair’ election in 2022. Moreover, even if Lula wins and is able to return to office, he will face significant challenges in redressing the structural weaknesses of the Brazilian economy and the deep fractures in Brazilian society. 

  • 1 Human Rights Watch, “Brazil Bolsonaro Threatens Democratic Rule”, September 15, 2021
  • 2 Harris, B, “Brazil Covid inquiry set to recommend indictment of Jair Bolsonaro”, The Financial Times, 15 October 2021
  • 3 Hennigan, T, “Bolsonaro looks to be working against a vaccination programme for selfish reasons”, The Irish Times, Sunday, December 13, 2020
  • 4 Harig, C, “Militarisation by Popular Demand?”, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 2021
  • 5 Benites, A, “Pazuello pode responder a três processos criminais e um cível por depoimento na CPI”, EL Pais, March 20, 2021
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