Toggle high contrast

The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

Bolsonaro shows what can happen when a far-right leader is able to take power. While, as we have shown, the situation in Brazil grew from specific circumstances and conditions, there is also a universal truth: in power, such leaders attack workers’ rights, and draw on racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric to support their cause, with devastating consequences for working people.

Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018 was one of the most significant moments in the spread of the global far-right that swept the world during the 2010s. Bolsonaro was perhaps the most right-wing president ever elected in a major democracy, and, despite his extremism, he could count on having like-minded or similarly authoritarian leaders across the world: most notably, Donald Trump in the US, but also in Colombia, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.

However, the victory of the far-right is not inevitable. Following years of economic crisis, the region has seen a series of left-wing victories, including Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Peru. It has also seen a recent upsurge in mobilisation and protest, with trade unions at its heart. In Chile, huge street protests led to a referendum on replacing the country’s own dictatorship-era constitution, with a resounding yes vote. Colombia has witnessed unprecedented mass demonstrations in recent months, which have brought huge numbers of people on to the streets despite a brutal and violent police response112  The return of Lula to the political scene and Bolsonaro’s declining popularity raises hopes that if there is a free and fair election in 2022, the far right could fall from power. The continued electoral strength of the PT, and the resurgence of the Latin American left in general, is indicative of three significant developments. Firstly, the Latin American right, with its commitment to neoliberal economic policy, often imposed alongside violence, has proved unable to either grow its popular support, or, crucially, to govern during a public health crisis. Secondly, despite a number of challenges including the use of lawfare, the left has been able to maintain a large part of its political base and still offers an alternative for the working peoples of the region. Finally, trade union and wider civil society have been capable of mobilising and resisting the onslaught against rights.

If Bolsonaro was elected at a time when the energy was on the political right, the current context is more uncertain. Bolsonaro placed great weight on his relationship with Donald Trump and instead of trying to forge ties with new US president Joe Biden, he has gone out of his way to antagonise him. He echoed Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and his sons and prominent backers openly supported the January 6 Capitol invasion.113  They have subsequently even attempted to mimic it with large demonstrations against the Supreme Court on 7 September 2021, Brazilian Independence Day. They are likely to make further attempts to destabilise and undermine Brazilian democracy as the November 2022 election approaches.

Precisely because of Bolsonaro’s declining political fortunes, there is a real risk of a military coup in Brazil. As explained earlier in this report, elements within the military and military police, have on numerous occasions indicated they may intervene to directly take power or prevent next year’s election from being free and fair. Bolsonaro has consistently made it clear he would try, if possible, to return the country to military rule. All democratic forces in Brazil and internationally should pay close attention to developments and be prepared to mobilise if necessary.

However, even if Bolsonaro is vanquished in next year’s election, it does not mean the political project he represents will die. Many of its elected officials will remain in office—including Bolsonaro’s sons—and its social base will persist. And they can rely on the growing internationalisation of the far right, in terms of mobilisation, shared narratives, targets, strategies, organisational networks and financing.114

The question also remains whether the military will return to the barracks now it has, once again, had a taste of political power. The damage done by the Bolsonaro government may take a generation to fix. If they are returned to power, the PT and Lula will again need the solidarity of the international workers’ movement to undertake this monumental project.

Part of this story is testament to the strength and resilience of progressive social forces in Brazil. Despite facing active opposition from the federal government, Brazil’s public health service has made remarkable progress with the country’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign. Trade unions, social movements and progressive parties have continued to fight in the face of political persecution and violence.  Brazil’s diverse working class has kept hope alive through one of the darkest periods in the country’s history. With the help of international solidarity for unions and their allies and global pressure to respect the outcome of the vote, Brazil may be free to remove its authoritarian leader via the ballot box next year and begin the huge task of rebuilding democracy and constructing a new project of social, economic and environmental justice.

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now