Latin America Advisor

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Will Bolsonaro Try to Stay in Power if He Loses Next Year?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose approval ratings have fallen, has leveled unsubstantited claims of fraud in the country’s electoral system. // File Photo: Brazilian Government.

Brazil’s Senate and Supreme Court last week rejected a provisional measure by President Jair Bolsonaro to ban social media companies from deleting some content. Bolsonaro’s temporary order would have required congressional approval to become law. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are among the companies that have previously deleted misinformation that Bolsonaro has posted on topics including the Covid-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro’s social media measure came amid his feud with the Supreme Court, which is investigating the president and two of his sons, and with electoral authorities over Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in Brazil’s voting system. Are there real concerns about the reliability of Brazil’s elections, or is Bolsonaro setting up an effort to challenge the results in the event that he loses next year? What will result from his allegations in terms of Brazilians’ acceptance of the eventual winner? Will Bolsonaro’s failed social media order have any lasting effects?

Mariana Giorgetti Valente, director of InternetLab: “There is no evidence whatsoever of fraud in Brazil’s voting system, and claims otherwise are unsubstantiated, aim to create more political distress and set the stage for questioning the results of next year’s election in case Bolsonaro loses. Bolsonaro’s strategy has been to put democratic institutions to the test, and questioning the voting system itself is one of the many attempts to create instability and organize a base of radical supporters for future actions. His strategy regarding social media is very aligned with that more general strategy. During his presidency, Bolsonaro and his political allies have fed the narrative that social media is trying to censor their legitimate political views. The provisional measure on content moderation might have been an effort to avoid having his content taken down for violating terms of service and gaining more space for anti-democratic actions. It could also have been part of a larger strategy of creating chaos and distrust, using it as a future argument when social media punishes other violations. It could as well be both. Even if we consider that Bolsonaro lost his first attempt—which is still early to say, since the measure might come back in a new guise—the second involves a slow process that is definitely ongoing.

Raúl Echeberría, executive director of the Latin American Internet Association (ALAI): ““While it’s very good news that Bolsonaro’s provisional measure was invalidated, the discussion is not necessarily over. Bolsonaro’s provisional measure tried to prohibit platforms from having their own policies for dealing with content that their users publish. We have already seen similar proposals in other countries that, under the supposed objective of protecting freedom of expression, would produce exactly the opposite effect, reducing the platforms’ ability to limit content that pollutes the digital environment and the quality of public debate (such as through disseminating fake news and hate speech and encouraging gender violence). We must learn some lessons from this case. Evidence-based discussions and the participation of all stakeholders are key to avoiding unintended consequences of digital policies. Platforms have to be transparent about their policies, procedures and their resolutions, but limiting their flexibility to have those policies will only contribute to a more unsafe Internet. Policy issues that by their nature are clearly cross-border issues need to be considered and addressed internationally. Isolated measures are not the solution and risk fragmenting the Internet. The open, participatory and multistakeholder characteristics of Internet governance are key values that must be protected and preserved.

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Bolsonaro is no great fan of democracy. He views two decades of military rule, 1964-1985, as the best of times ever for Brazil. Nor does he have much interest in governing. He has failed to accomplish, even seriously pursue, his campaign promises of three years ago. Economic reform has stalled, while corruption and violent crime remain rampant. Despite Bolsonaro’s chumminess with Donald Trump, nothing much changed in U.S.-Brazilian relations, which today are at a standstill. Brazil’s management of the pandemic is considered to be among the world’s worst. With presidential elections in October 2022, Bolsonaro’s only objective now is holding on to power. But with sagging poll numbers and a widening gap with front-runner Lula, his re-election chances are slipping away. His biggest obstacle may be Brazil’s ailing economy with sky-high unemployment, ballooning poverty, accelerating inflation and vicious droughts threatening food and energy supplies–all compounded by Covid-19 and global economic uncertainty. Warning that he will not accept an electoral loss, Bolsonaro has begun to test the alternative of openly confronting democratic institutions, so far focusing his intimidation on the Supreme Court with threats to ignore its decisions and replace justices he disapproves of. He is also mobilizing his core supporters, who massed in large numbers in Brasília, São Paulo and other major cities on Sept. 7, the nation’s independence day. They declared allegiance to Bolsonaro, demonstrated their belligerency and appear ready to be unleashed to do whatever he asks. Bolsonaro could well disrupt the operation of critical institutions and longstanding norms, and provoke disorder across the country, leaving a political mess in his wake. A critical unanswered question is about the role of the Brazilian military in a situation of instability and turmoil. Might Brazil’s military leaders agree to extending Bolsonaro’s presidency to restore order? Or will they, whatever the circumstances, stand fast to preserve Brazilian democracy?”

Alberto Pfeifer, coordinator of the Group for the Analysis of International Conjuncture (GACInt) at the University of São Paulo: “Brazil’s direct electronic recording (DRE) ballot box was first used in 1996. Reliable and effective, it’s nevertheless up for improvements and updates: technology has evolved, and new vulnerabilities abound. Redundant layers of verification and safety will strengthen confidence in the handling of around one billion votes in October 2022—every four years, Brazilians mandatorily pick the president, state governors and three to four local and federal legislators in one single visit to the voting station. The whole process is quick and trustworthy, but some recent breakdowns justify extra caution. The Electoral Supreme Court recently installed an Electoral Transparency Commission, composed of high-level public servants and acknowledged experts, entitled to monitor, oversee and audit the whole electoral process. Bolsonaro, a proactive politician, can claim a partial victory on this issue. However, the root cause for the recent massive street demonstrations was a cold calculation about 2022. For a smooth second term, he needs full support from the Senate, a third of whose seats are up for election. Bolsonaro’s recent moves aim to counter the left and strengthen state-level alliances, and then reap the most Senate seats possible. Bolsonaro is a master in playing with instincts and rationale. His social media order follows this same pattern and aims at achieving two goals: it caters to his electorate, and it keeps the issue of tech censorship versus freedom of speech at the top of public debate. Again, a balanced combination of guts and brains—Bolsonaro’s successful formula, so far.

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues, head of the graduate program in international relations at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil: “President Bolsonaro is clearly trying to deconstruct Brazil’s democracy for his benefit. To do this, he repeatedly defies core political institutions, regardless of their importance in Brazil’s political system. His far-right ideological project has evolved in more than two years to become an authoritarian political project that has faced strong resistance from the Supreme Court and, at some points, from Congress. Social media has played a central role in this strategy, which includes massive amounts of fake news produced by a digital militia that is fueled by the so-called ‘hate office’ managed by Bolsonaro’s sons and advised by Donald Trump’s collaborators. Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes has investigated these suspicious acts, and Bolsonaro and his sons have designated him their main enemy. In this context, the order that Bolsonaro signed has two main objectives: stopping this digital militia from being controlled and paving the way for his main objective of contesting next year’s election in the event that he loses, opening the door for a coup. Even the attorney general, who is close to Bolsonaro, declared the order unconstitutional. In the end, both the Senate president’s rejection of the decree and Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber’s decision to suspend it have protected Congress’ jurisdiction in this matter.

Lucas Fernandes, political analysis coordinator at BMJ Consultores Associados: “When President Bolsonaro issued the provisional measure on the eve of the demonstrations with anti-democratic agendas, he was aware it would be poorly received. The harsh action that the Senate president took can be seen as a sign of the unsteady relationship between the presidential palace and Congress. Many presidents have had provisional measures rejected by Congress, but this was only the fifth time since re-democratization that a measure of this nature was returned without going through deliberation in Congress. Bolsonaro is the only president who has had two provisional measures overturned in this way, and he is expected to use it to reinforce his ‘outsider persecuted by the establishment’ narrative. Bolsonaro’s accusations of fraud in the Brazilian electoral system are based on the same strategy. Despite numerous proofs of the reliability and auditability of electronic ballot boxes, Bolsonaro’s attacks boost the engagement of the president’s supporters, who currently make up 23 percent of the electorate. By maintaining this level of support, Bolsonaro can shield himself from impeachment proceedings. Nevertheless, with rising inflation, slow economic recovery and possible shortages caused by the water crisis, Bolsonaro is unlikely to be re-elected, and he is expected to contest the results in much the same way as Donald Trump did. However, as occurred in the United States, the chances that this will affect the transition of power in January 2023 are remote.

[Editor’s note: The Advisor requested a commentary from Brazil’s ambassador to the United States and its foreign ministry and was referred to the Brazilian president’s communications office, which did not respond to a request for a commentary.]

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