Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She publishes the newsletter Lucid on threats to democracy. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
“A new class of thieves has emerged who want to steal our freedom,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro thundered during a speech last June. The beleaguered leader, who has been trailing badly in recent polls ahead of Sunday’s election, went on to declare that “if necessary, we will go to war” against the offenders.
Who are these thieves Bolsonaro vows he’ll wage war against? Is he speaking about the white-collar and petty criminals he vowed to eradicate when he came to power in January 2019 on an anti-corruption platform?
No, like many other authoritarian politicians who risk being ejected from office, the Brazilian President is focusing on unsubstantiated election “crimes” – and casting doubt on the integrity of the election system, so as to be able to falsely claim fraud at the ballot box in the event of a loss.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Bolsonaro – who, like his peer, former US president Donald Trump, has taken political guidance from famed right-wing ideologue Steve Bannon – seeks to make Trump’s “Big Lie” strategy his own, as he faces off Sunday against the popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, candidate of the progressive Worker’s Party.
Trailing Lula, as his rival is known, by 13% in the polls, largely as a result of his incompetent performance as president and the allegations of corruption within his government and family, Bolsonaro appears compelled to seek an anti-democratic electoral solution to hold onto power.
Brazilians have good reason to feel disenchanted with how Bolsonaro has governed over the past four years.
After his negligent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was accused by a Brazilian Senate committee of “crimes against humanity.” His despoiling of Brazil’s precious Amazon rainforests made him even more deeply unpopular.
Through it all, his stock response has been to make Trump-like intimations of political violence if the elections don’t go his way. He even has gone so far as to proclaim that he will never relinquish the presidency alive.
But Brazilians, who know only too well what it means to lose their democratic rights, seem unpersuaded by his threats. Brazil endured more than 20 years of military dictatorship, (1964 - 1986) – a brutal, violent regime that Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, has repeatedly praised.
That harrowing experience with dictatorship explains the extraordinary efforts by civil organizations and opposition groups to ensure that the election system, which in Brazil is overseen by the federal electoral courts headed by a Supreme Electoral Tribunal, functions as it should on election day.
Another key goal of those who would safeguard Brazil’s democracy is to reassure voters that the election outcome will be fair. Since few strongmen can get away these days with outright banning elections, the challenge is to game the election system and destroy its credibility in voters’ eyes.
Congress rejected Bolsonaro’s quest for a return to paper ballots (Brazil’s electronic voting machines have repeatedly been judged fraud-free). Election officials, meanwhile, working with civic groups and technology experts created a “transparency commission” to spread best practices.
Business leaders and other influential people have made public pronouncements about the security of elections. Far from being a hotbed of election fraud, all of this makes Brazil a case study on efforts to counter the 21st century authoritarian playbook.
But there is a wild card: Brazil’s military.
Bolsonaro has given the armed forces more power than at any time since the dictatorship, staffing his government with a high number of military officials and appointing an army reserve general to lead Brazil’s state-owned energy conglomerate, Petrobras. As payback, and perhaps to advance its own anti-democratic agenda, the military has often supported Bolsonaro’s claims about Brazil’s dubious election system.
Who could forget the machinations of Trump loyalists after the 2020 election, with the then-President’s operatives and allies plotting to seize voting machines, and retired General Michael Flynn suggesting that the US military could declare martial law and “re-run” the election? Imagine how much greater the skepticism, if not outright apprehensiveness, about potential election interference by the military in a country like Brazil, where the generals have ruined democracy in the past.
And yet, for Sunday’s presidential balloting, Brazil’s armed forces will be involved in election security, making “spot checks” of hundreds of voting stations on election night of voting machines and comparing those results with the data sent to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Let’s hope that that is the extent of their participation in the election.
Military coups and anti-democratic actions, including in Brazil, have always been justified as “saving the country” from tyranny and corruption. We can all hope that Brazilians will repudiate a president who stands for the darkest and most violent period of its past.