Written by Jacob Anderson & Laredo Loyd
Democratic crises are nothing new for Brazil, and previous examples provide plenty of cause for concern. Brazil declared itself an empire upon its independence in 1822 and would remain so until a military coup in 1889 established a corrupt military dictatorship, not unlike the Mexican Porfiriato. A revolution in 1930 brought populist strongman Getulio Vargas to power, who would rule with increasingly dictatorial powers until a coup in 1946 removed him from power. The period following was marked with instability and increasingly polarizing politics, though it was much more democratic. A military coup in 1964 established a dictatorship that would last through the mid-1980s. The end of the dictatorship was more gradual than many previous governmental transitions in Brazil, being marked by a political amnesty law in 1979, free national legislative elections in 1982, a presidential election in 1984 won by the civilian opposition, and a new constitution in 1988. Though the country has been democratic since then, political crises have continued. Beginning in 2014, a massive anti-corruption operation known as Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) exposed knee-buckling levels of corruption throughout Brazilian politics and business. The investigation ensnared dozens of politicians, including then-president Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, at the time one of the most popular presidents in Brazilian history. Furthermore, they inflamed existing tensions arising from economic conditions which began in 2013, which led to at the time the largest protests since the dictatorship. Anger related to this scandal was key in driving the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. Bolsonaro is a former army captain openly enamored with Donald Trump and who utilized many of the same tactics and espoused many of the same positions. The collapse of Bolsonaro’s popularity in advance of this October’s elections has led to the present crisis, wherein Bolsonaro has made overtures to the military in an attempt to keep himself in power in the event of an electoral loss, a loss which might well come to the notoriously corrupt Lula de Silva.
In order to understand the situation Brazil faces, as well as a roadmap of the future it could take, we compare it to Chile’s recent history and the example of what democratic integrity can look like even in the face of economic and social upheaval. It’s a possible future Brazil can hope to achieve if the institutional norms of Chile’s system can be pervasive in South America’s upcoming elections.
On February 12, 1818, Chile officially signed a document of independence from its colonial founders in Spain. Though the latter did not recognize this independence officially until 1844, Chile soon became one of South America’s stabler nations in the decades of independence wars that followed throughout the continent. With a few minor conflicts here and there, not unlike the stabilization of the United States that likewise took place through the 19th century, Chile, “…Enjoyed more than 130 years of stable government,” wrote historian Federico G. Gil. He continues, “Of all the republics in the southern hemisphere, Chile has perhaps the best record in Latin America’s continuing search for political stability… Chile’s record of legal continuity is impressive even when compared to that of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and other Western European nations.”
Chile today, despite a tumultuous 20th century, is a similar picture of sustainability, with the second-best Western Hemisphere ranking in The Fragile States Index, behind Canada and one above the United States. Low corruption, economic mobility, and one of the most globalized countries in South America: hallmarks of a society today that would have been difficult to perceive with the country in the 1970s. Since the 1930s, the country had experienced a swaying of policies between successful right-wing and left-wing candidates, and yet the democratic process had remained strong. Significant economic reforms by Salvador Allende, elected in 1970, caught the attention of American economic and anti-communist sentiments. Though debate surrounds whether the U.S. was directly involved in the 1973 coup that saw Augusto Pinochet take power, the Chilean military firmly installed a regime of notorious human rights abuses that would last for 15 years and soil decades of a proud democratic process.
With significant reforms in the 1980s, following the economic collapse in 1982, Pinochet was forced to step down. Chilean politics slowly returned to fluidity. The stabilization of their democracy rebounded with a considerable level of certainty not seen since their post-civil war era in the early 20th century. The most recent election, however, was different. Centrist parties dominated Chile in the decades after Pinochet, as would be suspected, guiding the overall state to stability amid economic prosperity despite downtowns, natural disasters, and questions of social equality.
Before delving into the shock of the most recent election itself, and what this means for Latin America, it’s important to understand the three tenets of Chile’s unique situation entering 2022 with a new president.
El Estallido social (The Social Outburst)
Low corruption doesn’t imply a lack of corruption, and in October of 2019, the state of disconnect between political elites and the general populace came to a head. Following a rise in public transport fees, protests in Santiago erupted and spilled over to all major urban areas of the country, with significantly more on the line than transportation fare. Social inequality, cost of living increases, and general government ambivalence towards the electoral populace drove the protests to violent means, with a state of emergency declared and the resulting government suppression eerily reminiscent of the Pinochet regime. Many urban areas in Chile, South America’s richest and most stable country, remain in disrepair today. However, 1.2 million people marched in the streets of Santiago on October 19, 2019, deemed Chile’s biggest march and a significant departure to peaceful protest from the previous days’ upheaval. These events did lead to significant reforms declared by then-President Sebastián Piñera, dubbed “The New Social Agenda” and included changes in policies from energy to healthcare. Yet, these were seen by many as insufficient even by those in his own party, and his conservative policies in the face of social reform, as well as alleged human rights abuses in his repression at the height of the protests, damaged hopes for respected governance during the remainder of his term.
The Covid-19 Pandemic
In a stroke of fate for Piñera, or still a sign of his continued bad luck during a tumultuous decade at the helm of Chilean politics, the Covid-19 pandemic descended on Chile and brought the protests to a halt. More than this, the pandemic brought Chilean GDP to its lowest in decades, and the economic impact felt by the populace was reflected in their opinion of Piñera’s policies in mitigating it, which many saw as paling in comparison to actual public need. The government lacked consensus with medical professionals throughout the country, and Piñera’s own cabinet was shuffled repeatedly. Social upheaval in the previous months, coupled with economic disparity as a result of the pandemic, resulted in the protests reigniting briefly in May of 2020, then sporadically throughout the rest of the year and into 2021. Despite a high inoculation rate and a fairly successful handling of the virus, how the country emerges from the pandemic economically will remain in question.
The New Constitution
On October 25, 2019, the Chilean national plebiscite was held in response to a government move to draft a new constitution in the wake of the aforementioned protests. Fueled by long-awaited social and political changes, and coupled with the knowledge that the current constitution was drafted during the Pinochet regime, 78% of the populace voted to approve drafting a new constitution, with 79% then voting that it should be decided by a constitutional convention. The convention, delayed by the pandemic, now sits in the hands of now-President Gabriel Boric. The convention members were approved in May of 2021, and now the new constitution, yet to be drafted and with a myriad of issues to consider, must be approved by a third plebiscite no later than September of 2022.
This brings us to today, where the 35-year-old Boric has just won an election in a manner unprecedented in the view of the past two decades’ global rise in nationalism. Centrist candidates didn’t manage to make the second round of presidential voting, leading to a battle in December of 2021 between Boric of the Apruebo Dignidad coalition (a merger of left to far left coalitions) and José Antonio Kast of the Republican Party and Christian Social Front (Chile’s traditionalist and conservative wings). Boric championed many of the ideas at the helm of the 2019 protests, from dramatic economic reform to instituting a new form of social democracy likened to European models (not far from the pillars of Allende’s rise to the presidency). Kast, on the other hand, drew comparisons to Brazil’s Bolsonaro and the U.S.’s Donald Trump for his rhetoric. The verbage was tied to that of Pinochet, probably due to Kast’s defense of the former dictator’s policies, claims that Pinochet would vote for him today, and a statement declaring the election a choice between “communism and liberty.”
The election’s obvious polarity saw similar roots and outcomes in Brazil’s 2013 protests, largely against inequality and yielding the election of an outsider candidate in Bolsonaro. Yet, Chile had decades of free-market expansion and largely centrist policies after the turbulence of the Pinochet regime, and now the equality of the economy was in question, and centrist policies were thrown out the window. Here is where the outcome becomes interesting.
Whereas Brazil’s election saw a far-right autocrat emerge victorious, Boric was able to overturn Kast’s lead in the first round of elections and achieve victory with nearly 56% of the vote. The left-wing outsider, the youngest Chilean elected president, was elected by popular vote in the most polarized election in the country’s recent history. Eyes were towards South America, wondering if it would be a similar scenario as Bolsonaro’s rise in Brazil, or even if Kast would channel the same behavior of his idol, Trump, and fight the results.
Then, hours after the election was called in Boric’s favor, two pictures to the right illustrate the reality that reverberated in global politics. Not only did Kast concede within hours of the election call, congratulating Boric in a tweet after personally calling him, the incumbent president, notably right-wing though not as far as Kast, hosted Boric on national television. For now, it seems, Chile’s electoral institutions and preservation of democracy remain intact as ever, despite the uproar of the previous years’ protests, the pandemic’s economic and systemic effects, and even the looming importance of this election with regards to the writing of a new constitution.
The question remains, with so much on the line in the form of the new constitution, will Chile’s stability remain? Even more pressing, with multiple elections occurring in South America this year alone, can Chile’s election serve as a model of peaceful transition and democratic integrity regardless of unabashed polarity? There is no better case study than what will occur in Brazil this fall. Boric has already survived the case of whether Chile's post-social upheaval would face a fate similar to Brazil, and it offers a possible roadmap to the success of democratic institutions as he now faces a daunting task in steering Chile’s tumultuous future. The real concern is whether Brazil can survive a case of itself.
One way of looking at Brazil’s challenges, then, is through the lens of the Institutional Hypothesis as made famous by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Brazil’s present democracy has been around for roughly as long as Chile’s has, but its democratic roots are much shallower and weaker. While Chile was an effective and established democracy before the Pinochet regime, Brazil has only truly been both stable and democratic in its most recent incarnation. As a result, Brazil’s democratic institutions are weaker and have less importance to the Brazilian political identity. Instead, more immediate concerns such as personal and economic security may dominate the Brazilian body politic. The data on this is inconclusive. Latinobarometro polls show Brazilian support for democracy vacillating wildly from 2015 and 2020. By their measures, the broadest difference was between 2015 and 2016, where support for democracy went from 54% to 32%- a whopping 22 point difference. However, the same poll puts democratic support at 40% in 2020, a 6 point improvement over the previous year, and a Reuters poll in the same year put democratic support at a whopping 75%. This difficulty in ascertaining Brazilians’ true support for democracy is, in itself, useful for drawing at least one conclusion- neither a bet for nor against Brazilian democracy is a sure one. What, then, could be the outcome of this October’s elections?
The possible outcomes of the election are broad and widely varied, but here are three possibilities that seem more probable:
BOLSONARO LOSES BUT THE MILITARY STAYS APOLITICAL: While Bolsonaro has been attempting to make inroads into the military in the hopes of having a backup plan should he lose the election, it is not clear that this has had the desired effects. The dictatorship began its slow decline more than 40 years ago, meaning that most of the military--even much of the officer corps--has been raised in a democratic Brazil and trained as an apolitical force. Though Lula de Silva may be painted as a communist, this accusation loses some of its potency in a post-Cold War world where the “pink tide” has come, gone, and come again in Latin America, mostly without catastrophic effects (save for poor Venezuela). It seems more than likely, then, that there would not be enough support within the military to oppose a democratic election and take on the responsibility of running the country themselves. Another crucial difference would be the position the US would take this time around. While the 1964 coup was supported by the US to prevent the spread of communism, a coup in 2022 would be counter to American interests both at home and abroad, and against the interests of the Biden administration in particular. As a result, the US would not support a Bolsonaro regime that relies on military force for legitimacy, and would likely play a lead role in developing international opposition to such a government. Lacking military support, Bolsonaro may attempt a January 6-like insurrection by his supporters. Whether this would be successful or not in the short run is difficult to say, but an apolitical military and the Brazilian public’s established willingness to protest makes its long-term success doubtful regardless.
BOLSONARO WINS A DISPUTED REELECTION: Despite his weak polling numbers, it is by no measure impossible that Bolsonaro could win reelection. Such an event, however, would likely be highly controversial, and contribute to worsening social division in Brazil and distrust of government. Bolsonaro would then arguably be dispossessed of any democratic mandate and would have to rely on dealmaking and coalitions to advance any legislative agendas, something the notoriously combative and uncouth president is likely to find difficult. At best, this leaves the federal government largely ineffective for the next few years, further eroding Brazilians’ confidence in their government’s ability to provide essential services and leadership. It may also leave Bolsonaro open to legal prosecution for his culpability in the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, and the process of investigating, trying, and-if found guilty of criminal neglect or some such charge-removing him from office will be even more deeply acrimonious than his reelection would be.
THE MILITARY DECIDES TO BE THE THIRD OPTION: Despite the aforementioned difficulties with reestablishing military rule in Brazil, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the military will see an election between an ignorant populist and a demonstrably corrupt leftist to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario and decide it would be best for the country if neither wins the presidency. This would face all of the issues mentioned in Scenario 1-weak internal support and institutional knowledge, international condemnation led by the US, etc.-but would at least be seen as being nonpartisan. With domestic support for democracy difficult to assess, the military could claim to be taking drastic measures at a time of national crisis to shepherd the country and help root out corruption within Brazilian democracy. This could potentially provide them with enough legitimacy to ride out any initial protests. It would be an open question, however, to what degree the military would want to stay in charge, what the transition back to democracy would look like, or what the military’s politics would be while it was in charge. While there does not appear to be much support for dictatorship in Brazil, frustrations with corruption and ineffectiveness and the polarized state of Brazilian society may prevent an effective democratic opposition from quickly taking shape.