Brazil’s path to illiberal populism

29 December 2020

COVID-19 might strengthen the shift towards illiberal populism underway in Brazil

Paula Gomes Moreira

The period between 1974 to 2005 was marked by an increasing number of states becoming democratic for the first time. However, from around 2006 this scenario began to change, with a movement away from democratic principles in many countries that persists until now. In the last five years especially, not only have average levels of freedom been in decline in many places, but democratic breakdown has also been accelerating, as we discuss in this short piece.

Democratic regression is highly visible even across the G-20 countries, including some of the most populous countries in the world. The principal characteristic of this phenomenon typically begins to consolidate with the election of a populist chief executive who gradually weakens institutional checks and balances, political opposition, independent media and other sources of resistance in civil society.

Nowadays, only six of the fifteen most populous countries in the world are considered to be democracies, namely: India, the United States, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and Brazil. However, when faced with factors including:  growing international pressure to protect the Brazilian Amazon rainforest from destruction, the growing scale of military personnel holding strategic positions within the government’s ministries and the unreliable disclosure of statistics relating to the spread of Covid-19 infection and mortality rates in the country, it is fair to debate whether Brazil currently maintains its status as a full democracy, as can be seen in the most recent results from various international organisations, indices and reports.

Firstly, the latest edition of the Freedom House Freedom in the World annual report, which analyses and compares access to political rights and civil liberties around the world across a number of different categories, including as regards electoral processes, freedom of expression and the rule of law. According to Freedom House, the status of a country or territory depends on its aggregate Political Rights score on a scale of 0-40 and its aggregate Civil Liberties score on a scale of 0-60. The total final score is the sum of the scores across these two categories.

When considering the data for Brazil over the last four years, it is clear that the country has been quite stable in terms of its score in political rights, and has seen a slight decline in its score relating to civil liberties and consequently its overall score.

Graph 1 – Freedom House’s data on Brazilian Political Rights, Civil Liberties and Total Score, 2017-2020*

Source: Freedom House, 2020.

According to this database, Brazil is still a free country, but it is notable that civil liberties are in decline, across topics such as the freedom and independence of the media, growing rates of intimidation and harassment by pro-government groups (particularly on social media), and regarding the increased rates and threats of violence directed at activists working to promote land rights and environmental protection issues.

According to Professor Larry Diamond ,this data shows that Brazil could be heading in an illiberal direction, according to Freedom House at least.

This tendency was also highlighted by the 2019 Economist Democracy Index (EDI) where Brazil was classified as a flawed democracy. In this study, the country did badly regarding political participation, putting it alongside countries such as Hungary, Israel and the United States. It is notable that these countries also provide clear inspiration for the current Brazilian government.

At the domestic level, it is worth mentioning the growing participation of members from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin), in ministries, non-governmental organisations and Civil Society Organizations, such as on the indigenous and environmental secretariats. These are both areas where the government has been facing national and international pressure to take meaningful action.

The same can be seen regarding foreign relation. To mention one case, in July 2018, when more than 160 nations approved by acclamation a Global Pact for Secure, Ordered and Regular Migration promoted by the United Nations, in Marrakesh, the Brazilian representative from the Ministry of Foreign Relations, announced that the government’s position was to withdraw the agreement the following year – notably, following the decision of the United States, Hungary, and Israel to not sign the document.  Nonetheless, according to EDI, by 2006, Brazil was ranked closer to full democracies, but by now it is perhaps best considered to be a hybrid regime.

Graph 2 – Decline of the Brazilian score in The Economist Democracy Index, from 2006 to 2019

Source: The Economist, 2020.

A recent report places Brazil in ‘the third wave of autocratisation’, based on characteristics such as the country’s toxic political polarisation,  , and the growth of political violence in the country. Notably, this tendency is also seen in other G20 states such as Russia and Turkey.

According to V-Dem, the Brazilian regime has not changed since 2009, and, despite being considered as one of in the world, together with the likes of Serbia and India, it remains an electoral democracy. The study also points to the undermining of media freedom and the curtailment of civil liberties as important turning points for its classification. Thus, based on this report, it is fair to conclude that early warnings of a change in the nature of the Brazilian regime were seen before the current far-right Brazilian populist president came to power in 2018.

But what does that mean? Firstly, it is worth pointing out that, from what can be seen in these reports, the Brazilian regime is not transitioning to a full democracy, or even into other forms of democracy, such as flawed or hybrid democracies, but it is in fact embracing illiberal populism. In other words, regimes that, despite their flaws, can maintain some democratic characteristics, such as free elections and competition between parties, this new populism is based on polarisation, the demonisation of minorities, the tendency to exalt the leader above all other democratic actors and a high preference for plebiscitary mechanisms such as referendums instead of deliberation.

Also, traditional studies of democracy have argued that a reverse wave would occur in which several countries that once were democracies, saw the emergence of populist leaders with a more personalist view of their term over the countries they govern. This is for example, the case of Brazil.

Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, many necessary actions designed to halt the spread of the virus have been politicised or have lacked transparency. This includes a dispute regarding the decision over which vaccine should be distributed to the population. At the same time, the federal government courted controversy after purchasing of a large amount of the chloroquine medicine from the United States to treat patients with Covid-19, despite there being no scientific evidence of its effects on the disease.

Thus, while Brazilian politics has long been immersed under a wave of illiberal populism, the pandemic has provided a catalyst for further changes which have contributed further to the lack of transparency in much of what the government does, and which might yet further strengthen the populist illiberal lurch underway in the country.