WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP/Matias Delacroix

27 Oct 2022 | Commentary

Brazil Elections: ‘The Problem in Brazil is not Polarization but the Rise of Extremism’

The end of one of the most talked about political races of the year, one with potentially wide-ranging consequences for the largest economy in South America and beyond, is just around the corner. On Sunday October 30, Brazil will elect the country’s future President, choosing between the opposed visions of Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

We spoke with Camila Asano, Program Director of Conectas Human Rights and Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes and Brazil Director at WOLA, about the toxic environment in which the election is taking place, the impact of the rise of extremism and disinformation and what this all means for human rights and democracy across the Americas.

1. How would you describe the human rights situation in Brazil? 

Camila Asano (CA): We are facing one of the worst human rights crises of recent times. During the past four years, Bolsonaro has delivered on his campaign promises from 2018, including not formally returning Indigenous Peoples their land, but also further challenging Black people’s rights, Indigenous People’s rights and women’s rights. He has also pushed the Congress to adopt legislation that would dismantle the protection of the environment. 

He has worked to make legal what is illegal and unconstitutional in Brazil, including weakening accountability mechanisms for security forces when they commit abuses, what many have called a “license to kill.” He has also weakened monitoring bodies such as FUNAI, the foundation responsible for protecting and promoting Indigenous People’s rights, which had its budget slashed. His administration also undermined a fund meant to promote Black people’s culture in Brazil, which is now led by someone who does not recognize structural racism as an issue in the country. 

2. Bolsonaro seems to also have promoted polarization. How do you think that polarization affects democracy, particularly in the electoral context?

CA: Here in Brazil, we have been discussing the issue of polarization a lot, but the fact is that we are not dealing with two sides which can be compared: one side that promotes right-wing policies and another one, left-wing policies. What we have is one group that respects democratic rules, the Constitution, the electoral system, and another one who doesn’t. These are two sides which cannot be compared. 

Over the past four years, Bolsonaro has been systematically attacking democratic institutions like Congress and, more recently, the Supreme Court and the electoral system, saying they cannot be trusted, that he will not recognize the election results, all without any facts or evidence. This shows that the problem in Brazil is not polarization but the rise of extremism. And disinformation plays a big role in that, because it feeds all these extremists views. 

This is why the election is so crucial for the future of democracy in Brazil. All of the democratic guarantees that we agreed on as a country in 1988 are now on the line. 

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli (GSG): From the outside, what we see is a tremendous threat and debilitation of democratic institutions illustrated by the attacks against the judiciary, the electoral entities, a real closing of civic space that includes various forms of attacks against journalists and politicians, especially Black women at the local level.

Other issues that are not new but are clearly deteriorating include land rights of Indigenous and Quilombolas and police abuse, which disproportionately affects young Black men. Every 23 minutes the police kill a Black man in Brazil. All of this is happening against the backdrop of increasingly easy access to weapons and a public rhetoric that openly incites violence, racism and misogyny. 

In this context, the “other” is seen as the enemy, which is very worrying, and we are even seeing voices that are glorifying the country’s latest dictatorship, perhaps as a result of the fact that Brazil has not dealt with its past effectively. 

3. In a country like Brazil, with all its human rights challenges, how do you explain the level of support Bolsonaro has? What does it say about Brazil today?

CA: I see this as responding to a global trend across the world, just look at the U.S. There are many parallels to be drawn between Bolsonaro and Trump. I think these show it is time for societies to discuss what the role of institutionalized politics is and how human rights can be protected in that context. 

GSG: I totally agree with Camila that there are many parallels between Brazil and the U.S. here. Unfortunately, you are seeing, first, a rejection of traditional politics, which may have been what helped Bolsonaro secure power in the first place, with a lot of help from the rise of disinformation. All of that is similar to what happened in the U.S. when Trump was elected. 

People decide based on what they think may be better for their bottom line every day over whatever crazy thing the candidate is saying or, or other things that they might be doing, or even the idea of how that particular administration might affect other people’s human rights. 

People often feel that their needs are not being met and that they have no control over the economy anymore, and they somehow feel like maybe this strong person is going to come and save them. They think only of who will address their individual economic needs and not the hateful rhetoric against others or the erosion of civil liberties. 

4. This is made worse by the proliferation of weapons and ammunition in Brazil…

CA: Yes, you now have extremists who are armed. In Brazil we had a very good framework to control arms, but Bolsonaro issued a number of presidential decrees to make it easier for people to apply for a license to carry arms by registering as hunters, sports shooters or collectors. There’s data saying that the number of weapons circulating has risen exponentially

This kind of information is what makes us extremely concerned about what can happen on the day of the election itself, and afterwards. Bolsonaro is engaging the army in the elections beyond their traditional role helping with logistics. They have now announced they will carry out an alternative count of the votes, which is highly concerning in a context where one of the candidates already said he will not accept the results if they don’t go his way. It is also unconstitutional. 

5. All of these elements make for a very toxic political environment… How will it affect the results of the elections?

CA: Let’s say that Lula wins. First of all, it is likely to be by a very small margin, which will bring its own challenges. But the big problem arises if the defeated candidate does not recognize the election results, even though the electoral system is a strong one, as international observers confirmed. 

Bolsonaro is already trying to criminalize pollsters, by introducing a bill that would punish those who do not get the results right, even though polls are meant to provide an overall picture of the voters’ intentions. Many people say this is yet another distraction tactic. 

The other scenario is that if Bolsonaro loses, he doesn’t recognize the results, which is something he already said he would do. This will create instability, just look at what happened when Donald Trump didn’t recognize the results of the elections and then the attacks on the Capitol took place. 

This is why it is very important for the international community to follow this process closely and recognize the results once they are published on election day by the Brazilian Electoral Court, and to call for support of the system and the results. 

GSG: I agree. The role of the international community is absolutely crucial. What needs to happen is for the U.S. government, both the executive but also Congress to immediately state that they will back the electoral authorities. This is particularly important in the local context too, with the approaching midterm elections in the U.S. and some extreme candidates saying they will only accept the results depending on what those, which is very problematic. 

CA: This election is not only important for Brazilians, but it will have an impact beyond our borders. Brazil is one of the largest economies in Latin America, we also have the largest portion of the Amazon so the future of the climate is strongly linked to what happens here and the kind of leader we have.