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Brazil’s Elections Are No Example to Follow

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

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By Joseph Skinner

Following the election in Brazil, pundits are already idealizing the Brazilian democracy in the hopes of applying lessons to America in 2024. Yet Brazil’s democracy is suffering through the same lessons as much of the West in its escape from populism and is therefore no example to follow.


Only one man could save Brazil’s democracy from the scour of populism. That man should be in jail. Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva’s victory in Brazil’s presidential elections is a moral failure by voters who prefer a corrupt politician to a populist one. Furthermore, its clampdowns on free speech represent a dilemma in how to run an election and not the solution to it.

In October, Brazil elected former president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva once again to the helm, after a previous stint as president from 2003 to 2010. In a tightly contested runoff between da Silva and the incumbent ‘Trump of the tropics’ Jair Bolsonaro, Lula ran as a champion of the poor, promising to lift the working class.

The election was seen as a major test for democracy in the western hemisphere in the run-up to the 2024 US presidential elections. Jair Bolsonaro spent the months leading up to the election building a case to challenge a prospective defeat to da Silva, questioning the integrity of electoral institutions, and denouncing the voting system as fraudulent.

© The Economist

Pundits have swarmed to praise the outcomes of Brazil’s election; however, they have been far from positive. Once again, a populist rose to power four years before, and again a flawed left-wing candidate has taken his place as people scramble from all corners of the left-wing to vote under an ever larger tent representing ‘anything but populism’. Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

Instead of voting for a senile candidate, Brazilian voters have chosen a man who should be behind bars. Lula was indicted in 2014 as part of the “Lava Jato” (or Car Wash) scandal, an earthquake of revelations revealing a “bribes-for-political-access” scheme. In fact, da Silva was behind bars as recently as November of 2019, being released only over a matter of technicalities regarding judicial jurisdiction, and has not been retried since. Furthermore, in 2018, an appeals court unanimously upheld his sentence, even increasing it from nine to twelve years.

Why then have American pundits hailed this man as Brazil’s savior of democracy? Not only did Brazil fail to learn from American democracy, but it also fell victim to the same issue. Brazil has compromised its own democracy in fleeing so desperately from populism. In the USA, Biden does not represent the first choice of American voters, he represents the choice to leave populism at the cost of having a president who arguably lacks the mental fitness to be president. While the sequence of events in the USA might not undermine democracy, Brazil’s election results certainly do.

Not only has Brazil undermined fundamental tenets of its democracy in its struggle with populism, but it has also given heavy-handed power to its judicial system to police speech. Brazilian Supreme Court justice Alexandre de Moraes, serving as Brazil’s election chief, was granted unprecedented authority in dealing with misinformation, including the ability to suspend tech companies in Brazil if they refuse to comply with takedown orders within two hours. The power vested in Mr. de Moraes is unparalleled among democracies and allows for the abuse of power by the election chief.

© The New York Times

This unprecedented step presents another example of the willing erosion of democracy under the pressure of populism, not an example for others to follow. Even though the election chief might be aiding in the preservation of democracy right now, in a few election cycles the position can just as easily change tack because the appointed election chief has changed.

For the same reason monarchies don’t have power in the West anymore for risk of a lunatic ascending to a throne, the same should be recognized for any election chief. Democracy relies fundamentally on each position in government having checks and balances, and the creation of positions without these hastens the erosion of democracy.

Granted, some positives jumped on by pundits are an important step for democracy in the 21st century. Brazil is the only country in the world to have fully implemented electronic voting in full, intended to reduce the fraud that rocked the country’s elections after it emerged from dictatorship in 1985. This allowed every vote to be counted in less than three hours, compared to the months required in the USA, providing clarity in its results. However, in analyzing the successes of Brazil’s democracy, the failures should be equally addressed.

The bending of Brazil’s democracy under populism has shown that Brazil does not have the cure for democracies’ ailments. As western democracies struggle to shake free of the symptoms of populism, voters must ask themselves if they are so desperate to avoid populism as to sacrifice their democratic values. For 2024, the USA will have to look elsewhere for inspiration to maintain a healthy democracy.

Sources: NY Times, Civircus, The Economist, The National Democratic Institute

Written by Joseph Skinner

December 2022

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MJPE or its Board. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MJPE concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.

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