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A Bolsonaro supporter holds two signs shaped like handguns at rally

A man holds two signals in the shape of a gun during a pro-gun demonstration in support of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, on July 9, 2021. (Photo: Sergio Lima /AFP via Getty Images)

What Brazil's Upcoming Election Tells Us About Violence and Democracy

The danger for democracy is when groups see problem resolution and political expression as best done through the barrel of a gun. Bolsonaro has set the stage for violence and the world must be on guard.

Anthony Pahnke

When doing fieldwork for my book on Brazilian social movements in 2010, I heard many people express a kind of qualified support for the outgoing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration.   

Lofty goals, from eradicating hunger, to challenging US-backed free-market reforms, propelled the former steelworker and labor leader into power when first elected in 2002.  Not dashing such hopes, his government performed well over two consecutive terms, cutting extreme poverty, halting the destruction of the Amazon, and overseeing eight continuous years of economic growth, despite serving while an extensive vote-buying scandal took place and his administration reaped the financial benefits of a commodity export boom that did nothing to oppose U.S. economic prescriptions.   

Even though Lula left power with a high approval rating, Brazilians were still seeking a leader to confront issues such as corruption.   

Bolsonaro has normalized violence in ways that are unhealthy for democracy. 

Fast forward to 2022, and Lula is again riding a wave of support in his bid to serve a third time as Brazil’s President. Elections are slated for October 2nd.    

This time, however, his support is based more on fear than hope. 

The source of this fear is Jair Bolsonaro, the rightwing incumbent, who since winning the Presidential election in 2018, has normalized violence in ways that are unhealthy for democracy. 

For instance, Bolsonaro has praised the Brazilian military dictatorship that tortured and disappeared leftists when in power from 1964 to 1985.  Legislatively, he has supported efforts to liberalize gun ownershipOpenly ridiculing LGBTQ+ Brazilians has also been part of Bolsonaro’s vitriolic communication practices. Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s first openly gay congressperson, resigned from Congress and fled the country in 2019 after receiving death threats from Bolsonaro supporters. Meanwhile, over the past four years, the right-wing politician’s adherents have routinely practiced politically-motivated violence to intimidate opponents. 

Bolsonaro did not make Brazil violent, as much as stoke existing anxieties and divisions.   

For instance, armed confrontations between gangs of armed drug traffickers have been a problem in the country for decades. The police, facing such problems, often resorted to torture and killing, especially of lower-income, Afro-Brazilians who live in the urban periphery. Middle-class Brazilians sought to protect themselves by contracting private security forces in their neighborhoods and for their businesses. Bolsonaro counted on their support in 2018. 

Brazil’s economic elite, who back Bolsonaro due to his privatization agenda and lax enforcement of environmental laws in the Amazon, have historically used violence to forward their interests.   

Large landowners specifically have killed social movement activists who stood in the way of their economic agendas.  High profile killings include the labor organizer, Chico Mendes in 1988, as well as the American nun, Dorothy Stang, in 2005.   

Blaming the left not only for political reaons but for what he sees as cultural corruption, Bolsonaro received support in his bid for the presidency in 2018 from Brazil’s growing Evangelical Christian community. Upwards of 1/3 of the country’s population as of 2022, 70% Evangelicals voted for Bolsonaro in 2018.  Despite seeing his support among this religious group drop, many still see him as tough on crime, a supporter of traditional family values, and dedicated to rooting out corruption.   

Bolsonaro became an outspoken figure concerning corruption during the impeachment, and subsequent removal of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff in 2016. In uncovering the largest corruption scandal in Brazilian history, Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato), discovered a system of kickbacks between Brazilian politicians and officials in the state-run oil company, Petrobras.  Never finding evidence tying Dilma to the scandal did not stop Bolsonaro from doing so, leading to her ouster as he portrayed himself as a crusader for law and order.   

Overall, Bolsonaro’s initiatives have not succeeded. Corruption has worsened since 2018, with Bolsonaro himself under investigation, as members of his cabinet have been arrested for graft. The country’s murder rate has fallen, but this trend began before taking power, and is attributed to drug gang professionalization and information-sharing between police forces.  Furthermore, many grew disaffected with Bolsonaro’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Brazil experiencing the second highest number of deaths in absolute terms. 

The other issue is with the normalization of violence within Brazilian society. 

Democracy is built on controlled conflict, that is, parties compete with one another for power in elections. The deal among participants is that winners take power, as losers agree to try again later. 

When violence in addition to the ballot becomes a tool to seek power, the agreement between competitors breaks down. If violence is normalized enough, then the actions of politicians are mirrored by their supporters. 

Such dynamics are currently on display in the US. Here, Trump’s vitriolic, violent rhetoric on the campaign trail and throughout his time in power played no small part surrounding the events that took place in Charlottesville in 2017 and motivating people to take part in the January 6th insurrection.   

In Brazil, the political violence has a much deeper history. Those that support its use, also, are more prevalent in civil society. Those in Bolsonaro’s camp are quite comfortable with its use.   

The danger for democracy is not the prospect of a potential military coup, however unlikely, in the event of a Bolsonaro loss. The deeper problem is if groups see problem resolution and political expression as best done through the barrel of a gun, instead of by means of discussion.  Returning Lula to power through a legitimate electoral victory may not resolve Brazil’s long, troubled history with violence.  But in blocking Bolsonaro from returning to office, Lula’s return will give Brazilian society some space to heal and move forward.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Anthony Pahnke

Anthony Pahnke

Anthony Pahnke is the Vice-President of the Family Farm Defenders, anthonypahnke@sfsu.edu.

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