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Brazil's Besieged Democracy

Although Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has abandoned his previous campaign promises and woefully mismanaged the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has managed to give the country's generals, who last ruled in the 1980s, a fresh taste of power. The 2022 election will thus be a decisive moment for the country.

SÃO PAULO – A mere 36 years after its exit from dictatorship, Brazil is teetering at the brink of an authoritarian abyss. The year ahead will show whether the country’s still-young democratic institutions can withstand an all-out assault from a populist president who seems determined to remain in power by any means.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 owed much to a mobilization of right-wing groups demanding economic liberalization and to widespread alienation from the country’s traditional political parties and their chronic corruption scandals. During the election campaign, Bolsonaro built his political base by tapping these two sources of support while also availing himself of the backing of an important bureaucracy that had largely been keeping its nose out of politics: the military.

But Bolsonaro’s two campaign commitments – liberalizing the economy and fighting corruption – proved to be empty. In 2020, Sergio Moro, the star judge responsible for jailing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on corruption charges ahead of the 2018 election, resigned as Bolsonaro’s minister of justice. Moro was the key figure lending any credibility to Bolsonaro’s anti-corruption posturing. Since his departure, corruption scandals have engulfed Bolsonaro’s own family members, and Brazil’s famous “Car Wash” anti-corruption task force has been disbanded.

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