Opinion: Bolsonaro follows in Trump’s footsteps by calling Brazil’s election into question

Editor’s note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” Publishes the Lucid newsletter on threats to democracy. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


“A new class of thieves has emerged who want to steal our freedom,” said Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in a speech last June. The embattled leader, who has fared poorly in recent polls ahead of Sunday’s election, declared that “if necessary, we will go to war” against criminals.

Who are these thieves that Bolsonaro vows to wage war on? Is he talking about the white-collar and petty criminals he vowed to eradicate when he came to power in January 2019 on an anti-corruption platform?

No, like many other authoritarian politicians at risk of being thrown out of office, Brazil’s president is focusing on baseless election “crimes” and questioning the integrity of the electoral system so that he can falsely allege ballot box fraud. in case of loss.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Bolsonaro – who, like his counterpart, former US President Donald Trump, has taken the political leadership of the famous right-wing ideologue Steve Bannon – wants to adopt Trump’s “Big Lie” strategy while confronting him. On Sunday, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the candidate of the progressive Workers’ Party against the popular ex-president.

Trailing Lula, as his rival is called, by 13% in the polls, due to his incompetence as president and allegations of corruption in his government and family, Bolsonaro seems forced to seek an anti-democratic electoral solution. to power

Brazilians have good reason to feel disenchanted with the way Bolsonaro has governed for the past four years.

After his careless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Brazilian Senate committee accused him of “crimes against humanity”. The destruction of Brazil’s precious Amazon rainforest made it even more popular.

To all of this, his response has been to engage in Trump-like indecisions about political violence if the election doesn’t go his way. He has even declared that he will not leave the presidency alive.

But Brazilians who know well what it means to lose their democratic rights have not been convinced by his threats. Brazil endured more than 20 years of military dictatorship (1964 – 1986) – a brutal and violent regime that former army captain Bolsonaro has repeatedly praised.

This harrowing experience with dictatorship explains how civil society organizations and opposition groups ensure the proper functioning of the electoral system, which is overseen by a federal electoral system presided over by a Supreme Electoral Court on election day.

Another main goal of those who would protect Brazilian democracy is to assure the voters that the election result will be fair. As the powerful few can get away with the banning of elections today, the challenge is to manipulate the electoral system and destroy its credibility with the electorate.

Congress rejected Bolsonaro’s demand to return to paper ballots (Brazil’s electronic voting machines have been judged to be fraud-free more than once). Electoral officials, working with civic groups and technology experts, created a “transparency committee” to disseminate best practices.

Business leaders and other influential people have made public statements about election security. Far from being the birthplace of electoral fraud, all this makes Brazil the 21st century. A case study of efforts to combat the authoritarian book of the 20th century.

But there is a wild card: the Brazilian military.

Bolsonaro has given the armed forces more power than at any time since the dictatorship, stocking his government with numerous military officials and appointing an army reserve general to lead Brazil’s state-owned energy conglomerate Petrobras. As a reprieve, and perhaps to advance his anti-democratic agenda, the military has often accepted Bolsonaro’s claims about Brazil’s questionable electoral system.

Who can forget a machine of Trump loyalists after the 2020 election, with operatives and allies of the then-president planning to take over voting machines, and retired general Michael Flynn suggesting that the US military could declare martial law and “re-run” the election? Imagine how much greater skepticism, if not outright fear, of potential election interference by the military is in a country like Brazil, where generals have corrupted democracy in the past.

And yet, for Sunday’s presidential vote, Brazil’s armed forces will be involved in election security, conducting “spot checks” of hundreds of polling stations on election night and comparing those results with data sent to the Supreme Electoral Court. Let’s hope that is the measure of their participation in the elections.

Military coups and anti-democratic actions, including in Brazil, have always been justified as “saving the country” from tyranny and corruption. We all hope that Brazilians will reject a president who defends the darkest and most violent era of their past.