The state of democracy in Brazil – The fracture of inequality

Themed article

June 2013 started unremarkably in Brazil. A small wave of demonstrations against rises in public transport fares hit Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city. Workers’ Party Dilma Rousseff was riding on the political capital inherited from her predecessor, former metalworker and trade unionist Lula da Silva, registering an approval rate of 57 per cent (Folha de S. Paulo 2013).

But the marches quickly grew, broadening their agenda yet losing their political tone. By the end of the month, self-proclaimed apolitical groups mushroomed throughout the internet, wearing the Brazilian football jersey and directing their anger towards the national government. Simultaneously, unprecedented anti-corruption raids gained force and shook the centre of the Brazilian political establishment. Operation Car Wash uncovered bribes and money laundering throughout the public and private sectors and across the political spectrum. However, public outrage seemed to be directed at the Workers’ Party. 

Five years on, President Rousseff has been ousted by her conservative Vice-President. The charges against her in the impeachment process were centred on an accounting practice also used by her last two predecessors and by 17 of the country’s 27 state governors (Medeiros 2016). No one was ever incriminated on these practices before, nor will be in the future, as the legislation outlawing them has since been revoked. Moreover, either through unregulated campaign financing or coalition deals, much of the Brazilian political system runs outside of legal boundaries. Nearly every actor in the major political parties is, often unknowingly, somewhat involved in such practices, giving the police and judicial system unparalleled discretionary power. 

The routine of recent events in Brazil is almost farcical. Aside from the country’s first female president being re-elected on a relatively progressive agenda only to be impeached by the conservative members of her own coalition, the congressional vote on the impeachment process was an absurd parade aired live on television. The deputies dedicated their votes to a wide range of causes (Azevedo et al 2016). One legislator declared to be voting yes to avoid ‘sex-change operations’ for six-year-olds, while his colleague dedicated the vote to peace in Jerusalem. Others seemed less blessed: one deputy praised the work being done by her husband, a mayor, only to see him arrested the following morning on corruption charges in which she would be later implicated. The whimsical evening was not merely verbal: another deputy released a confetti cannon to coincide with his vote. 

‘… demonstrators felt threatened by policies towards domestic workers and black students.’

The new provisional government created further elements of concern. A key example concerns Eduardo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies. The Supreme Court accused him of holding offshore bank accounts and taking bribes. However, these charges were not processed for eight months, during which time he led the impeachment process. Yet once the impeachment was completed, he was suspended from office within three weeks.

While the 13-year rule by the Workers’ Party brought moderate, incremental improvements, the few years of President Temer’s tenure have seen quick, radical reversion. His policies include privatization of publicly-owned companies, liberalization of the labour market, reduction of the social security system, and a 20-year freeze on 
public spending. 

In February 2018, for the first time since the 1988 Constitution, the government launched a military intervention in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Crimes perpetrated under the intervention are accountable only to the military justice system. In this same context, Marielle Franco – a city councillor, human rights activist and outspoken critic of the military intervention – was assassinated. Two months after the crime, investigators are yet to publish significant progress.

In his recent work, Jessé de Souza (Souza 2017) challenges the mainstream idea that Iberian patrimonialism is the key feature for understanding Brazilian society. This dominant interpretation sees the country’s history as the story of corruption, transplanted from Portugal and carried on by the state, in practices that mix public and private spheres for personal gain. Souza rejects this view. He writes that what truly sets Brazil apart from its neighbours and the Global North is the dominance and longevity of slavery, not only in its economic mode of production but also in its social relations. Opposing traditional narratives, 
he locates the national elites in the market rather than within the state. 

Marcelo Camargo, Agência Brasil. Mr Bruno Araújo shortly after casting the 342nd vote that authorized the impeachment process.​

For Souza, slavery and inequality are not restricted to the country’s history but shape the power balance and social relations in the present. For example, Brazil has the largest number of domestic workers in the world – nearly all of them women and most of them black (ILO 2018). Thus, the inclusion of domestic workers in the general labour regulation that protects the Brazilian workforce, together with affirmative action granting quotas for black candidates in public universities and the civil service, represented bold actions by Workers’ Party governments. For Souza, these policies were decisive in turning the middle classes against ex-Presidents Rousseff and Lula. 

Many who took to the streets in 2013 celebrated accusations against members of the Workers’ Party whilst turning a blind eye on those implicated from conservative parties. For Souza, these demonstrators felt threatened by policies such as those towards domestic workers and black students. The middle classes perceived that they were being deprived of cheap domestic help and of their monopoly in high-level education and public-sector jobs, privileges at the core of their class identity. A reaction once potentially considered class bias gained legitimacy and was voiced as a vindication of public morality, in which corruption, public spending and social policy were interchangeable terms. In Souza’s view, the middle classes and the media effectively sought to criminalize social justice and human rights.

The ferocity of the middle classes’ response suggests Brazil was carrying out a socialist revolution. Yet effectively, through a combination of small cash transfers and a modest increase in the minimum wage, the country’s Gini Coefficient fell, but remains the 10th highest globally (Index Mundi 2015). Socially, despite continued efforts, women still earn 26 per cent less than men, and black individuals earn 45 per cent less than those considered white (IBGE 2016). 

Under the Workers’ Party, agribusiness and the financial sector registered substantial profits, and domestic consumption fuelled growth in manufacturing, retail and services. The pact between the state and the elites was never threatened, with the middle classes gaining substantially. In fact, the Workers’ Party offered less advantaged members of the country only incremental economic and social gains, leaving racial and gender inequality untouched.

‘Moreover, … much of the Brazilian political system runs outside of legal boundaries.’

As October 2018 nears, Brazilians ready themselves for elections. The main contender is still former President Lula, yet he is presently in prison on questioned bribery charges. He denies the accusations but is unlikely to be allowed to run. With Lula out of the race, Jair Bolsonaro leads the polls, especially among the middle classes and wealthy. A reserve army Captain and Member of Congress, he is the most vocal advocate of the Brazilian far right. His statements include calling Syrian refugees in Brazil ‘the scum of the world’ (Azevedo 2015) and telling a Congresswoman, ‘I would never rape you because you aren't worth it’ (Modzeleski 2017). 

The combination of the judicial persecution of a popular leader and President Temer’s regressive agenda does not appear to be a mere coincidence. Furthermore, the president sending the army into the streets while many in the middle classes and elites support a candidate who holds racist, misogynist and totalitarian views sends 
a clear message to progressive forces. 

The vulgarity of confetti cannons and messianic judges are not mere idiosyncrasies. The logic of acting as if an elected president can be impeached on ad hoc charges, as if the pursuit of social change is intrinsically related to corruption, as if the country’s most popular politician can be excluded from elections under disputed accusations, as if refugees are ‘the scum of the earth’, as if state repression is the valid response to crime, lies precisely in the recognition that they are not. In an article for The New Yorker, Paul Bloom explains: ‘The logic of such brutality is the logic of metaphor: to assert a likeness between two different things holds power only in the light of that difference’ (Bloom 2017).

At no point since the end of military rule in the 1980s has Brazilian democracy been so severely compromised. An unelected president has instigated the withdrawal of the modest safety nets protecting the poorest. Class division has never been so pronounced, with many in the middle class and elites leaning towards the far right and arguing for the reversal of the country’s incipient social progress. As inequality rises once again, a look at the growing gap between rich and poor reveals an empty space where the arena for democratic exchange should be, while the experience of the last few years shows how relentlessly economic power and class discrimination can bend democratic institutions away from the will of the people. 

Rafael Guimarães Requião
Brazilian economist and policy advisor. He graduated with an MA in Development Studies from ISS.


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Azevedo, Rita (2015) ‘Bolsonaro chama refugiados de “escória do mundo”’. Exame. September 22nd. Accessed on 20 April 2018 

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Medeiros, Étore (2016) ‘Pelo menos 17 governadores pedalaram impunemente’. El País. June 9. Accessed on 20 April 2018 

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Organização Internacional do Trabalho (2018) ‘Trabalho Doméstico’. Accessed on 23 April 2018 

Souza, Jessé (2017) ‘A Elite do Atraso’. Leya. Accessed on 20 February 2018 

Image top: Demonstration in São Paulo against corruption by the Dilma government on 13 March 2016.
By Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil (Agência Brasil) CC BY 3.0 br (


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