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Polarization in Brazil has become a major risk not only to the country’s democracy but also to its capacity to address its most urgent policy challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic. By first promoting a lockdown-versus-economy narrative that weakened the country’s willingness to adopt effective measures and then politicizing the choice of the vaccine producer, President Jair Bolsonaro’s turbulent administration has become a symbol of how destructive polarization can be. How did Brazil arrive at this troubled state?

The Path of Polarization

Many external and internal observers see Bolsonaro as the main cause of the extreme polarization that characterizes contemporary Brazilian politics. As polarizing as Bolsonaro is, however, Brazilian politics were already harshly divided before he rose to prominence in 2017 and won the presidency in 2018. The key turning point occurred in 2013. For almost twenty years prior, Brazil had enjoyed democratic stability—healthy amounts of partisan competition within a clearly democratic framework. The country was governed by the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party from 1995 to 2002 and then by the center-left Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, or Workers’ Party) from 2003 on—first under the leadership of the larger-than-life figure former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and then, from 2011 until 2016, under his chosen successor Dilma Rousseff.

Massive protests across all major cities in 2013—something not seen in Brazil since its return to democracy in the 1980s—were the first sign of trouble. Sparked by anger over economic issues such as bus and subway fare raises, the protests soon galvanized a broader anger over inadequate social services and then, over the next few years, systemic corruption across the political class including the ruling PT. The PT succeeded in winning reelection in 2014 after an extraordinarily acrimonious contest that involved such systematic use of such vitriolic fake news campaigns and attacks that a postelection return to normal was impossible.

Rousseff’s second mandate was so dysfunctional and overshadowed by the bitter PT-versus-anti-PT polarization that Congress stopped approving any of her relevant legislative projects. Hit by a major economic downturn and revelations about corruption of historic proportions involving large companies such as Petrobras and Odebrecht, Rousseff was impeached in 2016. The impeachment was a searingly divisive and traumatizing political process that brought polarization to a head, not just on the PT-versus-anti-PT cleavage but also on a deeper axis of establishment versus anti-establishment.

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo.

Rousseff’s weak, short-lived second term and the selection as her successor of her unpopular vice president Michel Temer, who also stood accused of corruption, reinforced many Brazilians’ deep skepticism about the political elites’ willingness to fix the system’s increasingly evident flaws, including massive corruption, chronically low economic growth, bad public services, and a public security crisis of unprecedented proportions. Into this picture in 2017 came Bolsonaro, a long-time right-wing congressman of little accomplishment who positioned himself as the most anti-PT and anti-system candidate, handily beating the PT’s presidential candidate Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, in the runoff election in 2018.

Brazil’s descent into destructive polarization has many culprits. Particularly after the 2014 election, opposition parties failed to adopt a conciliatory rhetoric and instead sought to undermine the government from the very beginning. Yet perhaps more importantly, the PT’s refusal to recognize—let alone apologize for—numerous cases of egregious wrongdoing during its thirteen years in power contributed to a political environment dominated by radical PT loyalists and those who demonized the party, with little room for moderates. This intransigence, and the PT’s refusal to allow another party to lead the left into the presidential elections, contributed to the poisoned political climate. During the runoff, the relationship between the PT and other democratic parties was so broken that even the candidate who came in third in the first round, Ciro Gomes, a center-left politician with proposals similar to those of the PT, refused to support the PT against the anti-democratic candidacy of Bolsonaro. During this process, the near-complete lack of political actors seen as above the fray, such as widely respected and unifying ex-presidents who could have called for the creation of a democratic alliance against the far-right candidate, was keenly felt.

As expected, Bolsonaro has governed in an intensely polarizing fashion—the anti-system populist battling the elite system. This has caused many of his critics to see a new axis of polarization pressing on the country—that between emergent authoritarianism (on the part of the president) versus democratic survival (represented by the traditional political parties and civic actors). The PT-versus-anti-PT division has become dormant as Lula’s party struggles to recover from multiple poor electoral performances—though the government has actively sought to keep this strand of polarization alive—projecting itself as the only viable alternative to the supposed socialist threat posed by the PT.

Pandemic Fuel on the Polarization Fire

When the pandemic hit Brazil in early 2020, Bolsonaro minimized and belittled the disease, criticizing social distancing measures and attacking both the medical establishment and China. Together with similarly inclined presidents from countries such as Belarus, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan, Brazil joined the infamous group dubbed the “Ostrich Alliance.” Bolsonaro’s strategy was more radical than that of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which despite its elements of denial and avoidance did maintain within its ranks health professionals such as National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. Bolsonaro, by comparison, sacked two health ministers after they refused to publicly defend hydroxychloroquine, a medicine that the president recommended to treat COVID-19 and professed to take after he himself was infected with the virus.

Bolsonaro’s peculiar approach to the acute national emergency did not backfire politically as many critics expected but instead served the polarizing approach at the core of his strategy of political survival in multiple ways. First, by criticizing governors and mayors for imposing distancing measures, Bolsonaro deflected blame for the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Second, by establishing in the minds of many citizens a false dichotomy—lockdown versus economy—Bolsonaro positioned himself as a defender of the poor against an elite that could easily adapt to restrictions, such as by temporarily moving into their vacation homes and working without leaving the house. Third, Bolsonaro’s highly confrontational rhetoric—attacking mainstream politicians, the media, public health professionals, and the Chinese government—stoked the anger of his followers. Finally, the government’s active promotion of conspiracy theories—such as that the pandemic was a globalist plan to impose communism, as the foreign minister argued—further drove many Bolsonaro supporters away from the traditional public discourse, making it increasingly difficult for centrist politicians to find consensual middle-ground positions.

Thus far, the president’s strategy has been relatively successful. In a poll conducted by Datafolha in December, when the number of coronavirus-related deaths in Brazil had reached 180,000, only 8 percent of respondents thought Bolsonaro to be primarily responsible. A remarkable 52 percent thought the president had no role at all. Bolsonaro’s approval ratings improved during the second half of the year, helped by a monthly cash transfer program (that he had initially opposed) to the country’s poorest to address the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile, polarization reached levels unprecedented in the past decades. Several months into the pandemic, political tensions reached a new high point when Bolsonaro was about to send troops to close the Supreme Court, only to be convinced by military advisers to wait.

More recently, Bolsonaro created outrage among his critics when he falsely argued that he had never called COVID-19 “the sniffles.” Yet while several observers wrote that Bolsonaro had lost his mind or that he lacked a clear strategy, it was another example of the president’s deliberate effort to push the boundaries of what is politically acceptable and thereby deepen polarization. As is the case with other populists with authoritarian tendencies, brazenly lying serves as a test of loyalty. His followers must make a choice: either they are with or against the movement. Absolute loyalty involves defending the leader even if they are obviously wrong. As a sign of how much Brazil’s public had normalized deceit, there was little reaction when election officials said, in November, that it was “inevitable” that Bolsonaro would question the results of the 2022 elections if he were to lose.

Polarization’s Future and Attendant Risks

Although Brazil’s democracy had already been at risk prior to the pandemic, there is little doubt that the heightened polarization and growing inequality in 2020 have made the country’s democratic institutions even more vulnerable to the authoritarian threat posed by Bolsonaro and his followers. Moreover, the economic devastation brought by the pandemic will likely make overcoming this deep-seated polarization even more difficult, as Brazil’s already extreme level of inequality will rise still higher. While greater socioeconomic inequality does not necessarily translate into greater polarization, the millions of Brazilians who escaped poverty during the commodity boom in the 2000s and who slid back in the 2010s—when Brazil’s economy practically did not grow at all—have had their expectations reversed and will be far more vulnerable to radical solutions and populist temptations during the 2020s.

Brazil’s November 2020 municipal elections presented an inconclusive picture vis-à-vis the future of the country’s polarization. Both those candidates associating themselves with Bolsonaro and those representing the PT performed poorly. In the majority of large cities, other parties, largely on the center-right, won; and in São Paulo and Porto Alegre, two mayoral candidates of the Socialism and Liberty Party did well, suggesting that both Bolsonaro and the PT are facing competition as the standard bearers of the right and left. If the election in 2022 proceeds similarly to that of 2018—when Bolsonaro faced the PT in a runoff—it would exacerbate polarization still further. As in 2018, both candidates would argue that the other side’s victory would pose a mortal threat to the very future of the republic. A runoff involving only one of the two key sides of Brazil’s ongoing political drama would certainly polarize society somewhat less. A runoff between two candidates tied neither to Bolsonaro nor the PT might noticeably reduce polarization.

Given the formidable threat the Bolsonaro presidency poses to democratic institutions, there is no doubt that the formation of a broad pro-democracy alliance involving parties from the center-right, center, center-left, and left may stand the best chances of safeguarding democracy. After all, elected authoritarians, as in Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela, tend to implement more radical anti-democratic reforms after winning reelection. Bolsonaro might well be emboldened by another victory at the polls in 2022. It will be equally crucial to protect election officials who are likely to be put under pressure by Bolsonaro.

Managing the Problem

For all that Bolsonaro has done to fan the flames of social and political division, it is crucial to remember that he must be understood as a symptom of a political system that was profoundly weakened by the extreme polarization that set in after the mass protests of 2013 and the events that followed. Even if new political forces succeed in marginalizing both Bolsonaro and the PT, Brazil will remain vulnerable to the destructive polarization that has infiltrated its politics.

Given the depth of the problem, it is better perhaps to focus less on reversing polarization than on managing it. The international community can play a role in this effort by engaging Brazil with the aim of locking in key democratic processes and institutions via international institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Mercosur, the Organization of American States, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization. While populists often vilify or ignore such organizations, doing so costs them politically. And even when populists violate the precepts or commitments that such organizations entail, those positive elements give democratically oriented political actors a sense of direction for how to push back.

By demonizing a host of international organizations, Bolsonaro has sought to stoke tensions outside the country to help animate his most loyal supporters. Largely because Brazil could swim in the slipstream of the Trump administration over the past years, the consensus among Bolsonaro’s advisers and Brazil’s economic elites was that the president could largely get away with this controversial international strategy. Trump’s defeat at the polls in November 2020 provides an opportunity for centrist leaders in both North America and Western Europe to articulate a joint strategy to stand up to Bolsonaro and other illiberal populist leaders who thrive on extreme polarization and who often utilize foreign policy to bolster it.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo.