Nationalism and Liberal Democracies: The Rise of Nationalism in Brazil

Twenty-five years ago, liberal democracies rose; the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union collapsed, and new democracies emerged in Europe. In South Africa, the apartheid regime was removed. Even though the Chinese government brutally crushed a democracy, the belief existed that a more educated and wealthy middle class would demand democratic reforms.

The 2008 global financial crisis became a catalyst for the rise of nationalism. Across the world, income inequality was viewed as a result of failed neoliberal economic policies resulting in a worldwide elite class and unpopular foreign policy decisions. Finally, the immigration crisis from conflicts zones and developing economies converged to challenge democracies worldwide. The democratic landscape began changing as liberal democracies faced external challenges of ethnonationalism, populism, and nationalism. The creation of new political parties and ideas is the direct demand of the citizenry for change and new identities. China and Russia blamed the global capitalism system for the financial crisis and inequality, seizing the opportunity to promote their authoritarian governance model.

The internal problem to liberal democracy is from populists who seek to drive a divide between democracies and liberalism, supported by many voters who feel unheard and disrespected. Across the world, from Europe, India, Japan, the Philippines, and the U.S., nationalist leaders and parties gained power. In South America, Brazil, the world’s eighth-largest democracy, Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency in 2018. Representation of the extreme right now is linked to Brazil’s national identity.

Brazil Current Nationalism

Bolsonaro’s win is a significant shift to the right since democracy was restored more than 30 years ago. He ran a simplistic campaign, advocating harsh solutions to Brazil’s systemic crime and corruption problems, and developed a movement of hardcore followers, including pro-gun and evangelical voters. Bolsonaro used social media campaign similar to the former U.S. President,  Donald Trump, and promised to fight the corrupt elites and restore law and order. Since becoming in power, Bolsonaro has been seeking to move away from the western liberal order, disengage with the international institutions and end democracy by dismantling the institutions and processes. Brazil is already a member of the non-Western bloc that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). He has opened up the Amazon rain forest to development and displaced the indigenous people. To understand the election of Bolsonaro, we need to understand the history of the democratic process in Brazil and the reasons for populous voting a nationalist into power. Complexity theory argues that significant causes,  as in this case, corruption, and crime, may result in dramatic effects or the return to nationalist and authoritarian governments in  Brazil.

Brazil Independence and Populist Rise

Brazil gained independence in 1822 from Portugal. A monarchical system ruled until the abolition of slavery in 1888, and later a republic created in 1889 by the military. The coffee exporters controlled it until 1930 when populist leader Getulio Vargas rose to power in partnership with the military. Vargas ruled as a dictator until 1945 and as an elected period 1951-1954. Nationalism is not static but based on an ideology of political parties’ representation of the nation that allowed military dictators and nationalists to rule Brazil for over five decades using torture and imprisonment as the means to maintain power.

Beginning under Vargas in the 1930’s Brazil made import substitution industrialization (ISI) a cornerstone economic policy. The government promoted domestic industries through state-owned enterprises, infrastructure investment, and incentives favored private firms. A strong safety net, including health care and pensions, existed only for formal urban workers who benefited from bargains driven by their unions. For forty years, this policy delivered robust but unequal economic gains. Businesses, unions, and an emerging middle class supported the government’s economic policies and the rise of a technocratic ruling elite. However, by 1993 after various wage and price control rounds, inflation resurfaced, reaching more than 2,000 percent.

Brazil democratic transition-the Abertura

The democratization process in Brazil and other Latin American countries occurred in two long and challenging periods. First, the removal of the authoritarian regime and the installation of a democratic government. Second is the consolidation of democracy to build a robust democratic system. After a quasi-democratic period from 1945-1964, a military dictatorship began to govern Brazil. For the first decade of military rule, the economy continues its strong performance due to substantial coffee export revenues, a growing internal market, weak monetary and fiscal policies. The ISI strategy created a significant economic burden, and financial insolvency began. The global oil crisis of 1978-79 catalyzes Brazil’s democratic opening.

Brazil’s democratic transition or abertura began in 1974  as a struggle between authoritarian control and liberalization. The inflation crisis led to massive external debt from previous years, declining economic performance, political and social mobilization, and macroeconomic stabilization policies to satisfy international creditors. The image of the military competence became damaged, and social unrest began in the nation’s manufacturing region near Sao Paulo. By 1979, military rulers faced a catastrophic economic crisis that allowed the peaceful and steady rise of democracy. After returning to democracy, market reforms, inflation control, and innovative programs to help the poor were implemented. During the twentieth century, Brazil alternated between quasi-representative and authoritarian forms of governance.

Brazil Political and Social Structure

In theory, power stems from the respective societies’ economic, social, and cultural rules—Brazilian society shaped by inequalities, patronage, and personal relationships. For several centuries (1500-1889), Brazil, a Portuguese colony combined with the Transatlantic slave trade, produced a society of subjects to the king and local potentates.  From the early republican period, the Brazilian society-maintained rights restricted to the elites, clientage, and exclusion of the populous. These historical, societal factors have resulted in a sharp divide in economic and social equality in Brazilian society. Today, 61 percent of Brazil’s poor are black, but black makes up less than 10 percent of the population. The rule of law remains in favor of privileged citizens and politicians, who can pay to manipulate the system to their advantage. Without accepting the democratic system by the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural life, the backsliding into authoritarianism is through ‘quick death’ by the standard military coup or ‘slow death’ through the gradual decline of democratic practices and mechanisms.  From 1985 democracy became an essential feature of Brazilian society.

Brazil Democratic Governance Model

According to the Americas Barometer opinion survey, in April 2019, four months into the Bolsonaro government, 60 percent of Brazilian believe democracy is the optimal form of government. Since 1989 Brazil has been the leading building country building democratic innovations, including participatory budgeting, a model of local decision making adopted by hundreds of municipalities worldwide. However, to dismantle this democratic process, the Bolsonaro regime issued a decree and eliminated over 55 policy councils and related participatory bodies. The new governments view these as cost-cutting methods and functions of the former leftist Workers’ Party Administration. In addition, Bolzano considers nationalism, return to authoritarianism, and military dictatorship rule as a political doctrine.

Brazil’s participatory policy councils allow for the participation of civil society by engaging citizens in the legislative making process. These councils set the political agenda, create and monitor the government implementation policies at the national, state, and municipal levels. Some of these councils existed before the return to democracy in 1985. With the election of leftist candidate Lula da Silva in 2003, 25 new councils were added between 2003 and 2010. Since then, the Workers’ Party gave the council targeted policies to address minority groups, people with disabilities, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, and indigenous people. These councils are inclusive of civil society representatives, governments, private sectors, and other stakeholders. Representatives are not paid a salary, only reimbursements for council expenses, and attend the meeting in Brasilia, where the federal government is located.

The undermining of the Brazilian inclusive democratic governance began with President Michel Temer’s administration of 2016-2018. Conservative Brazilians condemned the councils as instruments of the Workers’ Party. Conservatives and right-leaning politicians attacked these governing organizations because the Workers’ Party used them to increase the participation of marginalized groups. With the removal of the Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff in 2016  from office in a controversial impeachment process for breaking budget laws, conservatives attacked the councils with smear campaigns and cutting their budget. Bolsonaro’s move to dismantle the councils is seen as a direct attack against his opponents on the left, closing democratic spaces and allowing the rebirth of authoritarian governance. He is determined to destroy democracy and return to the ethnic and national lines of the military dictatorship regime.

Bolsonaro administration has been targeting councils that promote left-leaning social policies. The regime creates communities of nationalism using the councils as their imagined communities. Bolsonaro campaign pledges included eliminating “Schools Without Political Parties policies (Projecto Escola Sem Partido), weakening labor laws, eliminating environmental controls, and closing participatory councils. Committees that address the rights of minority groups that focus on disabilities, child labor, public security, LGBT issues, and others are also targeted for closure. Councils defined in the statute dedicated to health and education are protected. The remaining councils are staffed with government personnel who support the government’s right-wing agenda. A nation’s sentimental, passionate, and atmospheric qualities are necessary for understanding how a country can move from democracy to nationalism. By restructuring the council with the right-wing agenda, it solidifies the Bolsonaro authoritarian style of rule.

The Risk of Nationalism- The Democradura

Bolsonaro, a former far-right lawmaker and former army captain, defeated Fernand Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores),  who depicted the election as a struggle for democracy. For the last 30 years, Brazil has been ruled by a corrupt political class, which revolted in favor of Bolsonaro. Twice divorced and married to this third wife, he promotes himself as the champion of family values, opposition to gay rights, and abortion. The win by Bolsonaro proves that Brazil is vulnerable to the slow death syndrome and could result in becoming a “democradura,” a civilian government controlled by the military and authoritarian elements. Bolsonaro has publicly stated that he would like Brazil to return to a military dictatorship regime and advocate for returning the dictatorship era law Institutional Act Number 5 (AI-5).  Nationalist movements rarely take women’s experience, and Bolsonaro has ridiculed and disrespected women and other minorities as part of his machismo persona.

Organizations that monitor Brazil’s democratic participation, transparency, and accountability have called out the administration for their attacks on these institutions. The alienation of policy technocrats will result in their incapacity to interact with each other to maintain democratic principles and institutions. The four main challenges for Brazil are: reducing inequality, reducing corruption, restoring political leadership from top to bottom, and protecting the Amazon rainforests. Without these changes, Brazil could once again become an authoritarian, military dictatorship regime and destroy the democratic gains of the last 30 years, leading to human rights and civil rights abuses. Suppose Bolsonaro successfully regained the populous support even with this destruction of democracy. It may be a parallel, as seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where nationalist parties win despite poor governance, lack of inclusive development, and unequal social policies.

Mark Hallim
Mark Hallim
Mark Halim is a graduate of the American Institute of Banking, holder of the Certified Treasury Profession (CTP) license. He received an MBA in International Finance from the University of Buckingham (UK), an Advanced Certificate in International Affairs from The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University (USA), and a Master's from Cambridge Graduate University International. Mark is currently a Doctoral of Global Security student at the American Military University. Mr. Hallim previously worked for Citigroup as a corporate finance banker in the Global Transportation Group. He is currently a Senior Educator at the Gerson Lehrman Group. Mark specialist in international relations. In addition, he is a Senior Financial Analyst at the Zambakari Advisory Group conducting research and analysis into foreign markets, Mark Hallim is the founder and President of the Children Global Network Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit charity benefitting underprivileged children globally, and serves as Director of The Africa Chieftaincy Transformational Leadership Institute and The Africa Chieftaincy Sustainable Community Development Agency.