President Jair Bolsonaro has increased his attacks against democracy, but so far, the institutions, especially the Supreme Court, have managed to curb the coup of the far-right ruler. This is the opinion of political scientist and sociologist Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida (São Paulo, 1946), retired professor at USP and researcher at Cebrap, in a written interview to EL PAÍS. However, she warns, “there is always a risk of rupture, as we have an authoritarian president who does not value democracy and would like to destroy it.”
Member of the Human Rights Defense Commission Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, Almeida sees the Armed Forces parade scheduled for this Tuesday as “another provocation” and says that the printed vote is “a factoid to feed distrust, stir up groups radicals and create political chaos”. For this reason, he has a less negative view about its processing in plenary, also scheduled for this Tuesday, even after the rejection it suffered in the special commission. “I don’t see how not to put the proposal for the printed vote on the agenda. If the president fails to approve, the defeat will be gigantic. It will leave Bolsonaro without ground and without a flag”, he says.
Support our journalism. Subscribe to EL PAÍS by clicking here
Question. What stage is the political crisis at?
Response. These things are difficult to measure and we political scientists do not have good objective indicators to measure the temperature of a political crisis. The president escalated in his attacks against institutions, especially the STF, multiplied the threats to abandon the Constitution and boast that he has the support of the Armed Forces to do so. But for the time being, it was nothing more than a speech, a verbal threat. The sensation it gives is a shrill sound that repeats itself and repeats itself louder and louder, but with no effect, except to create political tension. There were huge setbacks in several areas that depend heavily on the Federal Government: in the country’s international activities, in the environment, in education, in the protection of indigenous populations. This is bad reactionary policy, but it is different from a democratic backlash.
FOR. Has the risk of a democratic rupture increased?
A. There is always a risk of rupture, as we have an authoritarian president who does not value democracy and would like to destroy it. And democracy, especially in the country, is far from being indestructible. But I don’t know if the risk is greater today than it was in April of last year, or any other time when Bolsonaro threatened to break the rules.
FOR. In February, you assessed that the institutions were managing to effectively contain Bolsonaro. Do you still have the same perception?
A. I still feel the same way and I know that this is not a consensual perception among analysts. Bolsonaro was contained by federation rules, which make subnational governments important. Just look at the reaction to the pandemic. If it were up to the president, Brazilians would be dying with chloroquine in their hands and there would be no vaccinations. He was defeated on that front, even though his conduct has absurdly and needlessly raised the price in lives paid by the population. The STF imposed a series of important defeats on the head of the Executive and, at this moment, he is the object of investigation by the Supreme Court. Even Congress, where a base of support — we know how it was obtained — impedes the progress of the many impeachment requests, imposed defeats on it. The emergency aid, with the scale it had, was the work of Congress. Neither Bolsonaro nor Guedes were responsible for it. It is quite possible that the PEC of the printed vote will be buried in the Chamber. On the other hand, all the great written press oppose it harshly and freely. Added to this is the Globo network, which is still powerful. Finally, organized civil society has played its part in containing the president’s authoritarian outbursts. He had to get rid of his ministers more in tune with his purposes and speech: Ernesto Araújo [Relações Exteriores], Ricardo Velez [Educação], Abraham Weintraub [Educação], Eduardo Pazuello [Saúde], Ricardo Salles [Meio-Ambiente].
FOR. What has changed since then?
A. Bolsonaro appears to be losing support among entrepreneurs and high-income groups who voted for him. Very slowly, its support base in public opinion seems to be dwindling, or at the very least is parked between 25 and 30%. Clearly not grown. There is no evidence that it has gained social or political strength. It was contained. Now the cost is great. A huge containment effort, while we could be dedicating strength to face the many problems we have.
FOR. Bolsonaro wanted to take advantage of a military maneuver on Tuesday to show off with tanks in Brasília, on the day the plenary analyzes the printed vote. What does this represent?
A. One more provocation.
FOR. You once told EL PAÍS, in 2018, that Bolsonaro, not the PT, could repeat the Venezuelan process. Has this been happening?
A. I still think so. Bolsonaro, Chavez, Mature [presidente da Venezuela], Lopez Obrador [presidente do México], Orban [primeiro-ministro da Hungria], Mod [primeiro-ministro da Índia] they are fruits of the same tree, of authoritarian populism. If he is not permanently contained and preferably defeated next year, the danger will continue. I don’t know to what extent the Armed Forces support him. Chavez introduced very profound changes: in training, in the rules for promotion in the military career, in the control of his secret service over dissident military personnel. As far as we know, it didn’t happen here. On the other hand, the occupation of positions of command by the military is similar to what Chavismo promoted in Venezuela. And that’s bad for the Armed Forces and for democracy. I just note that the coup does not depend only on the initiative and participation of the military. In the past, it took place with a great mobilization of sectors of the population that took to the streets in a much larger number than the motorcycle crew, it depended on the support of the mainstream press, a significant portion of politicians, business elites, international support. It seems to me that the situation today is not like that.
FOR. How do you see the emergence of so many populist leaders?
A. Authoritarian populism is installed today in many large, medium-developed countries that, in addition to their very different histories, have a lot of poverty and a lot of inequalities: Mexico, India, Turkey, Venezuela. It’s something we have to take into account. Institutions are important, but they are not the only factors to consider. Populist leaders draw strength from the disenchantment of those who do not see their lives improve significantly under democracy, those who do not believe that democratic institutions can make a difference for people like them, those who disbelieve in parties, those for whom freedoms and rights are words without concrete meaning, in your daily life.
FOR. Do you see any legitimacy in distrust of electronic voting machines?
A. No legitimacy. It is a factoid to fuel distrust, incite the most radical groups and create political chaos.
FOR. How do you assess the role of the president of the Chamber, Arthur Lira (PP-AL), who has been adopting a mild tone in the crisis? In addition to not offering risks to Bolsonaro, he has been addressing various topics of interest to the Government in the Chamber, the last of which is the printed vote…
A. I have a less negative view. This was the most fragmented Congress and probably the most right-wing that Brazil has ever had. If we take that into account, it could be a lot worse. I don’t see how not to put the proposal for the printed vote on the agenda. If the president fails to approve, the defeat will be gigantic. It will leave Bolsonaro groundless and flagless.
FOR. As for the president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco (DEM-MG), he has been making more scathing speeches against Bolsonaro, but so far he has not indicated any instrument to curb the president. How do you assess his role in the crisis?
A. House and Senate leaders are important leaders to coordinate decisions, but they have to take into account the existing forces in the houses they preside over. This is a legislature in which the right is strong and no party is big enough to impose itself on others.
Support news production like this. Subscribe to EL PAÍS for 30 days for 1 US$
sign up here to receive EL PAÍS Brasil’s daily newsletter: reports, analyses, exclusive interviews and the main information of the day in your e-mail, from Monday to Friday. sign up also to receive our weekly newsletter on Saturdays, with highlights of coverage for the week.