Pandemic denial: an imperfect storm for autocratization in Brazil

A man walks past graffiti depicting Jair Bolsonaro and healthcare workers, which reads: "Which side of the rope are you on?" in Sao Paulo. Sebastiao Moreira/EFE.

The anxiety of survival is the dominant sentiment in a pandemic. As individuals, we fear whether we're going to stay alive and healthy. As a political community, we wonder whether and how we're going to remain free and democratic. At both levels, we also ask how much our material conditions will be affected and whether the suffering of the most vulnerable can be alleviated.

This climate of fear should be a perfect storm for an autocratic leader that craves a window of opportunity to advance his powers and undermine the remaining defense institutions. Even for democracies, it is a chance to enhance discretionary powers and restrict basic civil liberties in exchange for security.

Constitutional democracies experience this current anxiety in various degrees, and Brazil under Bolsonaro's government is facing it at an unprecedented level. By mocking the magnitude of the disease and investing in disinformation campaigns, or by stimulating institutional and social stress, the Brazilian president is ensuring a worst-case public health scenario. However, the political consequences of such actions, both for democracy and Bolsonaro himself, remain open.

Despite his brash personality, aggressively ideologized style of government, and multifaceted repertoire in authoritarian legality, Bolsonaro's election was not initially perceived as a democratic threat by mainstream political actors. In elite circles, the idea that Brazilian institutions were working well enough to contain any of Bolsonaro’s authoritarian impulses became a defensible one.

But, while some Brazilians adopted a slogan of political denial—claiming that the election of Bolsonaro presented “zero risk” to Brazilian democracy—reports already show Brazil as one of the leading autocratizing nations.

Over the last year and a half, any overall performance assessment of Brazil should be divided into two periods: the pre-pandemic and the post-pandemic. This is not due to the universal fact that countries have had to adopt some form of emergency mode, constitutional, legislative or otherwise, since the pandemic began. It is rather due to the political dynamics of Bolsonaro's way of governing.

Considered by some as the worst world leader in handling the pandemic, Bolsonaro may be digging his own grave.

For example, the unceasing political crisis produced by the government in the post-pandemic period has scaled up when compared to the pre-pandemic one. Rather than an Orbanesque gradual path towards authoritarian and unaccountable rule, the opportunity structure and time-constraints for power encroachment have changed. Instead of a texbook approach of weakening accountability institutions piece by piece, the pandemic context galvanized more extreme political conflict. The most clamorous example are the overt threats, insinuated by relevant political supporters and ministers, of military intervention through a deceitful interpretation of article 142 of the Brazilian Constitution (which provides for the general principles of the Armed Forces).

During the first year, the government developed a three-pronged strategy in authoritarian legality. First, the government produced an excess of executive decrees which grossly violated literal rules of legislation (such as one that sought to liberate guns against legislative prohibition). The judiciary and the parliament were openly challenged to control the extraordinary amount of executive measures, which generated legality fatigue and institutional stress. Having defeated the government in some important cases, judicial and legislative institutions could not handle all of them. Second, the government gutted both accountability and enforcement institutions within the executive architecture (like environmental bodies that control Amazon deforestation). Third, the government both allowed and stimulated ongoing violations of democratic norms and rights (displaying sympathy, for example, towards hate campaigns, and stigmatizing minority groups like Indigenous communities and left-leaning social activists).

When the pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization, segments of the Brazilian government were quick to act. The minister of health declared a health emergency in early February. A few days later, Congress swiftly passed legislation regulating the quarantine. Complementary regulations were adopted by each of the country's states in the following weeks. Congress has also produced additional legislation ranging from public finance rules to contract and labour law to the guarantee of basic income for poor families. The Supreme Court, in turn, has also focused almost its entire docket on legal and constitutional issues related to the pandemics.

The president himself has not attempted to resort to any emergency clause of the Brazilian Constitution which could increase the powers of the executive under congressional oversight. Rather than overreacting through concentration of power to tackle the pandemics, Bolsonaro has gone the path of open denial and scornful public pronouncements about the seriousness of COVID-19. He critiqued public authorities for adopting quarantine measures (the health minister, state governors etc.) and incentivized protests against them.

This open tension politicized the pandemic and sparked inter-institutional conflict. Horizontally, the conflict takes place between the Executive on one side, and the Congress and the Supreme Court on the other. Vertically, between the federal government and state governments. Structurally, the conflict is also between the government itself and the state technocracy.

Rather than overreacting through concentration of power to tackle the pandemics, Bolsonaro has gone the path of open denial and scornful public pronouncements about the seriousness of COVID-19.

The politicization of the crisis is also consequential for policy management and social behavior. The geography of the contamination and death rate correlates not only with socioeconomic factors of a deeply unequal country, but also with the location of voters in the political spectrum. The tumultuous posturing that at first appeared to be a presidential overreaction was actually an underreaction with respect to public health policy.

This underreaction is not only due to Bolsonaro’s lack of respect for science and research, but also the attempt to discharge himself from responsibility. Bolsonaro has repeatedly affirmed that governors and the Supreme Court are to blame for the unpopular measures to manage the crisis, which do not allow people to “go back to normality”. Considered by some as the worst world leader in handling the pandemic, Bolsonaro may be digging his own grave.

Apart from the damages arising from this denialist behavior, which led several entities to file complaints against the president before the IACHR, UN, and OAS, not to mention the Brazilian Supreme Court itself, the very public debate around constitutional rights and its curtailments during the crisis gets obfuscated by the permanent political turmoil. The sense of imminent institutional rupture overwhelms the public sphere and makes the pandemic sound as a secondary issue.

Legal scholars around the world have raised concerns regarding the absence of constitutional justification for severe civil rights restrictions. The willingness of governments to accept these extraordinary limitations should not leave aside the need for sunset clauses within these measures, as well as compliance with proportionality and non-discriminatory criteria. Brazil, however, remains a step behind.

Brazilian society, despite having quickly adopted a reasonable quarantine policy to flatten the contamination curve, relaxed that commitment too soon due to political and economic pressure, undermining the prospects of rational and coordinated public policy.

As the president's stable popularity of around 30% starts declining, the opposition faces the dilemma of triggering his legal removal. Removing a president in the middle of such a serious health emergency (be it through impeachment process, criminal trial, or electoral trial) is an unthinkable route in a democracy—it violates any common sense of political prudence. However, to be governed by a denialist president who refuses to address the pandemic, and who keeps threatening judicial and legislative institutions, could be even more costly.

A pandemic can be an autocrat's perfect storm. Pandemic denial might prove to be Bolsonaro's fatal mistake.