Bol­sonaro’s Brazil the world’s lat­est dys­func­tional democ­racy

Arab News - - Opinion - CHAN­DRA­HAS CHOUDHURY

Many peo­ple around the world saw in the New Year in a for­eign coun­try. Among them, it ap­pears, were over 200 mil­lion Brazil­ians. Jair Bol­sonaro, the for­mer army cap­tain and fire­brand far-right politi­cian who won the Brazil­ian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Oc­to­ber, took charge on Jan. 1 and im­me­di­ately made it clear that the coun­try in which he fought his cam­paign was a thing of the past.

His in­au­gu­ra­tion, he de­clared, marked “a day in which peo­ple have rid them­selves of so­cial­ism, of in­verted val­ues, of statism, and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.” If this seemed a lot to have achieved in a sin­gle day, one might re­flect that this was ac­tu­ally Bol­sonaro at his most re­strained. In the week lead­ing up to the face- off with his sec­ond-round ri­val, Fer­nando Had­dad of the left-wing Work­ers’ Party (which held power in Brazil from

2002 to 2016), Bol­sonaro was seen in a video promis­ing his fol­low­ers “a cleans­ing never be­fore seen in the his­tory of Brazil.”

Have we heard this kind of lan­guage be­fore? Sadly, we have. Three of the world’s four largest democ­ra­cies — the US, In­dia and Brazil — are now helmed by politi­cians (un­sur­pris­ingly, all men) who be­lieve that, even in a democ­racy, there is only one truth: Theirs.

They ef­fec­tively want to bend democ­racy in their own coun­tries to­ward the goal that com­mu­nist states sought for their so­ci­eties at the height of global com­mu­nism 70 years ago: A polity in which there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween the party and the state. But, since it is a foun­da­tional truth of democ­racy that gov­ern­ments with dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies must come and go, this puts them at odds not just with the op­po­si­tion but with the very con­cept of democ­racy it­self. Al­though they come to of­fice by le­git­i­mate means, hav­ing won an elec­tion, ev­ery­thing they do from that point on makes them dys­func­tional democrats, as they trans­form and po­lar­ize their so­ci­eties into two (or three) just as dis­mal fac­tions: A gi­ant, cultish sup­port base and an an­gry or jit­tery re­sis­tance, with some non-aligned mem­bers or po­lit­i­cal mod­er­ates caught in the cross­fire.

Al­ready, in the two months be­tween his vic­tory and his tak­ing oath, Bol­sonaro — a very pub­lic fan of Don­ald Trump — has shown that his will be a di­a­logue-free, slash-and-burn style of gover­nance. The im­age is es­pe­cially apt be­cause of the new regime’s at­ti­tude to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. One of the first things he did on win­ning the 2018 elec­tion was re­scind Brazil’s of­fer to be the host of the pro­posed UN con­fer­ence on cli­mate change sched­uled for 2019.

Os­ten­si­bly it was be­cause Brazil did not want to bear the ex­pense of such a large event. But an equally good rea­son can be found in the as­ser­tion made by Brazil’s new for­eign min­is­ter, Ernesto Araujo, that cli­mate change is ac­tu­ally a “Marx­ist plot” to sti­fle eco­nomic growth in Western coun­tries and help but­tress Chi­nese power. Im­me­di­ately upon tak­ing of­fice, Bol­sonaro also is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der trans­fer­ring con­trol over the re­serves for Brazil’s indige­nous peo­ple in the Ama­zon rain­for­est away from a min­istry ded­i­cated to them and over to the agri­cul­ture min­istry, which is con­trolled by Brazil’s pow­er­ful agribusiness lobby and will now surely open that re­gion up to in­creased farm­ing and re­source ex­trac­tion. Home to much of the Ama­zon rain­for­est, the “lungs of the world,” Brazil has abruptly ceased to be part of the pro­gres­sive coali­tion on cli­mate change and has in­stead lined up with Trumpian thought.

Through­out the ranks of the Bol­sonaro gov­ern­ment, there is a re­mark­ably can­did ad­mis­sion of regime change as a purge, ex­em­pli­fied by a re­mark made by his chief of staff, Onyx Loren­zoni, that there would be an im­me­di­ate cull of ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors with left-wing lean­ings. To be sure, ide­o­log­i­cal zeal is part of a party cadre’s make-up ev­ery­where. But, when it is ap­plied with such a cav­a­lier at­ti­tude to po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions, it not only hol­lows them out but turns ev­ery mem­ber of so­ci­ety into ei­ther a col­lab­o­ra­tor or a con­spir­a­tor.

In fact, we can find a very po­tent metaphor for Trump-Modi-Bol­sonaro pol­i­tics in the cur­rent shut­down of the US gov­ern­ment over the im­passe be­tween the Trump gov­ern­ment and the Demo­cratic-con­trolled House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives over his plan to build a wall on the US bor­der with Mex­ico. The wall Trump seeks to build is on the bor­der, but the more real and con­se­quen­tial wall he has erected is within his own coun­try: The in­abil­ity of dis­agree­ing par­ties to talk to each other in good faith. Who­ever even­tu­ally suc­ceeds him in Amer­ica — and Naren­dra Modi in In­dia and, judg­ing even by his first two weeks in of­fice, Bol­sonaro in Brazil — will face the dif­fi­cult task of un­do­ing the “cleans­ing” and mak­ing their coun­tries real, rig­or­ous and rea­son­ing democ­ra­cies once again.

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