Brazil’s election: A looming crisis for Washington
By Nicholas Zimmerman and Roberto Simon / Americas Quarterly
While the dominant plotline of last week’s Summit of the Americas was the leaders who didn’t attend the event, one president who was present—and even had a widely anticipated meeting with President Joe Biden—may soon pose a much more serious challenge for democracy defenders in the U.S., the Americas and throughout the world. Indeed, Biden may well have been staring at an imminent foreign policy conundrum when he sat down for the first time with President Jair Bolsonaro a mere four months before Brazil’s presidential election.
The White House’s caution around the Bolsonaro meeting reinforced the complexity of the road ahead. A careful choosing of words by both presidents avoided a public confrontation in Los Angeles, but Bolsonaro’s statements before and during his stay in California underscored how far apart the two governments stand. Ultimately, the dynamics compelled the U.S. to leak to the press that Biden had directly defended Brazil’s electoral process during their private meeting. Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed sources, that Bolsonaro asked Biden for support in his campaign against leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—a request that Biden, of course, ignored.
Bolsonaro’s intentions are clear: He wishes to discredit Brazil’s electoral process so that he may challenge and/or seek to overturn the result should he lose in October, as polls currently suggest he will. The misinformation-fueled questioning of the voting system has only intensified in recent months as Lula continues to enjoy a strong polling advantage against Bolsonaro, and time starts to run out. With Lula within striking distance of obtaining enough votes to secure a first-round win (thus avoiding a runoff), the president and his team are ramping up their attacks against Brazil’s electronic voting system, electoral court, polling institutes and the media.
But there is an emerging factor that could greatly elevate the threat: A number of key Brazilian military leaders, including both retired officers serving in cabinet positions and active-duty top brass, now appear to be fully embracing Bolsonaro’s accusations against the country’s voting system. Should even a small part of the Brazilian military leadership ultimately back the president’s attempt to reject an election loss, one of the world’s largest democracies would face its greatest existential threat since the end of its military dictatorship in the mid-1980s. Given the stakes involved, it is vital to examine both how Bolsonaro is maneuvering to put Brazilian democracy at risk and what the U.S. should do ahead of the election in response.
A Brewing Threat to Democracy
The parallels to Donald Trump’s 2020 election fraud playbook are evident everywhere—including in Bolsonaro’s stated belief that Trump won. But while Trump’s gambit failed in part because he did not have the support of the U.S. military, in Brazil it appears that the equivalents of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and parts of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are aligned with the president as they publicly attack electoral authorities and advance bogus claims regarding voter fraud ahead of the October vote.
At the center of Bolsonaro’s claims of electoral fraud is Brazil’s electronic voting system. Implemented in the mid-1990s, it has been lauded by experts as one of the world’s best. Yet the president has falsely claimed that the system is rigged; in his world, votes are aggregated in secret by the country’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE, for its initials in Portuguese) and have historically been miscounted in favor of the political left. Since the system does not produce a paper record of each vote, Bolsonaro argues that the process cannot be independently verified. The problem with Bolsonaro’s argument is that votes in Brazil do leave an electronic record in a multi-step verification process that includes political parties and civil society organizations. Experts largely agree that Brazil’s shift from paper to electronic votes was key to reducing fraud and protecting voter choice.
When Bolsonaro’s push for electoral reform was defeated in the lower congressional chamber, a column of military vehicles ominously paraded in front of Congress as the president fumed. Brazilian media subsequently reported that Bolsonaro’s likely vice presidential candidate and then-defense minister—General Walter Souza Braga Netto—told the president of the Senate that the military would not allow the elections to take place without changes to the voting system. (Braga Netto later denied making the threat.)
Trying to minimize tensions, the TSE invited the Armed Forces to join a “transparency commission” advising and assessing the electoral process. Most of the court judges came to regret the decision as it became clear that Bolsonaro and his allies were determined to use the commission to disrupt the electoral process. The military studies for the commission were immediately shared with the president, who again used them on social media to try to “prove” that the system was unsafe. The military in the TSE commission released a public report raising several questions about the voting infrastructure, but the document had several gross mistakes—including confusion about basic statistical concepts—and false claims.
Meanwhile, the head of the Brazilian Navy gave an interview raising doubts about whether Brazil could have “clean and transparent” elections. Later, a Supreme Court justice and former head of the TSE publicly concluded that the “Armed Forces are being told to attack the [electoral] process and try to discredit it.” The Defense Ministry angrily responded that the remarks were a “grave offense.” And just last week, the Defense Ministry again went on the offensive by publicly stating that the Armed Forces felt “disparaged” by the TSE and called on the court to allow an “outside” audit. The confrontation and threats are likely to escalate as Brazil gets closer to election day.
There seems to be no deterring Bolsonaro from pursuing the path of Trump, but the likelihood and depth of the democratic crisis will largely hinge on how the country’s democratic institutions and divided military react to the president’s attacks. And given the context, there is an important role for the U.S. to play in convincing Brazil’s military leadership that an intervention in the October vote would be intolerable and rallying the international community to defend Brazilian democracy.
What Washington Should Do
The difficult road ahead was on full display in Los Angeles when Bolsonaro used his public remarks alongside Biden to affirm his commitment to democracy while alluding to the need for Brazil’s election to be “auditable”—a rallying cry of his base and election skeptics. Since he falsely claims that the current voting system cannot be subjected to an audit, Bolsonaro was essentially telling Biden to his face that he would only accept a defeat under a different electoral process.
Nevertheless, Biden needed to exert caution to ensure that he not come across as patronizing and allow Bolsonaro to score political points against a meddling outsider—a strategy the Brazilian leader has used to his benefit before. When French President Emmanuel Macron strongly condemned Bolsonaro’s environmental record, for example, Bolsonaro effectively framed Macron’s criticism as an example of French “colonialism.” However, an equivocal U.S. position on the issue of electoral integrity would have created a perception of U.S. complicity. Hence the White House’s cautious public messaging and reliance on press leaks instead of direct criticism.
With the heads of state meeting over, Washington should now focus on building upon the (initially quiet) engagement of CIA Director William Burns, who visited Brasilia last year and reportedly expressed concerns to Bolsonaro over his stance on the upcoming elections. Starting now, the Biden administration should ramp up backchannel outreach to the Brazilian national security establishment. These are not monolithic institutions. Explaining how Bolsonaro’s attempts to subvert the election would negatively impact the country’s geopolitical standing, as well as bilateral defense cooperation, could go a long way in encouraging institutional restraint.
In addition, the State Department should carefully coordinate with partners in the region and beyond to further protect the legitimacy of the Brazilian election process by ensuring a robust presence of international election observers. They will serve as an added guardrail. The TSE has already invited the Carter Center, Community of Portuguese Language Countries, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the Mercosur Parliament and the OAS, among others, to observe this year’s elections. Many of these organizations are currently mobilizing resources to organize their observation missions – the United States can and should help.
Finally, the Biden administration should continue with its track record of layered political outreach and prioritize engagement with Brazilian legislators across the ideological spectrum, including with Lula’s Workers Party. By underscoring its concerns, signaling its belief in the legitimacy of the electronic voting system and offering its partnership against any effort to disrupt Brazil’s democratic order, Washington could make a positive difference at a turbulent time in Brazilian politics amid what could be a decisive chapter for the future of a complex bilateral relationship.