A few months ago, Santander analyst Luciano Sobral (@drunkeynesian on Twitter) published a chart showing the evolution of Brazil’s GDP over time, alongside significant ruptures of the political order. One thing stood out: political shifts, whether democratic or not, come after dire recessions.


*Disclaimer: We consider Lula’s 2002 election to be a “rupture” – even if one of the democratic kind. Lula is, after all, the only person ever to be elected president of Brazil after being born into poverty. His program was more to the left than his predecessors’, which marked a significant shift in Brazilian politics. 

recessions ruptures brazil

Recessions v. political shifts: cause or correlation?

We’ve decided to ask historians and political scientists to analyze the image above and tell us how much the economy alone explains political shifts in Brazil. Here are the main takes:

Mauricio Santoro (State University of Rio de Janeiro)

“Political shifts in Brazil do have a cause-effect relationship with the economy. When the economy is doing well, governments are able to overcome crises. That’s what happened with Lula in 2005, after his administration was accused of bribing congressmen to get congressional support. Lula’s main allies fell, but he managed to comfortably win reelection in 2006. When the economy is down, popular support goes away and governments fall.”

José Alvaro Moisés (University of São Paulo)

“One thing is definitely connected to the other, but it is hard to say what comes first. In 2015-2016, Dilma Rousseff lost popular support due to the economic crisis – but that crisis was created by a political deadlock. Which begs the question: do recessions cause political ruptures, or do political ruptures cause recessions?”

Roberto Moll (Fluminense Federal University)

Indeed, economic crises have often led to political crises and, subsequently, changes in government. It has happened not only in Brazil but in many other countries too. However, it’s not a cause-effect relationship. There were many crises that didn’t lead to political ruptures. Sometimes, political and economic crises come together in what we call a “hegemonic crisis.” In short, this is the moment when the group that runs the government can no longer present convincing projects to get support from different classes. As a consequence, this group splits. Now we’re on the verge of an articulation between the economic and political crisis that provokes a hegemonic crisis.

What would be 2018’s rupture?

Don’t expect tanks on the streets, conspiracies, or burning palaces. According to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat, from Harvard, democracies die in a different fashion. Citizens continue to vote, constitutions and institutions remain, but leaders question their legitimacy and find loopholes to enhance their power and intimidate opponents. “Democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps,” they write in their book “How Democracies Die.”

Mr. Levitsky and Mr. Ziblat were in Brazil last week. They mentioned Donald Trump as the most obvious symptom of the problems eating away at democracy. They also said that presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro is a true menace to Brazil’s reigning political order.

Mr. Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate who leads all opinion polls when former President Lula is not included on the ballot. has time and time again questioned the very legitimacy of Brazil’s electoral system. During a talk show appearance, he said that the elections will take place “under suspicion.”

This complaint, however, gained steam in 2014, after Dilma Rousseff won re-election. On the very next day, runner-up Aécio Neves (who is now rattled by corruption scandals) called the legitimacy of the vote into question, asking for a recount – which didn’t happen, as no evidence of fraud was detected.

Congress had voted on an amendment to the Constitution to bring back paper ballots in addition to the electronic votes. The idea didn’t prosper, as the Supreme Court decided in June that having paper ballots would jeopardy the secrecy of the vote. Meanwhile, the Superior Electoral Court guarantees the inviolability of the current system.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric makes this election even more polarized than it would already be – with former President Lula in prison and unable to run, and the candidate in second place choosing a vice presidential nominee that openly defends a military coup d’état.

Not a great sign, especially considering that Brazilians are trusting less and less in democratic institutions. 

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PowerAug 14, 2018

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