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  • Lawrence White

Is South American Democracy In Crisis?

With the recent election success of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, there are increasing concerns that democracy is beginning to falter in South America. This election is particularly startling because Bolsonaro holds openly homophobic views and has previously praised the military dictatorship which ran Brazil between 1964 and 1985. Indeed, his election follows on from the major corruption scandal involving the partially state owned petroleum company, Petrobras. High level government officials are continuing to be investigated over allegations that they accepted bribes in exchange for giving out inflated contracts. Consequently, it appears to the outside world that something has gone fundamentally wrong not only with Brazilian democracy, but with democracy at large in South America.

However, to say that this turbulent era for Brazil is representative of a wider crisis in democracy throughout South America seems far-fetched. With the exception of Venezuela, most countries in South America are still democratic and are continuing to promote open political debate.

In 2018, Colombia demonstrated its trust in the democratic system by allowing former FARC rebels to take up parliamentary seats to ensure that such views are represented. This was part of a 2016 peace deal which brought an end to the last armed conflict in the western hemisphere by allowing FARC to reorganise itself into a legal political party. Whilst many Colombians still oppose the deal, the incorporation of former rebels into the political establishment has ushered in a new era of peace and emboldened democracy for Colombia.

Elsewhere in South America, democracy continues to thrive despite economic pressures, with Argentina being a perfect example. Similar to Brazil in the sense that it also experienced a military dictatorship, Argentina has been able to shake off its ties with the past. In the General Election of 2015, Argentinians elected Mauricio Macri as President, who has sought closer ties with the international community. In doing so, he has attempted to bring Argentina back onto the path of economic growth through international cooperation. Whilst he has not been elected as recently as Bolsonaro, he demonstrates that South American electorates are still capable of electing a moderate president who can act like a genuine statesman. Macri, and his attempts to carry out reforms, shows just how far Argentina has come since the days of the repressive military junta.

As a result, I would argue that the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil is a sign that democracy is actually functioning properly. He may hold deplorable views, but the election of a conservative who promises to reign in corruption and grow the economy has appeal to many Brazilians. Indeed, with the massive corruption scandal and years of a contracting economy, many Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro out of desperation for anything other than the status quo being offered by the ruling Worker’s Party.

It seems evident that the Brazilian electorate was, therefore, voting for change rather than an end to democracy when it elected a far-right populist. Indeed, if he delivers on his promises of reducing public debt and carrying out privatisation to stimulate the economy, then Brazilians may feel that his appalling views on social issues and democracy can be overlooked.

In voting for a man who openly defends a military dictatorship, Brazil has invited him to intrude on the democratic mechanisms of Brazil, hoping to be rewarded with a return to consistently high levels of economic growth. Only time will tell if this new president will respect their democratic institutions, but by looking at individual countries of the continent it is a clear exaggeration to say that both Brazilian and South American democracy at large is in crisis.

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