Accessible Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter December 4, 2020

Understanding Multi-directional Democratic Decay: Lessons from the Rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil

Tom Gerald Daly


On 28 October 2018 the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential elections in Brazil with 55% of the vote. This result has been viewed by many as yet another instance of the global rise of authoritarian populist leaders, grouping Bolsonaro alongside the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump in the USA – indeed, Bolsonaro has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.” The focus on Bolsonaro himself reflects the strong emphasis on executives in a rapidly expanding literature suggesting the emergence of a new form of would-be autocrat who is democratically elected but who hollows out democratic rule over time. However, this Article argues that, far beyond Bolsonaro, the Brazilian experience is an important case-study as it prompts reflection on three fundamental propositions. First, any analysis of liberal democracy as the perceived object of attack must be highly cognizant of the democratic “starting point” and history of a given state. Second, an excessive focus on executive-led assaults on democratic rule can impede fuller analysis of a broader suite of actors and factors relevant to the (declining) health of the democratic system. Third, authoritarianism is a more appropriate analytical lens than populism for identifying potential democratic threats, especially in the Brazilian context.

Corresponding author: Tom Gerald Daly, Deputy Director, School of Government, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia; and Director, Democratic Decay & Renewal (DEM-DEC), Melbourne, Australia, E-mail:

Earlier versions of this Article were presented at the 2017 Law and Society Association (LSA) annual conference, Mexico City, Mexico, June 23, 2017; the International Society of Public Law (I-CON) conference, Hong Kong, June 25–27, 2018; and the 14th International Human Rights Researchers’ Workshop, College of Law and Business, Ramat Gan, Israel, Jan. 2, 2019 on “Democratic Backsliding and Human Rights.”

Published Online: 2020-12-04
Published in Print: 2020-11-25

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