In the Brazilian general election, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president.

Bolsonaro's views are controversial (this is an understatement), and some have declared fears that Brazil's democracy may be under threat, such as reported by the Financial Times, The Economist, Al-Jazeera, or Le Monde Diplomatique, the latter of which reports that he has declared to

“banish the marginal reds [delinquents of the left] from the fatherland; they will leave or be imprisoned,” he threatened, in a “cleansing never seen before in this country.”

Time will tell how much of this is rhetoric and how much he intends to carry out, but how powerful is the Brazilian presidency? Bolsonaro's party has only 52/513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and only 4/81 in the Senate (see wikipedia); the Chamber has 30 parties in total, so I would expect forming a majority coalition would require watering down anything radical.

The press seem to focus on how Bolsonaro doesn't seem to like democracy or rule of law much, but regardless of his views, what can he legally do?

Of course, he may try illegal things; he has previously declared that if he were elected president, he would begin the coup on the very first day — but for this question, I am interested in what he can do within the scope of the law and the Brazilian political system.

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    The currently highest voting answer answers this well, but is (by necessity) so long that the main part is hidden in the middle of much other info. So I will summarize what @Mefitico said about the quote here: the quote is correct but is taken out of context and is far less alarming in context. It is meant to apply to corrupt (as in, legally prosecuted for corruption) political leaders of the left (PT) party, NOT general populace with left wing views
    – user4012
    Oct 30, 2018 at 16:50
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    @user4012 The problem is: the president is supposed to follow and enforce the law. Bolsonaro really made discurses against "left" and his definition of left is wide (basically anyone agains him?), worse he made discourses agains minorities (afro descendents and homosexuals) and even misogine. Even worst he public praised a notorious torurer from the military dictartoship "gestapo" police
    – jean
    Oct 30, 2018 at 20:23

3 Answers 3


I'm Brazilian myself, so I can tell you first-hand about the current situation. I'm fluent in both English and French, so I've also seen some foreign media outlets covering the situation here. We usually say that "Brazil is not for amateurs", which is meant to say that the case in our country is always complex, and care should be taken when forming opinions too quickly.

Given this preamble, I'll start actually answering your question:

"(...) and some have declared fears that Brazil's democracy may be under threat (...)"

A lot of care should be taken with this statement. Indeed since 2014 Brazilians are quite unhappy with the election process. In that election, blank and null votes outnumbered the elected president Dilma's votes (those blank/null happen because voting is mandatory in Brazil).

That being said, any claim by Bolsonaro himself (and not by his opposers or allies) that could be considered an aggression to democracy is at least 10 years old. He does however soft-tone the military regime that held power in Brazil before our current republic, which sounds pretty bad, but is not a statement in favor of a new military regime.

There is also a big concern over the ballot casting machines and their safety, which was already present in 2014 (when Bolsonaro didn't run for presidency).

“banish the marginal reds [delinquents of the left] from the fatherland; they will leave or be imprisoned,” he threatened, in a “cleansing never seen before in this country.”

Time will tell how much of this is rhetoric and how much he intends to carry out (...)

This is rhetoric but will likely be carried out. Most people voting for Bolsonaro are not his fans, but rather detractors from PT (the worker's party), which was involved in major corruption scandals. Ever since I was born, I've always heard that the vast majority of politicians in Brazil are corrupt, and many important people from PT are in jail and/or responding to a high number of lawsuits. This includes the candidate PT tried to enroll for election (Lula, who is in jail), and Fernando Haddad who answers for having parts of his campaign spending illegally paid by a private company. These people will indeed be prosecuted (and many convicted) but by the judicial branch, not by the president.

The fear in place had PT won the election would have been some kind of presidential pardon for PT's crimes (particularly Lula's) and rearrangements in the police and public prosecutors force, which would have caused investigations over corruption scandals to halt. In the end, Bolsonaro can fulfill his rhetoric by doing nothing. Though most of the population expects him to reinforce investigation and support judicial power. He is expected to nominate the judge who convicted Lula for the Supreme Court.

But how powerful is the Brazilian Presidency?

By itself, not that powerful. But with the help of Congress, quite a lot. Bolsonaro indeed does not hold majority of Congress, but presidents in Brazil are as effective as their skill to deal with Congress and Senate. Lula bought Congress with corruption money. Temer did so with office chairs and "emendas parlamentares" (which basically means freeing money to a congressman's proposal).

so I would expect forming a majority coalition would require watering down anything radical.

Those who actually fear he will abuse his power are those concerned about his links to the military. There are people in Brazil today who even support military intervention (a completely absurd proposal for any reasonable person).

He may, however, be able to form majority to approve right-wing projects and decisions, which for the left-wingers is in itself radical and unwanted.

The press seem to focus on how Bolsonaro doesn't seem to like democracy or rule of law much, but regardless of his views, what can he legally do?

Again: not much, but quite a lot. It depends on who you ask. Owning guns has been basically forbidden in Brazil, but he can at a stroke of his pen revoke this status. He can also strongly facilitate the possibilities for carrying guns in public.

Most of the fearsome things would require major support from Congress and Senate, but note that one of his sons was the most voted senator and another was the most voted deputy. If he manages to have his children as chiefs of both legislative chambers over the next year, he can do a lot more while remaining protected.

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    The context you give for the "banish the reds" quote helped me a lot. That quote initially read to me like "I'm going to imprison that minority group I hate!", and it's much more sympathetic as "I'm going to imprison corrupt politicians". There's definitely a fine line to be worried about, but at least I can now see a sensible motivation. Oct 29, 2018 at 14:56
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    @KamilDrakari Well, while the people mostly will understand the speech as being against corrupt politicians from PT, it is also nice to say that Bolsonaro could really have chosen better words. There are major scandals involving center and center-right parties, and PT is not the only "red" (i.e. left-winger) party. He could also had emphasized the "thieves" part over the "red" part. My point being, he could have done himself a favor in leaving less space for misinterpretation.
    – Mefitico
    Oct 29, 2018 at 15:43
  • "...but he can at a stroke of his pen revoke this status." Why and how could he do it? Isn't changing laws more the prerogative of the legislative then the executive branch? I was hoping to learn more about the powers that the Brasilian political system gives the president in principle, but it's also nice to hear an inside opinion about what will likely happen. Oct 29, 2018 at 16:21
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    @Triarion : Gun control laws in Brazil are really poorly designed. Basically the law establishes 4 conditions to award a gun ownership license. These include having no criminal records, passing some exams and the most controversial clause says "having a fair reason to own a gun". Because this is arbitrary, the president can issue orders on what this will be applied. So he can change the ruling to "Any person believing that his property and safety require protection has a fair need". Congress can override him by implementing better laws though, but this is not as straightforward.
    – Mefitico
    Oct 29, 2018 at 16:39
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    @gmauch : I am not an expert in this law, but I was recalling Bolsonaro's son speech (youtube.com/watch?v=pD7GDDD7NUE) at 37min he mentions "Comprovação de Efetiva Necessidade", this matches what I've seen on taurusarmas.com.br/pt/noticias/… . So there is a "portaria" that currently makes it hard for anyone to own a gun at home (though not strictly forbidden). Carrying a gun is indeed forbidden unless you are a police officer. The point is sustained though: The president can make it easier or harder to either own or carry a gun.
    – Mefitico
    Oct 31, 2018 at 4:14

According to this article Brasil's president can appoint or dismiss persons for lots of position, of which only some must be approved by the Senate:

The president of Brazil has the power to appoint some 48,000 confidence positions, of which only ambassadors, higher-court judges, the solicitor general, and Central Bank directors must have senate approval. The president may also use the line-item veto, impound appropriated funds, issue decrees and provisional measures, initiate legislation, and enact laws.

The Cabinet of Brazil is made up of the Ministers of State and senior advisors of the executive branch of government. All Cabinet officers are appointed and dismissed by the President. There are currently twenty-four Ministries of State and fourteen other cabinet-level offices.

Also, it is important to note the President might be impeached (see Dilma Rousseff's impeachment by the Senate).

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    The issue decrees part sounds like potentially the most powerful, but it depends a lot on what scope of those decrees may be.
    – gerrit
    Oct 29, 2018 at 12:55
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    @gerrit - yes, you are right. It is also important if this decrees can be cancelled by another democracy actor (I am not familiar with Brazilian politics and cannot find the conditions under a decree can be reverted or if it must be approved by the legislative body in some time frame).
    – Alexei
    Oct 29, 2018 at 12:59
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    Fernando Collor was also impeached. This does require losing congress support. Also, line-item vetos can be overriden by the congress, though is a bit of a convoluted process.
    – Mefitico
    Oct 29, 2018 at 13:53
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    @Alexei Presidential decrees are valid for a limited amount of time. To be sustained afterwards they need to be voted on congress and on senate. This is usually a measure for when immediate action needs to be taken over a subject, and because the congress is slow to respond the president holds this prerogative. The congress may revoke the decree relatively fast if he wants, and the Supreme Court may deem a certain decree to be against the constitution and therefore void.
    – Mefitico
    Oct 29, 2018 at 17:13

The real politic power is on the hands of the MDB party and is a such since the end of the military dictatorship (1964-1985). All the last elected presidents got allied with this party:

José Sarney: 1985-1990

Fernando Collor: 1990-1992

Fernando Henrique: 1995-2003

Lula: 2003-2011

Dilma Rusself: 2011-2016

Note Collor and Dilma suffered impeachment after losing MDB support and in fact they are the main articulators of the process (in the case of Dilma together with PSDB party and all the right wing).

Note most politicians are corrupt, independent of party/wing/ideology or even demagogy (that's a indisputable fact in Brazil). In fact it's said to be impossible to get any bill passed (or anything done) without filling the rigth pockets and both the senate and congress needs to be keep appalled with huge amounts of money.

How much the next president can do depends on how much support he can get from both the senate and congress and both are know not to be very sensitive from public demands.

On the other hands theres a growing social move in direction of a new religious tradition and this new tradition is urging in grabing political power and it's representatives are growing in all layers: federal/ states/ municipality. The next president represent those people and they are more right wing minded (a lot).

To add to this caldron of chaos there's the critics about the judiciary is actual being political and even Dilma and Lula process can be or not entirelly fair.

Also there's critics against the media (also right wing, hates Lula and don't likes Bolsonaro.)

Conclusion: Nobody can be sure how thing can be from one year from now. Bolsonaro is not know to be the most bright candle around. In fact he was the "right guy" in the "right" social media wave but it's said he is trustworth as a Nixon, smart as a Bush and reasonable as a Trump.

He can plead support from MDB and media in exchange of power/money and in this case he can do much as he (and his sponsors likes). He can try to fight MDB and media and in this case it will be a shortened term. He can manage to persecute left wing people (and even minorities) in many ways and repercution will depend on his media and others party support.

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