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What Can US Democracy Learn From Brazil?

What Can US Democracy Learn From Brazil?

BRASÍLIA – Preparations for the last presidential elections in the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies have been remarkably similar.

Down in the polls, the right-wing president claimed, without proof, that the election could be rigged. He suggested he might not accept a loss. And millions of his followers have vowed to take to the streets at his behest.

But the results, at least so far, have been radically different.

In Brazil, when the counts showed that the holder had been voted after one term, the government reacted together, quickly and decisively. The president of the Senate, the attorney general, the justices of the Supreme Court and the heads of the electoral agency went on TV together and announced the winner. The Speaker of the House, perhaps the president’s most important ally, then read out a statement reiterating that voters had spoken. Other right-wing politicians quickly followed suit.

President Jair Bolsonaro, politically isolated, remained silent for two days. Then, under pressure from his best advisers, he agreed to transfer power.

Thousands of his supporters took to the streets, blocking highways and demanding military intervention, but the armed forces showed no interest in disrupting the electoral process. The protests quickly fizzled out and the government began its transition.

In the United States, the sequel was longer, messier and marked by the worst assault on the Capitol in two centuries. President Donald J. Trump and many of his allies have denied losing the 2020 election.

Two years later, the nation faces one of the gravest threats to its democracy in generations, with many Republicans openly rejecting what has repeatedly proven to be a clean election, including many who promote it. lie as they run for midterm elections on Tuesday.

The differing images raise a fundamental question: is there anything the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, can learn from Brazil, a nation emerging from military dictatorship when President Biden ran for the first time in the White House in 1988?

Brazil, for its part, has closely followed what happened in the United States, where democracy did not break after the 2020 elections but folded.

With similar chaos predicted for their country this year, Brazilians have beefed up their system well in advance. Government leaders have added extra testing of voting machines and verification of results, they have standardized voting times to ensure returns come quickly and they plan to present a united front once a winner has been declared. .

“We learned from the experience of the United States,” said Bruno Dantas, head of Brazil’s supervisory court, which conducted a rapid audit of election night vote results intended to forestall allegations of fraud. “We built a network of institutions that anticipated the questions we knew might arise.”

The speed of the vote counting system in Brazil was also an important factor.

In many US states, voters are using paper ballots, which can slow counting, and the use of mail-in ballots has also jumped sharply in 2020 due to the pandemic. The outcome of the elections was uncertain for days. By contrast, Brazil is the only country in the world to use an all-digital system with no paper backing, which produced results within hours of the close of polls.

This design was precisely what Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies attacked as a dangerous flaw. They argued that without paper backups, no one could be sure their vote had been counted correctly.

Independent experts agree that paper backups would add assurances, but they also say that several layers of security built into the Brazilian system prevent fraud and error.

As Americans waited nearly a week for the 2020 election to be called for President Biden, Mr. Trump, his allies and social media pundits took advantage of the delay to sow doubt about voter fraud, using lies and conspiracy theories.

Sunday in Brazil, almost all the votes were counted in less than three hours. Before 8 p.m. local time, the winner, President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was declared. Mr. Bolsonaro did not explicitly accept the result, but neither did he dispute it.

“The international community has always agreed that the best way to organize elections is to have quick and transparent results that are announced immediately,” said Pippa Norris, a Harvard University comparative political scientist who has studied democracies around the world. “Our process is long, extensive and poorly regulated.”

Part of the challenge in the United States is that presidential elections are organized around rules and practices that differ from state to state and even county to county. In Brazil, the election is run by an independent electoral tribunal, made up of a rotating bench of federal judges, which is beyond the reach of the executive.

Decentralization can be a safeguard against a corrupt takeover, as it prevents a single point of failure, while giving localities the ability to introduce rules that expand the vote. But the United States is one of the few democracies in the world that does not have a national agency to tally votes and announce results, Ms Norris said. Instead, the public expects the media to call an election before official counts are completed months later.

Yet, in the age of the internet, even with a smooth election, misinformation can still spread.

On this issue, the US government is largely indifferent, leaving it to technology companies to monitor what can be said online, and to identify and remove posts that violate these rules.

In Brazil, a Supreme Court judge has led an aggressive crackdown on misleading and false posts.

The judge, Alexandre de Moraes, who is also Brazil’s current election chief, ordered tech companies to cut thousands of jobs, with few avenues of appeal, in what he said was an attempt to fight back. against “fake news” threatening Brazilian democracy.

Consequently, he became one of the most powerful referees in any global democracy of what can be said online. A week before the vote, his fellow election officials granted him unilateral authority to suspend a tech company in Brazil if it did not comply with his orders to cut a job within two hours.

Misinformation was still circulating, but probably much less than if Mr. Moraes had not acted. Yet his forceful approach has prompted widespread complaints from the Brazilian right that he, in fact, manipulated the election by censoring conservative voices.

What is clear is that he greatly expanded the power of Brazilian courts over online speech and, at times, issued rulings that raised concerns about whether his efforts to protect democracy instead posed their own threat.

He ordered searches of the homes of eight prominent businessmen after only one of them suggested he was supporting a coup in a private WhatsApp group, and jailed five people without trial for social media posts that he said attacked Brazilian institutions.

His harsh approach creates a delicate debate. Disinformation is a pernicious and fast-moving threat that has led a significant part of the country to lose faith in Brazil’s elections.

At the same time, tech companies have repeatedly failed to combat false reports around the world. So when a judge acts boldly to tackle the issue – but perhaps sets a dangerous precedent in the process – many in Brazil have mixed feelings.

David Nemer, a Brazilian professor at the University of Virginia who studies disinformation, said Moraes’ approach was effective because it acts quickly and forces tech companies to do better.

“I’m cautiously in favor because of the potential risks,” he said. “However, that shouldn’t stop us from having a debate about a more transparent process.”

Sunday evening, it was Mr. Moraes who announced the election results on television, surrounded by 11 other federal officials. “I hope that from this election, the attacks on the electoral system will finally stop. The raving talk, the fraudulent news,” he said.

The crowd gave him a standing ovation and chanted his name.

Minutes later, the White House issued a statement congratulating Mr da Silva “after a free, fair and credible election” – a sign of support that further hampered any potential effort to deny the results.

A week later, it’s clear that an election that many feared posed an existential threat to Brazilian democracy has instead proven the strength of Brazilian institutions — and perhaps could even serve as a model for others.

“We find it very difficult in America to adapt,” Ms Norris said. “We always look over our shoulder at the founders’ intentions, as if that’s going to guide us one way or another.”

“Really,” she added, “what we have to do is look abroad.”