Brazil’s Election Shows the Dangers of an Increasingly Far-Right Police

Lula’s election victory was nearly derailed by a Bolsonaro-supporting police effort to suppress the vote. It was only the most recent episode in which politicized police forces have intervened to thwart democracy — and the US is far from immune to the problem.

Military police soldiers walk near Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Mauro Pimentel / AFP via Getty Images)

There’s an important lesson for Americans in the Brazilian election that just ended in the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat. No, it’s not about the fact that a less wealthy, more recently established democracy of over two hundred million people managed to get all their votes counted in a day, though this should obviously spark some reflection about the notoriously slow and chaotic nature of US elections.

Instead, it’s about the dangers of a politically extreme police.

The rapturous celebrations over the victory of left-wing challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last night were preceded by alarm that Brazil’s federal highway police were trying to steal the election from him. Reports of traffic jams and massive delays caused by police checkpoints on election day sparked fears of voter suppression, particularly since they were taking place overwhelmingly in Brazil’s northeast, a pro-Lula stronghold. According to a police memo obtained by the Brazilian Report, searches of vehicles shot up by 80 percent on the day of the runoff compared to the general election at the start of October.

You didn’t have to look far for other evidence of political motives. A shockingly large portion of Brazilian police already didn’t trust the country’s electoral system and preferred returning to dictatorship. The day before voting, the head of the highway police had urged his followers to vote Bolsonaro on Instagram, before deleting the post. And the scheme had reportedly been cooked up two weeks earlier in the Brazilian presidential residence by members of the Bolsonaro campaign.

“You wouldn’t even need to give an explicit order for anything,” a member of the campaign told O Globo, Brazil’s paper of record. “As the strength of these police forces is basically composed of supporters of the president, the consequence of such an operation is obvious.”

The plot didn’t work, with Lula eking out a narrow victory. But the effort almost certainly suppressed the pro-Lula vote in a race that had dramatically narrowed in the final weeks, and had it worked, it could’ve at minimum created a political crisis and all the attending chaos and danger that would’ve brought.

There’s an important lesson here for the US public and politicians, about how a powerful, largely unchecked, and increasingly extreme law enforcement establishment can become a serious threat to democracy in the right conditions. While not every cop is a dangerous extremist, such elements are, alarmingly, no small part of the country’s police forces.

Leaked FBI files show that the Bureau has for many years been investigating the problem of white supremacist infiltration of police and other law enforcement agencies, with which they have “active links.” Police message boards and Facebook groups are rife with racism and paranoid, violent posts about Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters. At least five police trainers who have trained hundreds of officers around the country were found to have similar records of far-right postings. A shocking number of cops subscribe to the QAnon “theory,” a delusional fantasy based on a series of anonymous social media posts that holds Donald Trump is at the head of a battle to save the country from a pedophilic cabal of Democratic elites. A recent survey of one-sixth of US sheriffs found they’re a lot more conservative than the average American and backed Trump’s actions while he was in office.

Americans have already gotten a taste of this with the events of January 6, where thirty off-duty police officers were among the crush of people who forced their way into the Capitol to try and stop the certification of the 2020 election result. Since then, we’ve learned there’s a worrying degree of sympathy, or at best indifference, toward the extreme, violent elements of the riot and their motives among a variety of law enforcement agencies.

We’ve seen similar stories play out elsewhere. A police mutiny was a central part of the successful far-right coup in Bolivia in 2019, before democracy later prevailed. Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported in 2015, the disappearance of firearms from police stations and subsequent rumors that they were headed to the capital was a key precipitating factor in the toppling of Ukraine’s president in 2014 — an episode that should be especially relevant to Americans, given the piles of dangerous military equipment that even local police forces have been given since September 11.

At minimum, the events in Brazil should spur a concerted program rooting out extremists from law enforcement agencies in the United States, as well as more ardently curbing the pipeline of dangerous military equipment to them. Ideally, it would also mean the revival of commonsense police reform legislation that died last year, and which an executive order signed by Joe Biden earlier this year did not make up for, since the order only affects the small corps of federal law enforcement officers.

All of this would be politically difficult of course, but it’s one of several necessary steps for protecting democratic rights. Recent history shows how rogue police forces, even if they aren’t an ever-present threat to democracy, can in the right political conditions — and if their politicization isn’t checked — easily become one.