School of Transnational Governance

Can Brazil Safeguard Democracy? Justice Barroso Talks Brazil's Elections, Democracy and the Role of Courts at the EUI

Watch the video of the Justice of the Supreme Court of Brazil interviewed at the EUI on 16 November.

Few people know how to work a room as Luis Roberto Barroso: with his measured words and unhurried reasoning, he provided the audience with an informed perspective on the radical political shift that the election of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has brought in Brazil, and of the role of the Supreme Court as pillars of the democratic process.

Who is Luis Roberto Barroso? A Law professor and Justice at the Supreme Court of Brazil (Supremo Tribunal Federal), a role he was appointed in 2013, he gradually became one of the most respected voices as a Justice not only in Brazil but all over the world, particularly for his dedication to human rights issues. At the EUI, he joined a public conversation with Prof. Sergio Fabbrini (LUISS University) and our Policy Leaders Fellow Tatiana Falcao. Prof. Maduro, Director of the STG, moderated the stimulating debate.

Even amid controversy for Brazil’s political development, Prof. Barroso talked about his country with a fierce pride, reminding the audience that Brazil – whose democratic constitution celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – is indeed an extraordinary example in Latin America, a region ‘with a long, painful tradition of military coups and dictatorship’.

Even if Brazil’s future seems gloomy these days, we must acknowledge that the movie of Brazilian democracy is a fairly good movie.

In this regard, he cited the achievement of monetary stability, a good track-record in the defence of human rights, and the fight against systemic corruption that has been plaguing the country in recent decades as reasons for optimism.

During his talk, and while responding to the discussants’ and the public’s questions, Barroso did not seek to present Brazil as the perfect country: ‘Brazil is still one of the most violent countries in the world and this is something that has not entered the radar of the Brazilian society until recent times because the victims of the violence are mostly invisible people’ – but he highlighted the important and unique role, that the Supreme Court holds in Brazil.

Indeed, this centrality of the Court inspired Barroso’s career choices: ‘I am the product of a military dictatorship’, he stated, when being asked about his career achievements, ‘as a young law student I soon felt that I did not want these people to be in power and I found in the study of the constitutional law the most efficient way to fight this system and protect democracy”.

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He then shared some insights from his career, focusing on some particular cases he followed and particularly the significant role he played in the protection of minority rights. During this discussion, he often emphasised the role of the Supreme Court (and its Justices) in safeguarding the democratic process and fundamental rights, especially when the political power is not fairly representing the needs and rights of the society as a whole.

As examples of such instances, he cited gay rights and the right of abortion, which ‘should be, as fundamental human rights, protected by the Court even when the political consensus is against them.’ ‘As a judge, I cannot sacrifice a fundamental right against the law of a state’ he commented, while speaking of a case where he defended the right of abortion.

Moving the analysis to Europe, he prompted further debate by drawing a parallel between the rise of populist and far-right movements in the two regions, noting that voters in both Brazil and Europe have lost confidence in the political elite. In his opinion, these anti-establishment waves are a clear reaction to the inability of political elites to deal with structural problems: in Brazil’s case, long-lasting corruption, dramatic recession and an ever increasing crime rate: ‘unsurprisingly, then, most of votes are given to the candidate who was able to impersonate an anti-establishment position’ – he claimed.

‘When the political system loses its credibility before society – that is the moment when the Supreme Court must expand its role and prevent a drift towards authoritarianism,’ he stated.

For those who missed the captivating event, the streaming of the whole conversation is available here: