Is Brazil About to Elect a Right-Wing Populist for President?

Former army captain Jair Bolsonaro is the favorite to win Brazil’s runoff presidential election on October 27th. Given his disparaging comments based on race, gender and sexual identity in the past, his support for military involvement in law and order issues, and his sometimes flippant characterizations of liberal democracy, his likely triumph has triggered an international outcry.

To judge by some of the comments, there is a temptation, since Bolsonaro’s stunning first-round victory over left-wing candidate Fernando Haddad, a crony of former leftist President Lula da Silva (now jailed on corruption charges), to think some kind of cultural radicalism or religious obscurantism is making Brazilian voters prone to right-wing populism. This is to misunderstand the essence of illiberal populism.

Populism is usually a disease of democracy, a sentiment that grows within a democratic system but seeks to brush aside the rule of law by replacing it with a superior legitimacy that comes from the bond established between the savior and the masses. Very specific, traumatic circumstances drive voters to seek solutions they would otherwise not seek. It is not that Brazilians are particularly prone to right-wing populism. When Venezuelans first voted for Hugo Chávez in 1998, they didn’t vote for a left-wing populist because they were ontologically predisposed to it, but because an accumulation of grievances had modified the parameters of the reasonable.

Brazilians have lived, in recent years, through this horrendous sequence: a prosperity that took millions out of poverty and placed them temporarily in the middle class; a traumatic recession that revealed the previous prosperity was artificial, the child of government subsidies, cheap credit and economic dirigism engineered by the Workers’ Party’s left-wing populism; the collapse of public services and an angry street revolt; the revelation, thanks the anti-corruption effort by Brazilian prosecutors and judges known as “Operation Car Wash”, that the populist state and dozens of major corporations had participated for years in a vast exchange of bribes for government contracts; finally, the explosion of insecurity—31 homicides per 100 thousand inhabitants annually.

After Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s ally and successor, was impeached in 2016, and Michel Temer, from a centrist establishment organization that broke off with the Workers’ Party, took over, the new government pushed reforms to rein in spending, reduce the regulatory burden, increase trade, and attract foreign investment in the oil industry. But Temer himself is suspected of corruption and his popularity has been dismal, making his reforms even more difficult. The populist, statist legacy has prevented the economy from fully taking off.

Can anyone be surprised that Brazilians, who, like most human beings in extreme situations, are seeking a savior, are inclined towards the illiberal Bolsonaro?

Brazilians believe that a former reserve captain who offers arms to civilians to fight back against violent gang members and speaks like a sheriff will bring security; that a guy who is not afraid of offending minorities or letting off chauvinistic bravado will sort out the chaos that politicians and leftist activists have caused; that a champion of the family who hates the idea that public education installs tolerance towards all sexual options in young people, and has tuned in with evangelicals, will fight back against the demagoguery of the left and the naiveté of liberals; finally, that an anticommunist like him will not allow Brazil to become Venezuela (a large number of Venezuelans have fled their country and crossed the border into Brazil).

I will address on another occasion Bolsonaro’s actual policies if he becomes president—and Paulo Guedes, a Chicago-trained economist who has spoken of free-market reform, does become the powerful government minister many expect him to be. But first let’s understand why Brazilians are about to shock the world with President Bolsonaro.

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Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America and Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression.

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