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.