Is Latin America Facing a Wave of Right-Wing Populism?

Cristóbal Rovira, Project Syndicate

Many observers now argue that the wave of right-wing populism that has engulfed the US and much of Europe is headed for Latin America. But, while their concern does have some merit, there are key differences between the Latin American – and even Brazilian – context and that of Europe and the US.

SANTIAGO – On October 7, roughly 46% of the Brazilian electorate voted for Jair Bolsonaro for president. This means that almost 50 million Brazilians endorsed a politician espousing radical right-wing populist rhetoric, marked by authoritarianism, xenophobia, and misogyny. Does Bolsonaro’s success portend a new era of radical right-wing politics in Latin America?

The Brazilian election result is certainly cause for concern. Though Bolsonaro, who has a military background, was the frontrunner, few thought he would win more than 40% of the vote in the first round. Instead of a tight runoff between Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT) that ends with Haddad winning, it seems likely that Bolsonaro will be Brazil’s next president.

Many observers now argue that the wave of right-wing populism that has engulfed the United States and much of Europe is headed for Latin America, where conditions are ripe for populist politicians to thrive. But, while their concern does have some merit, there are key differences between the Latin American – and even Brazilian – context and that of Europe and the US.

In Europe, the main issue fueling support for the radical right is immigration, which was propelled to the forefront of public life by the massive influx of refugees that peaked in 2015. Yet, in Latin America, citizens are far more concerned about economic prosperity and public safety than immigration.

As for the US, President Donald Trump’s agenda, like his electoral victory, depends on partisan loyalty. Republican leaders may have their problems with Trump’s style, but their support has been vital to his administration’s achievements. The confirmation to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh – whose response to sexual assault allegations during the confirmation process would have disqualified him under less partisan circumstances – is a case in point.

Bolsonaro, by contrast, does not have a powerful party machine to back him, even as he upends rules and norms. He is a member of the Social Liberal Party, which has changed much of its platform – embracing far more conservative social policies – since he joined this year.

The Bolsonaro phenomenon is not even representative of wider Latin American politics, which have shifted rightward lately, but remain moderate. Both Argentina’s Mauricio Macriand Chile’s Sebastián Piñera – elected in 2015 and 2017, respectively – have been governing as center-right leaders.

Given this, it seems clear that Bolsonaro’s rise is the direct result of Brazil’s particular circumstances, which include a devastating economic recession and revelations of massive corruption scandals that have tainted the PT and the country’s entire political class. But the fact that a Bolsonaro presidency would not be part of a broader right-wing populist wave in Latin America does not make the prospect any less dangerous for Brazil.

These conditions are very similar to those that facilitated, in the late 1990s, the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who proceeded to implement radical institutional reforms that gave him virtually unfettered power to subvert democratic processes. Those reforms are a key reason why Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been able to turn Venezuela’s government into an authoritarian regime.

Could a Bolsonaro presidency pose a similar threat to Brazil’s democracy? The short answer is yes, precisely because, as with Maduro, it would be hard for Bolsonaro to govern otherwise.

To govern legitimately, Bolsonaro would need to secure widespread public support and among political and business elites. Yet, while Brazil’s new Congress is more conservative than the previous one, it is very fragmented, with established parties on the left and the right having lost support. This will make it difficult for the next president to pursue his legislative program, unless he manages to secure the support of a broad coalition.

The business community, for its part, is divided on Bolsonaro’s economic agenda. Many express serious doubts about the sustainability of the neoliberal reforms that his economic team has proposed.

Moreover, if Bolsonaro is elected, he may have a hard time maintaining popular support, given the challenges he will face in delivering on his campaign promises. If he is unable to produce results quickly, large segments of the population could turn against him, particularly given that the PT retains a large base of support that can be expected to mount concerted resistance to a Bolsonaro administration.

Under these circumstances, Bolsonaro and his military allies may well resort to undermining Brazil’s democracy, much as Chávez did in Venezuela. This could include not only governing by decree and purging state institutions, but also silencing the media and repressing civil society. This would be ironic: during the campaign, Bolsonaro has often warnedthat a PT government would transform Brazil into Venezuela with its leftist policies, even though previous PT administrations have done no such thing.

As former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has indicated, it may not be a realistic threat, but it has helped Bolsonaro mobilize voters who were already angry with the PT – and the political establishment as a whole – for its involvement in massive corruption scandals. If this (understandable) anger clouds Brazilians’ judgment to the point that they elect Bolsonaro, their worst fears may become reality. Their country will be thrown into tumult, just like Venezuela has been, owing to the rapid erosion of democratic institutions.

So Latin America as a whole probably is not facing a wave of right-wing populists. But that does not make the threat Brazil faces any less potent. To confront it, mainstream parties on the right and the left will have to take a powerful and effective stand in defense of liberal democracy.

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