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How populists come to power: a Brazil case study


How populists come to power: a Brazil case study

Earlier this month millions of Brazilian citizens voted in an election to decide the presidency and 1,650 other state and national positions. The fate of the presidency is still in question, as none of the 14 candidates was able to secure a 50 per cent majority of votes. A run-off election has now been called on 28 October between far-Right candidate Jair Bolsonaro (of the Social Liberal Party) and Left-winger Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party.

The strategic Importance of Brazil in the region cannot be overstated. It is the largest country by size and by population with over 207 million people. Between 2000 and 2012, Brazil was also one of the fastest growing markets in the world and formed a pillar in the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) of countries in the global South which were witnessing exceptional economic growth.

There is a lot at stake in these elections. Most significantly, the failing economy which has been in a deep recession for two years between 2014-16. The country still struggles from poor performing economic indicators such as a high unemployment rate of around 12 per cent and a decline in GDP. The economy has also been hit by widespread corruption and more significantly, several high profile cases such as the Lava Jato (Car Wash’ Scandal) involving Brazilian corporations and politicians alike including former president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who is now serving time in jail.

These scandals have impacted the public impression of the political class, as well as democracy at large. Crime has become a major issue in the country. 2017 saw the most number of murders in the country’s history and now totals about 175 murders per day across the country. Brazil is now home to seven of the twenty most violent cities.

In the elections held on 7 October, Jair Bolsonaro secured 41 per cent of the vote and Fernando Haddad managed 21 per cent of the vote. They were the candidates with the two highest number of votes and will face each other in a run-off election later this month.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, who is famous for his tough stance on crime and his vitriol against women and people of colour in the country has hardened his stance after the first election despite pleas from his supporters to moderate to win more support. However, he is still widely expected to win.

His opponent’s party, the worker’s party are viewed as corrupt and Haddad has not been able to capitalize on Lula’s widespread popularity. Latest estimates suggest Bolsarano will defeat Haddad by a margin of 58-42 percent.

The elections have been a polarizing event in the country and have seen a significant amount of violence in the form of political murders, assault and violence against journalists. The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has registered 60 such attacks on journalists. Even presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed at an election rally.

What seems like a likely win for Bolsarano will be yet another election around the world where a populist candidate has emerged victorious. It once again demonstrates a fightback against the ruling political class. This seems to be the same as in India, Pakistan, the Philippines among others.

How Bolsarano will behave as president is uncertain but what is clear is that there are eminent challenges facing him. As with the case of Imran Khan’s recent election in the Pakistan elections, and to some extent Modi and Trump‘s elections in India and the US, we will see how well populists do who challenge the status quo of the political ‘elites’.

Image Credit: CC by Brazil Elections/ Flickr

M. Sudhir Selvaraj

M. Sudhir Selvaraj writes the Weekly Security Brief for GCN. He is a fellow with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His interests lie in security of religious minorities, secularism, U.S. foreign policy and politics of South Asia. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at King’s College London. He has a master’s (with distinction) in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and graduated cum laude (with honors) from Concordia College, Minnesota with majors in Political Science and Global Studies and a minor in Business.

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