In a world that is constantly evolving, people around the world are turning to leaders who quell their fear of instability and change. Since the creation of government, democratic or otherwise, people have looked to their leaders for guidance and strength, however putting too much faith in a government has also been a problem. In Brazil, the people have democratically elected Jair Bolsonaro, an extremely conservative leader who ran on the promise that he would be the cure to the corruption in the government that the Brazilian people were used to seeing, and his presidency could be the thing that causes Brazil’s fairly recently created democracy to backslide.
Like many populists, Bolsonaro’s rise to popularity starts with what Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz describe in “How Democracies Fall Apart” as “economic hardship and growing unease with globalization, immigration, and the established elite.” With corruption within the former presidency and what is possibly Brazil’s worst economic depression, the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and the imprisonment of the sitting president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in 2018, the people of Brazil began to stop putting their trust into the government. As election season came cround, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been likened to Donald Trump, saw this and used the Brazilian people’s skepticism of their government to his advantage. He painted himself as a political outsider who has the interest of the people in mind, unlike his opponents. By doing this, he establishes himself as a populist, or a leader who uses the fear and mistrust of the people towards the government to make themselves seem like an outsider and through rhetoric that further steers the people away from trusting the government, the leader makes it seem as if they alone can solve all of the country’s problems.
In his career and throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro has attacked several groups, including women and the LGBT+ community. Citing President Donald Trump as his political role model, Bolsonaro has seemed to take a page out of President Trump’s book when it comes to being outspoken on his beliefs. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro uses his extreme rhetoric to rile up a following and make people believe he is the solution to the country’s problems. Bolsonaro was the change they seeked, using many of the techniques of a populist that Kendall-Taylor and Frantz write about, such as painting his critics as “agents of the establishment.”
This practice of populism and populist leaders are dangerous to democracy, especially ones that are newly formed, as Kendall-Taylor and Frantz describe in “How Democracies Fall Apart.” In this reading, Kendall-Taylor and Frantz claim that populism is the road from democracy to autocracy. First it starts with a populist leader, like Bolsonaro, convincing the people that they are the solution to the country’s problems. Then when they are elected, they being to consolidate power and manipulate the system to gain power and as stated in “How Democracies Fall Apart,” “the slow and gradual nature of populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter.” In other words, populist leaders like Bolsonaro take power slowly and it is not noticeable until it’s too late to stop or reverse.
After power is taken away from the people, then the leader is fully in charge of decisions and has no one to hold them accountable. In Brazil however, Bolsonaro wears his intentions on his sleeve as he ran on the platform of returning Brazil to a strong militaristic state. However, these statements did not turn people off of voting for this politically far right candidate, because in Brazil’s 2018 election, he won against an opponent backed by the incumbent (who was involved in a scandal of his own and is currently serving 12 years in prison). It is possible that Brazilians didn’t understand the repercussions the election of Bolsonaro would have on the future of the country’s democracy, but with his strong views on cutting down crime with harsher punishments and a militarized approach to policing at a time of high crime and poverty in Brazil, it is more likely that his voters were more hopeful for the change that Bolsonaro’s strong approach to government will bring.
On the other side though, many Brazilians that oppose Bolsonaro’s election are terrified of what his presidency will mean for Brazilian democracy, which was only established in 1988, as well as the rights of minorities. Just like those Brazilians, the world will be watching with bated breath to see what this populist leader will do with his power and what his presidency means for Brazilian democracy going forward.
Interesting points. I think that the attack to minorities and harsh rhetoric is very concerning, specially in newer democracies, and Bolsonaro has shown authoritarians signs since before he started running . I think that the particular moment in which Bolsonaro won makes his rise to power understandable as a backslash against the corruption scandals that dominated the previous administration. I also believe that the damage that Bolsonaro has done to Brazil’s institutions is still limited and mostly reversible. The real question will be how this regime continues to progress. What kind of reforms will he propose on the democratic system to manage to hold power? His ability to cement power, and the willingness of the senate and the courts to put a check on his worse impulses will determine if he ends up being a protest candidate, or clings to power and becomes another stealth authoritarian.
This post points at a quite interesting problem in the realm of democratic backsliding–how can populist, perhaps “stealth authoritarian” leaders be prevented from eroding democratic norms and institutions, when they themselves are quite popular? Bolsonaro is a compelling case here, as there are numerous cases of leaders coming to power with their authoritarian ambitions hidden, whereas Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism seems to have been a selling point of his campaign. Nancy Bermeo points at leaders similar to Bolsonaro, whose “ruthless pragmatism” in solving a country’s problems often explicitly entail the derision of democracy on the campaign trail and in office. Is it even possible to stop these popular authoritarians by democratic means?