Brazil’s election: The rise and impact of populism

September 28, 2022


The first round of Brazil’s presidential election happens this weekend, Oct. 2. The 2022 elections reflect a nation divided between two well-known candidates, current President Jair Bolsonaro and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Are Bolsonaro and Lula populist leaders? Is there such a thing as right-wing and left-wing populism?

Henrique Kopittke
Henrique Kopittke

Henrique Kopittke, a doctoral student in the University of Michigan Department of Sociology, studies the relationship between populism, democracy and social movements in Latin America. In the following Q&A, he discusses its impact on the upcoming elections.

How do you analyze current populism, democracy and social movements in Brazil?

My research deals with processes in which popular mobilization and social movements may result in the strengthening of populist challengers. This is not a process that happens deliberately or linearly. Instead, it is a history of the closure of political options, of how one form of politics came to dominate others and why.

There are a lot of competing definitions of populism. These accounts generally agree that populists idealize and may seek to enact their form of popular sovereignty, fuel anti-establishment sentiments, and postulate a fundamental antagonism between the people and the elite. Whether populism erodes or enhances democracy is a point of contention.

Populists may expand popular sovereignty and civil rights to long-excluded segments of society while subverting institutional mechanisms of accountability. This may occur to render a more superficial image of politics, with authoritarian beliefs, better expressed by Bolsonaro when he stated, “The minority must bow down to the majority.”

Social movements further complicate the picture. As far as they prioritize their demands and identities and do not submit entirely to the strategic necessities of leaders and their coalitions, they may render a less stifled representation of the “people.” Populist leaders may ally with social movements and attend to their demands, but by doing so, they might co-opt and subdue these movements entirely.

Has there been a rise in populism in the country?

Yes. In terms of rhetoric, Bolsonaro emphasizes the antagonism with the “political system,” especially the Workers’ Party. He attacked other branches of government associating them with corruption and accusing them of usurping democracy. In addition, he mobilized his followers to express their rejection of the Brazilian Supreme Court, targeting justices who censored supporters of the president.

Apart from rhetoric and mobilization, his populist leadership style is also notable for his continuous communication with his followers through social media, daily live broadcasts and press meetings, where his followers have attacked journalists.

Looking beyond Bolsonaro, his election was the result of the failure of the political establishment to present a coherent response to the multifaceted crisis that Brazilian society has been experiencing since 2013. Bolsonaro already captured much of the anger and indignation of the electorate. Lula bets on the popular desire to return to a more prosperous—and orderly—past. The political landscape seems, thus, saturated, without opportunities for new actors to emerge.

Are candidates Lula and Bolsonaro considered populist leaders? Or are they just using populist strategies to capture votes?

A different way of approaching populism involves viewing it as a strategy used by actors seeking to mobilize support and consolidate power. Therefore, the focus is not on defining which leader or movement is populist but on how and when populist strategies are used. Components of this strategy could be popular mobilization, antagonism and direct communication.

Lula and Bolsonaro both communicate in very “folksy” and direct ways. They both have antagonistic elements in their rhetoric. But the similarities stop there. Lula transits with ease between different registers and modulates his communication according to the constituency he addresses. Bolsonaro is more consistent in antagonizing institutions and portraying his supporters as the “true majority.”

How different are left-wing and right-wing populism?

Left-wing populist leaders generally emphasize economic and class antagonisms, focusing on opposing “big business” or “finance capital.” In the case of Latin America, global institutions and elites will also be featured in speeches, namely the IMF and its policies, as well as the United States. Right-wing populists emphasize cultural antagonisms. In Latin America, neoliberal populists antagonize states’ bureaucracies as sites of inefficiency, corruption and incompetence.

Bolsonaro follows both conservative and neoliberal patterns, blaming setbacks in his presidency on “infiltrated” Workers’ Party activists and crusading against the “degeneracy” and “corruption of values” embodied by celebrities and artists that oppose him. Xenophobia and racism are also characteristics of right-wing populists.

How do you explain the growth of populist politicians in Latin America?

There are structural and contingent factors. Leaders like Bolsonaro and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela came into the spotlight during severe social and economic crises. It is the contingent factor. Bolsonaro emerged after corruption scandals demoralized the Brazilian political establishment, alongside a hard-hitting economic recession and continuous popular unrest. Structural elements also explain how these crises hit Latin American political systems harder than elsewhere.

In Brazil, I would pose additional structural factors: the general institutional weakness of political parties, which benefit more from personalistic forms of politics; the weak democratic commitments of national elites, which may be in strongman outsiders to push for unpopular policies without the setback of persuading the public on the benefits or necessity of such policies; and finally, and maybe the most import factor, the gross inequality. Inequality in Brazil means that large population sectors feel excluded from politics. Still, it also means that exclusionary and authoritarian perspectives of who counts as “the righteous people” may thrive and become official speech.