Will right-wing populism take hold in Latin America?

Will right-wing populism take hold in Latin America?

In a presidential election run-off on Oct. 28, Brazil is likely to elect right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro. His near-victory in the first round earlier this month — which now goes to a straight fight between Bolsonaro and center-left candidate Fernando Haddad — raised concerns that the right-wing populist wave in Europe and the US is now spreading to Latin America. 

Latin America has a long history of right-wing and left-wing populism. The left is strong in Venezuela and Bolivia, for example, and will come into power in Mexico on Dec. 1, when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — a more moderate example of left-wing populism — becomes president. 

However, right-wing parties and leaders have made gains on the continent in recent years, such as in Argentina and Chile, as left-wing parties that have long held power have become increasingly associated with economic problems and corruption. Most of these right-wing leaders have expressed views consistent with a global right-wing tendency to emphasize social conservatism and opposition to immigration, but have not embraced a populist approach. 

Bolsonaro’s political rise changes that, as he combines right-wing ideology with populist politics. While there are multiple definitions of populism, typically it takes the form of a leader claiming to represent “the people” against a corrupt and unrepresentative elite; though the concept of “the people” always excludes certain groups in society. Populists tend to propose simple solutions to complex problems. Populism can be grafted into right-wing or left-wing political ideologies or even, such as in the case of the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, something that does not fall clearly into either end of the political spectrum. 

Right-wing populists usually mix populist rhetoric with right-wing political priorities. These include the value of tradition, often through socially conservative views; a specific group identity that tends to exclude minorities and oppose demographic change, sometimes harking back to an idealized past in which life was supposedly better; and strength, often through a preference for using harsher measures against law-breakers or opponents. Right-wing populists have more diverse views on capitalism and economic policy, with some supporting deregulation and classically liberal economic policies, while others are deeply skeptical of capitalism and want more government spending on their priority areas. 

Right-wing populists usually mix populist rhetoric with right-wing political priorities.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Right-wing populism has been on the rise in the last few years. Donald Trump adopted such rhetoric and won the White House. In Europe, populist movements in Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden have all gained momentum in recent years, scoring varying degrees of electoral success. Issues that unite these movements include opposition to immigration and demographic change, a desire to preserve traditional identities and social power structures, hostility to globalization and global or regional institutions, and fatigue with traditional political parties. While the fears that drive these movements reflect real issues in society, many of the leaders affiliated with right-wing populist groups have damaged their credibility beyond their core supporters by using xenophobic, racist and misogynistic language. 

Bolsonaro easily fits into that template. In a country in which both of the traditional leading parties have experienced major corruption scandals, Bolsonaro has depicted himself as an outsider and an anti-establishment candidate, despite his experience serving seven terms in Brazil’s congress. He has a history of making extremely negative comments about women and racial minorities in Brazil. He has expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s former military dictatorship. He supports harsher measures to tackle Brazil’s significant violent crime, including diminished civil rights for people accused of crimes. He claims to defend traditional family and religious values, though his personal life could raise questions about his devotion to those ideals. 

Interestingly, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, recently expressed anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli views in an interview with Bloomberg, saying that, if elected, his father’s first trip abroad would be to Israel and that they would consider moving the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

Bolsonaro operates within an environment that is specific to Brazil. There are some differences between his rise and that of right-wing populists elsewhere, including the role that corruption played in damaging Brazil’s traditional leading parties. Nonetheless, many of the drivers of right-wing populism in Europe, the US and Brazil are very similar. These include the weakness of the traditional moderate centrist parties, frustration with established political leadership and institutions, a desire to strengthen a particular group identity while framing rival groups as the “other,” a willingness to emphasize law and order over civil liberties, and nostalgia for an idealized past.

Bolsonaro and other right-wing populist leaders seek to offer themselves as solutions to very real problems. In Brazil, economic malaise, corruption and crime are all serious issues requiring strong responses. However, populists usually fail to deliver on their sweeping, overly simplistic promises, leaving a population even more distrustful, frustrated and divided. It is possible that Bolsonaro’s opponents will unite to defeat him in the run-off election, though they face an uphill battle. It is possible that, if elected, he will enact some of the economic reforms that Brazil needs, especially as his economic proposals are less extreme than his social views. However, history demonstrates that populists tend to increase instability in their countries. 

It remains to be seen whether right-wing populism will gain a stronger hold in Latin America outside of Brazil. Given the continent’s history of attraction to populist leaders on either side of the political spectrum, it is a risk.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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