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Brazil's Path To Populism Should Not Surprise Anyone

Jair Bolsonaro's triumph in the first round of the presidential election is worrisome, but a simple response to economic hard times and a corrupt political class.

Bolsonaro supporters last week in Rio de Janeiro
Bolsonaro supporters last week in Rio de Janeiro
Marcelo Cantelmi

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Anyone with doubts still about how a serious recession, combined with the widespread pilfering of public funds, can impact voters need only look at what happened in Brazil, our colossal neighbor, where former military man Jair Bolsonaroa radical on various counts, including in his admiration for authoritarian and even despotic rule just won the first round of the presidential election.

His notable rise in politics is not, however, unusual. Nor are the conditions that fostered it. For the same reasons, similar figures are proliferating around the globe. Without the devastating slump that followed the financial crash of 2008 that led, in turn, to acute concentration of wealth, the extremism crossing the length of the European continent like wildfire would not exist. Nor would we be seeing Trump's populist experiment in the White House. Likewise, the seeds of the fascism that emerged in Europe in the 1930s were sown in the social debris created by the 1929 crash and ensuing slump.

Latin America, given its experiences with brutal dictatorships, has its own reasons to be alarmed by Bolsonaro's ascent. Modern history shows us that effects multiply if the conditions producing them intensify. In other words, if one of these types occupies such an important position, more will appear, and soon.

Last year, 13% of Brazilians said they were satisfied with their democracy.

Like his European counterparts, this would-be strongman — who has pivoted from backing state intervention in the economy to laissez faire — managed to interpret the frustrations of a people heaving under the worst recession of their history and the corruption of their entire political class. The party that's suffered most in all this is the Workers' Party (PT) of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), who pursued developmental policies but also set up an unprecedented system of corruption and finally ruined the economy.

Brazil's economic indicators tumbled during the first term of his successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). Annual growth reached a measly 0.9%, while per capita incomes began plummeting, falling 9.1% in the final year of socialist rule and effectively killing all hopes of social mobility.

It was in this simmering cauldron of frustration cooked up by the PT that the so-called "Carwash" corruption scandal broke, ultimately sending Lula to prison. That scandal is still very much on people's minds, and it is no coincidence that Dilma's bid to win a Senate seat in the Oct. 6 elections ended with a humiliating rebuff.

At a time when political parties and party politics are in crisis worldwide, these dismal events in Brazil have liquidated trust in traditional forces. Last year, just 13% of Brazilians said they were satisfied with their democracy. Bolsonaro's first-round victory can thus hardly be considered a surprise.

His voters are broadly middle class and want to restore a system of economic growth and prosperity. The wealthiest sectors, for their part, see his military rigor as something that could favor implementation of the economic adjustments needed to balance the country's antiquated accounts. Bolsonaro backers are mostly male, given the candidate's sexist discourse. But there are also women who support him for other motives, along with poor voters and even former PT supporters who like his nationalism.

As history has shown, momentum can shift.

The PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, is in a bind ahead of the upcoming runoff. Lula's successor sought to extricate himself from the hole into which his party and leader are sinking, and make himself attractive to the political center. He failed to realize, however, that in this multifaceted socio-economic crisis, the political center has all but dissolved.

There's still the second round, of course. As history has shown, momentum can shift. In 2002 in France, the fascistic presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came within a hair's breadth of winning against the conservative Jacques Chirac in the first round of voting. But in the second round, a singular alliance of forces gave Chirac a thumping majority of 82.2% of votes against Le Pen's 17.1%.

Those were different times, though. Extremist movements seemed to be the exception, and while people's trust in politics was bruised, it was still standing. Whether there's enough of that trust remaining to keep Bolsonaro from office will be determined on Oct. 28.

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