drain the swamp NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Populism’s Common Denominator

What unites supporters of authoritarian, upstart politicians like US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro is revulsion against the corruption of the political process. But voters will learn the hard way that strongman rule exacerbates rather than mitigates corruption.

BRUSSELS – Following Emmanuel Macron’s election as president of France in May 2017, global elites breathed a sigh of relief. The populist wave, they reassured themselves, had crested. Voters had regained their sanity. Helped along by an electoral system in which the two leading candidates faced off in a second round, the “silent majority” had united behind the centrist candidate in the runoff.

But now we have Brazil’s presidential election, in which Jair Bolsonaro, who displays the authoritarian, anti-establishment, and anti-other tendencies of a textbook populist, won decisively in the second round. A two-round electoral system in which the runoff pits a populist outsider against the last mainstream candidate standing is no guarantee, evidently, that the center will hold.

A similar lesson flows from Italy’s election earlier this year. The country’s electoral rules had been reformed to add a majoritarian element to its proportional representation system, the goal being to encourage pre-election coalition building among mainstream parties. Instead, it brought to power a coalition of the populist left and right. Electoral engineering, it would seem, is not only ineffective in beating back the extremist threat; it can have unintended, counterproductive consequences.

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