Brazil’s Populist Temptation

After a series of disastrous governments, October’s general election will give Brazilians a chance to chart a new course for their country. But with populist politicians leading in the polls, the country may instead be headed for a period of prolonged social, political, and economic turmoil.

SÃO PAULO – Latin America’s largest economy is in the midst of a prolonged political crisis, aggravated by the appeal of populism. Like a drug, populism has attracted Brazilians with fanciful promises of higher living standards and enhanced well-being. But, for 16 years, the country’s populist presidents have presided over record-high unemployment, skyrocketing budget deficits, a return to poverty for millions, and the worst economic recession in a century.

Populists have also left a legacy of corruption. The “Operation Car Wash” scandal exposed a huge cast of dishonest politicians, criminal civil servants, and shady business leaders – all of whom enriched themselves by stealing from the state.

One might assume that Brazilians, after enduring so many governance disasters, would be eager for change. We will find out if that’s true in October, when voters head to the polls for a critically important general election. For now, however, Brazil appears unwilling to kick its populist habit. On the contrary, populism has never been stronger.

In 1994 and 1998, Brazilians chose as their president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who rid the country of hyperinflation, reformed state institutions, and put Brazil on the path to stable, democratic governance. Yet in every general election since, populists have been returned to power. This period of dominance ended only after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office in 2016, following allegations that she had manipulated the federal budget to hide economic problems. Then, in April 2018, her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was arrested because of his involvement in the Car Wash case.

Astonishingly, this malfeasance is not hurting the current crop of populist candidates. Opinion polls show that the still-jailed Lula is leading the race, followed by a rabidly populist Congressman and former army officer, Jair Bolsonaro, who proposes only crude – and often vicious – solutions to Brazil’s complex problems. (One of Bolsonaro’s more outrageous proposals is to give people guns to fight off violence.)

The only reform candidate with any chance of winning is Geraldo Alckmin, a former governor of São Paulo. Alckmin has vowed to slash spending, open up the economy, privatize state companies, and clean up the messy legal and regulatory thicket that has prevented investment in critical infrastructure like ports, roads, and railways. And, with a Churchillian platform of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” he is not shying away from the painful reforms that Brazil so desperately needs – like overhauling the pension system, simplifying the tax code, and restoring accountability to the political process.

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Needless to say, not all of Alckmin’s ideas appeal to an electorate addicted to state benefits, privileges, and sinecures. But Alckmin believes that people will come to their senses in October and choose a president who has the experience, competence, and moral character to guide the country’s return to prosperity. He often cites French President Emmanuel Macron as an example of a leader who won by telling voters the truth.

There are certainly those who share Alckmin’s pragmatism; but Brazil’s electorate is leaning the other way. By promising “change” and blaming the usual scapegoats, populist candidates have been playing to people’s anger over corruption, violence, unemployment, and low wages. For Bolsonaro, the way forward is not only a relaxation of gun laws, but also the introduction of military-like moral codes and a purge of “leftist ideas” from schools.

Other candidates are no less divisive. Ciro Gomes, a former governor of Ceará state, has frightened the business community by suggesting he would resurrect an unpopular tax on financial transactions – known as the CPMF – and rescind a recently approved labor law that has helped lower liabilities for companies that fire workers. Lula simply says that his return – if he is in fact allowed to run – would yield the type of job creation and growth that accompanied his previous tenure.

The only woman in the presidential race, Marina Silva, is an environmental activist and former senator who has sought to position herself as an alternative to populist candidates and the center-right Alckmin. But, with an esoteric platform largely devoid of details, it is difficult to envision how she would implement the unpopular reforms that the next president will have to undertake.

The October election will set Brazil’s course for the next decade. The question now is whether Brazilians will vote with their guts or with their heads. A gut vote would deepen Brazil’s social, political, and economic turmoil, as the grip of populism transforms an already ailing country into a terminal patient.

But if reason prevails, Brazil can thrive once again. Reforms will strengthen the economy, and political stability and effective governance – the antidote to democratic malaise – will offer a viable alternative to the pull of populism. Alckmin is correct: emulating France’s political reinvention is a better option than returning to the past. One can only hope that Brazilians agree.

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