Editor’s Note: This is the first of two parts for this post. Please find part one here.
by Thomas Kestler, University of Würzburg
Translated and Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
Bolsonaro – a prototype of RRP?
RWP is a phenomenon that has been introduced previously in Latin America. Earlier examples include former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina, and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (Doyle, 2011; Gamboa Gutiérrez, 2019; Levitsky & Loxton, 2012). So far, however, RWP appeared either in an authoritarian, a punitive, or a neoliberal variety. According to Giordano (2014), right-wing populists’ central claim was to pursue a ‘post-ideological’ agenda and to address the ‘real problems’ of citizens, especially the problem of public insecurity. They promised a determined crack-down on criminals and corrupts, often in defiance of legal provisions and with the help of the military. In periods of economic crisis, the fight against inflation was another hallmark of right-wing populist appeals. Nevertheless, nativism, the core feature of RRP, was largely missing in earlier cases of RWP in Latin America.
Lately, however, a new breed of right-wing populists has emerged, which seems closer to its European and North American counterparts, especially Jair Bolsonaro, the forerunner of the most recent right-wing populist wave in Latin America. During the 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro stressed religious values, attacked the corrupt establishment, announced his goal to liberalize gun laws, and justified police violence against supposed criminals. His discourse also featured homophobic and racist elements, mainly when referring to Brazil’s indigenous communities. Bolsonaro emphasized his (modest) military career and filled many of his cabinet posts with active or retired military officers when in office. This militaristic attitude not only served to underscore his resolve in fighting crime but also his sympathies with the military dictatorship from 1964 through 1985. Economically, he took a liberal stance with the appointment of Paulo Guedes, a renowned liberal economist, as minister of the economy. However, when it turned out during the Covid-19 crisis that increases in social assistance translated into public approval, Bolsonaro proved willing to put economic orthodoxy aside (Bülow & Abers, 2022). Thus, cultural issues and the transformation cleavage dominated Bolsonaro’s discourse and political agenda, earning him the attribute ‘radical right-wing populist’ (Zanotti & Roberts, 2021b).
Nonetheless, Bolsonaro is as much a symptom of a broader trend as he is a consequence of recent Brazilian history. His rise to the presidency was the outcome of what Hunter and Power (2019) described as a perfect storm: “an economic crisis caused by a prolonged recession, a political crisis of rising polarization and falling trust in established parties, a corruption crisis brought to the fore by the Lava Jato investigation, and the deterioration of an already dismal public-security environment” (p. 71). Bolsonaro’s election was a backlash against the left, specifically against the Workers’ Party (PT), which had ruled the country between 2003 and 2016. Anti-PT sentiment had already grown before, in the wake of a corruption scandal in 2005 and a protest movement in 2013. With the Lava Jato scandal of 2014 and the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the climate of confrontation and hostility towards the PT increased further. Bolsonaro drew on this antipathy to foster the notion of a communist threat and to present himself as the savior of religious and traditional Brazilian values. He promised to turn back the clock and undo 13 years of PT government.
From this overview, it becomes clear that Bolsonaro is on the political spectrum’s far-right side. About the right-wing dimension, therefore, Bolsonaro meets Mudde’s criteria. He not only maintained strong ties to the military, but on several occasions, he also threatened to close the Congress and the Supreme Court and declared that he would leave power only when dead, which even puts him close to the category of right-wing extremism (BBC, 2021; Hunter & Vega, 2021; Stuenkel, 2021). The second criterion of right-wing radicalism, nativism, is also clearly met, given Bolsonaro’s offenses against the indigenous population. A series of racist, homophobic, and misogynist remarks complete the picture. In addition, Bolsonaro strongly emphasized morality and religious principles to mobilize the critical evangelical vote, which may be regarded as a Latin American specificity of right-wing radicalism.
On the dimension of populism, Bolsonaro is positioned within the range of RRP, too. The antagonism between ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ is evident in Bolsonaro’s discourse, although in a typical right-wing interpretation, reflecting the ideology of producerism. This ideology rests on the opposition between an unproductive, parasitic, ‘verbalist’ elite on the one side and the category of tax-paying, productive, ordinary people on the other. It is rooted in 19th-century US-American populism and is still a cornerstone of conservative ideology in the United States (Berlet & Lyons, 2000). In Bolsonaro’s case, the ‘elite’ is defined as the left-wing, mostly academic establishment epitomized by the PT. At the same time, ‘the people,’ according to a campaign speech from 2018, are conceived as “good citizens, workers, conservatives, Christians that preserve family values” (Tamaki & Fuks, 2020, p. 114). Although Bolsonaro has served for many years as a member of Congress, he fashioned himself as an outsider and claimed to defend these decent people against ‘gender ideology’ and the ‘political correctness’ of the left elite. Thus, there is little doubt that Bolsonaro fits the definition of RRP as proposed by Mudde.
As some observers maintain, has the global wave of RRP reached Latin America? To answer these questions, the concept of RRP was disaggregated into its parts and brought into accordance with the Latin American context. The criteria of authoritarianism and nativism were adapted to accommodate regional specificities such as militarism and the transformation cleavage. The more inclusive concept of natural order proved suitable for identifying functional equivalents of nativism and ethnopluralism. It allowed the integration of various ideological elements of right-wing radicalism, such as traditional ethical and religious values. Populism was treated as a separate dimension and defined, in line with Mudde, as a “thin-centered ideology” based on the antagonism between a morally pure people and a corrupt elite. Its Latin American prototype, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, turned out to be close to European RRP but with more substantial elements of producerism, which is also a typical feature of the populist radical right in the United States.
With Bolsonaro and his sustained support in the Brazilian electorate, RRP has also taken root in Latin America. This does not mean that other cases of right-wing populism in Latin America fall equally into the category of RRP. However, the case of Bolsonaro shows that this concept is compatible with the regional context and that its specific regional variety may also emerge in other Latin American countries (Kestler, 2022).
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 In the 2018 presidential election in Brazil, 70 percent of the members of evangelical churches and communities voted for Bolsonaro (Løland, 2020).
Thomas Kestler (2023) "Is Bolsonaro an example of a radical right-wing populist?". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. ISSN 2701-4924nameVol. 3 Num. 1. available at: https://bras-center.com/is-bolsonaro-an-example-of-a-radical-right-wing-populist/, accessed on: October 4, 2023.