Lula and Jair Bolsonaro: the popular and the populist

. Aug 31, 2018
lula bolsonaro populist popular Bolsonaro and Lula: who is the real populist?

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been called a populist on many occasions. The use of this term comes from a number of reasons.

Firstly, Lula is a charismatic leader. It is not uncommon to see charismatic leaders dubbed as “populists,” even though populism is not connected to charisma. Secondly, Lula is a leader of the left. Similarly, leftists are often called populists, usually due to their economic policies, despite the fact that, once again, populism is not connected to leftism.

Thirdly, because of the social policies Lula adopted, particularly those of wealth transfer or redistribution. However, redistribution programs have a lot more to do with social democracy or the welfare state than they do with populism. Finally, because of his repeated discourse of pitting the elites against the people. Therein lies, perhaps, one of the defining elements of populism, though the way in which the people are set against the elites is crucial to characterizing whether it is, in fact, populism.

Why it is not correct to call Lula a populist

One of the most important ways of defining populism is the way in which political leadership and its government tackle established institutions. Populist leaders are those who break down institutional structures and deconstruct them to the benefit of their own personal power, therefore establishing a relationship between leadership and the people which has no institutionalized mediation. Taking that into account, we cannot classify Lula as populist. For better or for worse, Lula and his party always operated by way of established institutions, not against them.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Here are some examples:</span></p> <ul> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">Lula and the Workers&#8217; Party constructed broad alliances for their election campaigns and in congress. They brought several parties &#8211; many which fundamentally contradicted the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s ideological positions &#8211; under their governmental wing, in accordance with the standard practice of coalition presidentialism, which is the norm in Brazilian politics. Therefore, they governed alongside Congress, following the established procedures, and did not try to go above it or around it.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Workers&#8217; Party governments maintained a relationship of independence with judicial institutions, such as the judiciary as a whole and the Public Prosecution Office. They also supported that the president should choose as prosecutor general someone who has been elected by his or her peers, despite the fact that there is no legal determination to do it.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">Lula and the Workers&#8217; Party did not try to impinge upon the independence of the Federal Police, which produced investigations against the party and its top brass. In fact, to the contrary, Lula&#8217;s administration reinforced the Federal Police&#8217;s autonomy.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">They did not attempt any institutional changes with a view to perpetuating political power, such as abolishing limits for presidential re-elections, as took place in Venezuela and Bolivia, and was attempted, unsuccessfully, in Colombia.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">They did not go outside the established institutional structures to organize militias or other organizations to intimidate opponents or detractors.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">They did not restrict the freedom of the press, by denying concessions or through financial strangulation.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> </ul> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Therefore, in light of these observations, classifying Lula and his governments as &#8220;populist&#8221; is erroneous, being more of a rhetorical tool of political squabbling than an analysis worth taking into consideration. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even <a href="">corruption</a> cannot be understood as a characteristic of populism, as if it were, almost all of Brazil&#8217;s administrations would be populists. To the contrary, corruption is another institutional norm which is deeply ingrained in the <a href="">Brazilian political system</a>, and even in this aspect the Workers&#8217; Party adhered to the established practices.</span></p> <h2>But is there a risk of populism surging in Brazil?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Perhaps Lula&#8217;s quote, in which he said he is no longer a person, but an idea, might have something to do with this? The assumption does not hold water. Lula&#8217;s line harks back to the notion of routinization of charisma, an idea originally formulated by German sociologist Max Weber. What Lula is attempting to do is take his personal charisma and transfer it to his party and the movement which rallies around his &#8220;martyrdom,&#8221; demanding his release from prison.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If successful, this transfer would be very useful in boosting the candidacy of whoever comes to replace him in the presidential campaign (all signs point to his running mate, Fernando Haddad). It could also have a beneficial knock-on effect for all candidates who are connected to this movement in some form, as well as contributing to the resurgence of the Workers&#8217; Party among parts of the electorate, which is already happening, according to opinion polls.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The risk of populism in Brazil today comes from the right, not the left. It is embodied by Jair Bolsonaro &#8211; the &#8220;</span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mito</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8221; (the Legend), as <a href="">his followers</a> like to call him. Bolsonaro is also a charismatic leader, but one who presents certain clearer elements of a potentially populist government.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Once again, here are some examples: </span></p> <ul> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">Jair Bolsonaro has praised, time and time again, Brazil&#8217;s military dictatorship and its authoritarian forms of governance, believing that they could be legitimate internally and, therefore, adopted once again.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">He has a close relationship with security forces, particularly state military police forces, who are known for repeated cases of excessive use of force. By openly defending that the police should be able to use lethal force without the fear of being punished and, beyond that, that they should be rewarded for killing people, Bolsonaro is gesturing towards these forces and showing them they will have his full support and protection in their use of lethal force. Considering his prestige as a candidate among the police, as well as the explicit demonstrations of support he receives from police officers in uniform, it is plausible to suggest that this relationship could evolve into the formation of armed militant police groups in defense of a future Bolsonaro government.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">Bolsonaro repeatedly criticized the independence of the Justice system, either by stating that he could change the composition of the Supreme Court in order to nominate justices who are sympathetic to his beliefs, or by declaring that it be necessary to alter the composition of the court so that there be a proportional number of Christian judges.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">He opposes pluralism and diversity, openly defending the subjection of minorities to the majority, understood by him to be a conservative Christian majority.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> <li style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;"><span style="font-weight: 400;">He has threatened sections of the media which are critical of him, principally those from Globo, saying they would be financially strangled during his government.</span></span><br /> <hr /> </li> </ul> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">All of these factors are signs that the far-right candidate may adopt practices in his government which are typical of populist governments, undermining institutional structures which impose limits to the reach of government leaders. Interestingly, this comes in the context of a majority election, in which usually competitive candidates tend to sway more to the center, seeking to broaden their electoral support beyond their specific ideological circle.

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Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.

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