Brazil and Mexico Led by Populists, but in Opposite Directions

Similar in strategies and different in political guidelines, Bolsonaro and AMLO represent a major rupture for the two largest countries in Latin America. Brazil is now turning right and Mexico, turning left.

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The largest and most relevant countries in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico are going through profound political and economic changes, but in opposite directions. While the Mexicans leave behind nearly a century of liberal and conservative governments, Brazil closes a cycle of almost 15 years of center-left administrations from the Worker’s Party (PT).

In 2018, both elected strong populist leaders. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, a left-wing politician and former mayor of Mexico City, will rule Mexico for the next six years. Jair Bolsonaro, a retired military officer and former right-wing “hard line” congressman, will lead the largest country in Latin America for four years.

In this article, we will analyze the similarities and differences between AMLO and Bolsonaro and identify the political scenarios that allowed the rise of these populist leaders.

LABS invited to this reflection Ariel Goldstein, sociologist and professor from the University of Buenos Aires, Emerson Cervi, political scientist and professor at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), and Doacir Quadros, political scientist and professor at the University Center Uninter.

Leaders in opposite directions

Among the Latin American countries that have gone through elections in recent years, Brazil and Mexico are experiencing more abrupt ruptures. There is no shortage of similarities between the two of them. These are societies punished by violence, eager for economic growth, and deeply enraged with the corruption of the political class.

This scenario brewed distrust from the population in political institutions, a scenario that favors, in the opinion of Emerson Cervi, political scientist and professor at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), the projection of populist leaders.

“A common ground in the definitions [of populism] is that all manifestations of right-wing or left-wing populism occur in an environment of institutional disbelief. Populism feeds mistrust from society on the operation and the quality of the service provided by the institutions,” says Cervi.

“The populist ascension that questions the establishment happened from the left in Mexico and from the right in Brazil because it is precisely the opposition to the prior hegemony. The population finds an alternative in the opposite of what was ruling before,” analyzes Ariel Goldstein, sociologist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

The combination of popular longing for change with the discredit of traditional institutions helps explain why traditional parties had poor performances in the elections on both countries.

But this was only possible because, in addition to the political and economic similarities between the countries, their current leaders knew how to plot strategies that are as similar as they are effective to come to power.

Following the manual

1. Independence of the Leader

A feature of populism, according to Doacir Quadros, political scientist and professor at the Uninter University Center, is the independence of the leader in relation to the political party. “This means that this politician achieves his electoral success without a political party giving support or backing his campaign,” Doacir explains, pondering that, in his opinion, Bolsonaro does not fit entirely in the definition of populist, although he uses some populism practices.

One of them is precisely to build a campaign detached from political parties, which explains how the then pre-candidate Bolsonaro went from largest parties – such as the Progressive Party (PP) and the Christian Social Party (PSC) – to the hitherto inexpressive PSL, through which he was elected. The tactic aimed, above all, at getting away from traditional parties affected by cases of corruption and mismanagement.

The same strategy was used by AMLO, who became President through the rookie National Regeneration Movement (Morena), founded as a movement in 2011 from a left-wing partisan reorganization in Mexico and registered as a party in 2014. AMLO joins Morena in 2012, after being candidate and losing the presidential election by the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

“These are politicians who, to become presidential candidates, used more or less the same strategy of trying to get away from the traditional institutions – for example, the major parties – to present themselves as alternatives to them,” identifies Cervi.

The rejection to major parties is strengthened, in the speech from populists, with the reinforcement of the idea that there is a privileged group working against the majority of society. “This movement is similar: these are politicians who announce they are against the establishment, saying that society became hostage to corrupt politicians, to the elites, to the traditional media,” says Goldstein.

2. Play the Outsider

To bypass the establishment, therefore, both portray themselves as outsiders, although, in practice, they are not. AMLO can be considered an important political figure in the Mexican scene: he was mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 and was a presidential candidate twice. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has in his résumé nearly three decades as a congressman, and was affiliated to traditional parties.

Such inconsistency does not seem to have affected the electoral strategy of the current presidents. “Both portray themselves as outsiders against corruption in two societies that greatly reduced their trust in the traditional political system,” analyzes Goldstein.

3. Exploit the Dissatisfaction

Because of this, the two build their narratives around the discontent and the need for transformation. AMLO promises, in his own words, a “radical change”, while Bolsonaro used the phrase “I’m going to change things up, ok?” to exhaustion during the election campaign.

“In the case of Mexico, it is dissatisfaction due to the lack of social policies from previous governments, (…) especially by the segment of society that depends more on these policies. In Brazil, it is the opposite. There was, over the last decade and a half, a speech in favor of reducing inequalities. This generated, over time, a discontent that has been very well explored by Bolsonaro’s campaign when he presented himself as a representative of the rejected majority,” analyzes Cervi.

Similar, but not so much

Cervi highlights that Bolsonaro represents an outlier in Latin America’s populist tradition, marked by leaders who defended the democratic opening of political institutions, traditionally closed to citizen participation.

“This speech from the candidate Bolsonaro is somewhat new in the Latin American populism. It is exclusionary. This does not allow us to say that Brazil will have a government that will do what he says. In a series of points, Bolsonaro has already stepped back from some declarations he made with certain ease when was a congressman or candidate,” he identifies.

The Brazilian president’s inflamed narrative in favor of authoritarian regimes is also highlighted by Goldstein. For him, Bolsonaro’s speech steps away from populism for defending the extermination of political opponents. During the campaign, the then-candidate suggested that the population “shotgunned” those affiliated to PT. The sociologist points out that populism stimulates the division of society into two camps – the elite and the people –, but also preaches reconciliation.

“AMLO speaks out against a ‘power mafia,’ but he does not ask for extermination of opponents. This is a very clear difference because AMLO can be considered a center-left wing populist, but he is democratic. Bolsonaro would be an extreme right-wing populism, but also flirting with fascism,” he remarks.