The populist paradigm and Brazil

With Lula’s narrow victory in the Brazilian elections, Michael Bergin reflects on the worrying takeaways from a bitter campaign

Is every election nowadays doomed to be like this? A bitter and divisive campaign, replete with scandalous allegations and desperate smear attempts, culminating in a highly contentious result that alienates one half of the population, who believe that the other half is inherently corrupt? In the case of Brazil, this particular paradigm, evident since the dawn of the age of populism in the mid-2010s, played itself out in almost textbook fashion in early November.

The incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, faced Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as simply Lula), a left-wing former President, in the country’s presidential elections, with an exceptionally fierce campaign ensuing.

Amongst the frankly incredible accusations that both sides levelled at each other were claims that Lula, an avowed Catholic, was being supported by the Church of Satan. After strenuously denying these rumours, the Lula campaign hit back with similarly salacious stories of Bolsonaro being willing to engage in cannibalism while on a visit to the Yanomami tribe in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, as reported by the New York Times. Neither story carried much water upon considered reflection, but that was beyond the point. The act of producing a punchy, memorable and egregiously manipulative headline is oftentimes the sole aim of campaigns in the age of populism. Deeper investigation is not only not appreciated, but actively discouraged.

Continuing with this pattern, the election campaign in Brazil produced an extremely close result, with 50.9% of the population voting in favour of Lula, and 49.1% for Bolsonaro, in much the same way as the Brexit referendum produced a 52/48 split, and the US elections of 2020 produced a victor with just 51.3% of the vote. Contemporary elections seem to be getting tighter and tighter, and furthermore, in an age where political affiliation is increasingly tied to a person’s own individual identity, the idea of genuinely productive political debate that is capable of swaying public opinion is fast losing credibility.

The story of Lula’s comeback is indeed remarkable. Having served as President from 2003 to 2010, he was then embroiled in controversy when he was accused of having received a bribe, in return for a contract with Brazilian state oil company Petrobras. In 2018, he was convicted on this charge, and sent to prison, where he spent 580 days, before his conviction was overturned and annulled. In this time, however, Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and brought with him the conspicuous populism which had been so successful electorally around the world.

In both the US and Brazil, it took tried-and-tested old guard politicians to remove hard-right populists from office. In both cases, the deposed presidents have sown doubt in the reliability of their respective nation’s electoral systems, and cast themselves as the victims of an overarching conspiracy. Both seem to show scant regard for the very real tensions and anxieties that their claims provoke amongst supporters, and neither one seems particularly concerned as to the long-term consequences of such incendiary falsehoods.

This is of course, partly due to the fact that Bolsonaro has, from his first moment in office, modelled his presidency on that of Trump with a galling devotion. But it also speaks to the fact that in our current political climate, real compromise seems all but impossible, with personality politics loudly usurping the sober reflections and compromise that are the hallmarks of responsible governance. 

Take for instance Bolsonaro's refusal to initially concede the election to Silva, a refusal that could not have possibly been grounded in any sort of fact or evidence, but sheer stubbornness born of a public humbling. This simple gesture then engendered a boldness amongst Bolsonaro supporters, who felt justified in creating roadblocks on major Brazilian road networks, causing incredible disruption and disorder on the back of wounded pride.

Adding to the international concern is not just the worrying consistency in populist trends in the Americas, and the remarkably resilient supporters of these movements, but the threat that far-right conspiratorial thinking poses to the Amazon rainforest.

Under Bolsonaro, downward trends in deforestation have been reversed, with deforestation increasing in every year of his presidency. Bolsonaro’s cavalier attitude towards the rainforest is not simply a Brazilian concern, but an international one. As the veritable lungs of the planet, the rainforest plays a vital role in removing carbon from the atmosphere. Or at least, it once did.

In July 2021, according to the Guardian, scientists confirmed that the Amazon rainforest was emitting more CO2 than it was absorbing, transforming our greatest natural asset in combating climate change into a catalyst towards catastrophe. These emissions are caused mainly by fires, which are set deliberately in order to clear land for agricultural production. However, climate change itself also contributes to this problem, with hotter temperatures and ever more frequent droughts also contributing to the problem.

Over 1 billion tonnes of CO2 are produced in the Amazon rainforest each year. Clearly, human mismanagement on a stomach-churning scale is responsible, and though the rest of the world is dependent on the reversal of fortunes within the rainforest, we are entirely at the mercy of the Brazilian electorate when it comes to its protection. Vested interests, you might say.

All of this casts some incredibly dour prospects over the future of the public capacity to fight climate change. Populist rhetoric has paralysed public opinion to such an extent that we cannot agree to use a fire extinguisher, even though our home is so evidently ablaze.

Events in Brazil cannot just showcase the very real disasters that populist politics lead towards, but must embolden us to see that it is subdued in all forms, at the greatest urgency. We have been given ample warning.