Those who are able to control the terms of the debate are ultimately able to control the debate’s outcome. When the debate in question is one regarding the political, social and economic future of Latin America’s largest nation, the importance of using accurate terminology becomes all the more important. Here the term ‘populist’ becomes relevant as many western commentators have disingenuously tried to butcher a perfectly good term and transform its meaning into something contrary to reality. In the real world, a political populist is someone who defies an old status quo in order to vibrantly advocate for policies aimed at rapidly advancing the conditions of the people. Also implicit in the term political populist is someone who is able to shine a proverbial light on issues discussed by the populace but those which have traditionally been ignored by an elitist political class.
Regrettably, elitist liberal media outlets throughout the west have reinvented the term populist and now use it to refer to men and women who are little more than right wing manics. In reality, populists tend to defy traditional categories of left and right while some populists clearly lean more towards the right while many others lean towards the left. Yet it is against this background of a totally inaccurate understanding of what a populist is that Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has been labelled the populist in this year’s presidential election.
In the first round of voting conducted on 7 October, Bolsonaro won 46% of the vote while the runner up Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party will now face Bolsonaro in the second round to determine who will be the next Brazilian President on the 28th of October. That being said, yesterday’s election itself could be reasonably deemed to be undemocratic even before the first vote was cast. This is the reality as Brazil’s most popular politician Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known affectionately as Lula) was jailed prior to the campaign. In spite of winning an appeal before a judge who guaranteed Lula his freedom, another judge overruled the decision and as a result the man that every major opinion poll shows would have won in a landslide continues to languish behind bars due to corruption charges that are self-evidently politicised.
As a result, Haddad of Lula’s Workers’ Party had little time to campaign as the Party aimed to secure Lula’s release from prison prior to the election, something that would have virtually guaranteed his victory in the vote. Instead, a judicial coup against Lula forced his longtime loyal supporter Fernando Haddad to step into his considerably large shoes after having sat out most of the campaign in the hopes that Lula would be released in time for the first round of voting.
Jair Bolsonaro on the other hand has been campaigning for months on a platform emphasising nostalgia rather than anything remotely modern. According to Jair Bolsonaro’s own words, he is an advocate of Brazil’s military regime which ran the country between 1965 and 1985. A vote for Bolsonaro is therefore a vote to endorse a slide back towards military rule and what’s more is that Bolsonaro does little to hide his disdain for modern politics, civic democracy and civilian rule. A vote for Bolsonaro is quite frankly a vote against democracy and a vote for a return to the military dictatorships that ruled multiple Latin American nations from the 60s through to the 80s. Bolsonaro knows this, the military knows this, the United States knows this and it seems only the journalists falsely calling Bolsonaro a populist fail to grasp this incredibly overt reality.
While Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is often flamboyant and apparently controversial by design, his retrograde policies of taking the civilian government back under the wing of the military along with reinstating all of the 1970s style far-right positions that dominated much of Latin America in the second half of the 20th century, is neither progressive populism nor right wing populism, it is merely unabashed far-right reactionary politics in its most unadulterated form.
By contrast, Lula offers Brazil progressive populism which advocates for better wages and rights for workers, assisted relief to the country’s poor, a platform of closing Brazil’s wealth gap – one of the most staggering in the world as well as policies to protect Brazil’s fragile but beautiful ecosystems. The trouble is that as Lula is in prison, these policies that remain popular among the populace were deprived of having their best representative advocate for them during the election.
Because judicial corruption literally stole Brazil’s forward looking populist candidate from the people, all that was left was a Haddad campaign that did not even have time to establish itself prior to the first round of votes. All the while a vocal, boisterous Bolsonaro campaign advocated a far-right turn back to the past that did more to stoke apathy than inspire any high minded political ideals.
While some are predicting that Bolsonaro’s momentum will carry him through to the next round, Fernando Haddad now has an opportunity to re-start his campaign and argue for Lula’s positions in an age where Brazil’s true populist is a political prisoner of a corrupt state that a Bolsonaro government would only make worse. The future of Brazil is on knife edge, the choice facing voters is now one between a populist future and a reactionary past.