A clown may offer the key to understanding how right-wing populist underdog Jair Bolsonaro just captured the presidency of Latin America’s largest country.
As Brazilians and the world try to make sense of what just happened, some historical perspective is needed.
The election of Bolsonaro is no mere accident; it has been years in the making.
In 2010, the candidate who received the most votes for the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies was a professional clown who goes by the name of “Tiririca.” He campaigned dressed in his signature full clown costume and his political slogan was “it can’t get any worse” (which translating to Portuguese rhymes with Tiririca). He did not offer one single proposal during the campaign, preferring to use his airtime to sing and tell jokes.
It is worth stressing this point: The clown not only got elected, he was the best-voted federal deputy in the country by a large margin.
Most analysts interpreted the massive vote for Tiririca as an amusing sideshow, an aberration that happens in Brazilian politics from time to time. However, what the 2018 election has made clear is that the 2010 electorate was sending a clear message to the political class, and the message was that they were not happy with them. A vote for a clown, in that sense, was no joke.
In fact, Tiririca is the embodiment of the what political scientists call a “crisis of representation,” which happens when the mainstream political forces are not seen by the constituencies as a legitimate vehicle to support their demands.
Two typical signs of a crisis of representation are the rise in protest votes, as was the case of Tiririca, and the decline of the share of votes by mainstream parties.
Every presidential election in Brazil since 1994 has been a dispute between two parties: PSDB, which governed the country from 1995 to 2002 and PT, which governed from 2003 to 2016 – until Dilma Rousseff got impeached.
In 2018 for the first time there was a clear possibility that neither party could make it to the second round.
While PT eventually made it to the second round, it received its smallest share of the vote since 1989. PSDB on the other hand, suffered a humiliating defeat with experienced former governor of Sao Paulo and market-favorite Geraldo Alckmin earning less than 5 percent of the votes.
The legislature also took a shellacking: out of the 32 Senators up for reelection, only 8 succeeded. The reelection rate in the Chamber of Deputies was a mere 47 percent, the lowest in decades (Tiririca, by the way, was reelected). Just to make a comparison, in the United States the reelection rate in the House of Representatives is rarely less than 90 percent.
Bolsonaro, who was a few percentage points away from wrapping up the election in the first round of voting, ran on a small party whose only previous presidential election was in 2006, when it received 0.06 percent of the votes. This party will now be the second largest in Congress.
While in the last presidential election in 2014 PT and PSDB together had around 75 percent of the total votes in the first round, in 2018 the two parties got less than 35 percent. As a matter of fact, since 2006 when the two parties got almost 90 percent of the votes in the first round, their combined share has been declining with each election – until this 2018 political earthquake all but killed the so-called “New Republic” in Brazil.
Brazilian political forces are likely to be completely reorganized from now on.
Undoubtedly, the crucial variable explaining the rapid acceleration in these trends was “Operation Car Wash,” a federal police investigation launched in 2014, that imploded the political establishment of Brazil. The operation revealed a massive corruption scheme involving billions of dollars and several political parties. It is reminiscent of “Operation Clean Hands” in Italy 25 years ago, which unveiled a scheme of organized kleptocracy in which all major parties were involved and which had similar effects on public feelings. The political vacuum in Italy was soon filled by the right-wing populism of Silvio Berlusconi, who was able to exploit the anti-corruption rage. Likewise, in Brazil, Bolsonaro is the product of a fractured and discredited political system leaving many voters searching for alternatives outside of the political mainstream.
The issue of criminality in Brazil – with one of the highest homicide rates in the world – plays the role that the debate on immigration plays in the more developed countries. In that sense, the kind of populism represented by Bolsonaro is closer to Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte than to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE’s. Like Duterte, Bolsonaro resorts to a kind of “penal populism” that explores the obvious deficiencies in their countries’ criminal justice systems to provide easy answers for complicated problems, even if it means sacrificing human rights and values along the way.
Like the election of Trump, the rise of Bolsonaro is not a cause, but a symptom of deeper socio-political rot.
In the case of Brazil, among several other factors, a deep crisis of representation derived from a perception of widespread corruption and high levels of criminality have created the conditions for the rise of a right-wing populist who promises real change.
Those concerned with these developments must look more carefully into its causes instead of focusing just on its effects.
One lesson should be already clear: when people start voting for clowns, it should not be a laughing matter.
Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira is a visiting scholar in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He received a Ph.D. in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia as a Fulbright Scholar and he is a currently a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo and FAAP in Brazil. His book “Brazil, the United States, and the South American Subsystem: Regional Politics and the Absent Empire,” was chosen by Foreign Affairs Magazine as one of the best International Relations books of 2012 and is now used as the textbook for inter-American relations in many institutions.