Over the last several years, countries including the U.S., UK, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and Spain have witnessed the rise of authoritarian leaders and the return of politicians posing as defenders of the “will of the people.” Right-wing populism is back in fashion worldwide, but the reasons for its ascension aren’t the same everywhere. In the Global South, Brazil and the Philippines have elected national populist presidents and offer an opportunity to understand the development of such trends in different social and economic backdrops.
In their 2018 book, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin analyze two political episodes in 2016 that were propelled by national populist movements: the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum about leaving the European Union. The authors lay out four elements—the “four Ds”—intrinsic to the emergence of national populism that were evident in both episodes: the electorate’s distrust of politicians and institutions; fears about the potential destruction of national identity and ways of life; a sense of economic deprivation relative to other societal groups; and the dealignment between voters and mainstream parties.
These trends set the stage for rising populism and having them as parameters helps identify what populist movements across the globe have in common and what sets them apart. And far from being limited to countries like the U.S. or UK, these historic shifts are also found in contemporary Brazil and the Philippines. The way Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his Filipino counterpart Rodrigo Duterte operate bears many similarities to right-wing populists in the Global North. However, the distinct socio-economic backdrop they are embedded in necessitates adaptations to the populist playbook.
The fact that immigration—which fuels much populist anger in the U.S. and Western Europe—is not a major concern in Brazil or the Philippines, for instance, means that Bolsonaro and Duterte must tap other concerns to amass popular support. And as two young democracies that emerged from dictatorships in the 1980s, with comparatively weaker institutions, these two populist leaders have implemented policies with more sinister results, from the arrest of journalists to the political persecution of members of the judiciary to mass police killings.
To understand the phenomena that boosted Duterte and Bolsonaro to power—and which may elevate other right-wing populists in developing countries—it’s paramount to analyze how they fit into the global populism puzzle.
There are many reasons for the global disconnect between nations’ political establishments and their electorates. Among them, Eatwell and Goodwin note, are the higher levels of education and income that separate politicians from their voters. Those disparities are exponentially higher in the Global South. In Brazil, a member of Congress earns 32 times the minimum wage. Considering stipends for housing, clothing, trips, and staffing, that difference increases eightfold, making Brazil’s Congress the second-most expensive globally—trailing only the U.S.—with each federal legislator costing U.S. $7.4 million annually. Despite this, the quality of public services lags far behind those in developed economies, fueling the public’s reproach of the political establishment.
Endemic corruption, which is also more acute in the Global South, has also nurtured popular distrust towards mainstream politics. Although individual malfeasance has been a perennial problem in Brazil, an onslaught of scandals involving prominent businessmen, bureaucrats, and politicians has outraged the public for the past six years. What started as a money-laundering probe in 2014 involving petrol stations and car washes morphed into one of the biggest anti-corruption operation in the world. The continuing Federal Police investigation, known as “Car Wash,” has requested information from 61 countries and has so far traced trillions of dollars in transactions related to bribery schemes. It’s little wonder that, according to a recent World Economic Forum survey of 137 countries, Brazilian citizens trust their politicians the least.
Similarly, the Philippines consistently ranks poorly in global corruption perception surveys. The nation has one of the highest income tax rates in Asia but its social services and healthcare system leave much to be desired. In recent years, traffic in the capital city of Manila has so deteriorated that it became a focus of the 2016 presidential election, mirroring the public’s clamor for improvements in public transportation and infrastructure.
Against the backdrop of unpopular political elites, populists can find their way to power by posing as outsiders in their rhetoric. Like populists elsewhere, Duterte’s and Bolsonaro’s firebrand discourse have helped shape their image as unorthodox candidates who can overhaul corrupt, oligarchic regimes and give voice to the public’s aspirations.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018 by running as an outsider, despite having served seven terms as a congressman. Over his 28 years in office and in the lead-up to his campaign, he praised the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, expressed support for torture, and argued that police officers should not always be prosecuted for civilian deaths during law enforcement operations. 
Among his most controversial statements, the retired army captain simulated machine-gunning his opponents; suggested that a community of Black Brazilians, who are descended from enslaved people, were livestock; said that Indigenous people have no culture and are “increasingly becoming human beings”; told a congresswoman she didn’t “deserve” to be raped; and declared himself a proud homophobe who would rather any son of his be dead than gay.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s leap into politics also came on the heels of dictatorship in the mid-1980s, when he was appointed vice-mayor of Davao City, and sought to clean the streets of systemic corruption and criminals linked to the illegal drug trade. His campaign for the presidency 30 years later, on an anti-crime and -corruption platform, was similarly colored by curveball remarks, with Duterte joking about raping a missionary and riding a jet-ski to the South China Sea to defend sovereignty, and boasting about riding a motorcycle and shooting criminal suspects dead. In 2016, he was elected to a six-year term with 39 percent, or 16 million votes, shocking the global political arena.
Duterte’s rhetoric resonated deeply among the country’s newly rising middle class, which saw in his braggadocio, sleazy jokes, and brutal frankness, one of their own. “His populism is more street-type,” said political analyst Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “He thinks like the man on the street. That’s the mayor in him…He can make a statement today and the next day set it aside; he doesn’t want to be predictable.”
Political analysts in Brazil point out that Bolsonaro’s campaign had a similar strategy. From seemingly improvised live broadcasts on social media to wearing casual attire to formal events, he strived to appear like an average Brazilian, whom voters could identify with.
Power in the Philippines has been concentrated within the executive branch since the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. “We’ve come to a situation where every politician wants to be the president. Nothing else. Not even vice-president, not even senator,” Casiple noted. “Because the money and the power is with the president.”
The president has the final say in budgetary matters, is capable of using bureaucratic technicalities to oust chief justices—as Duterte and his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, both did—and has the means to go after dissidents within government. Institutions forced to act as referees, like the Supreme Court, end up in the crossfire of polarized political battles, further undermining democratic values.
“Lawfare,” or the use of the legal apparatus in political disputes, is also on the rise in Brazil, as the number of challenges to Bolsonaro’s decrees and decisions brought before the Supreme Court has reached record levels. The increasing involvement of the judiciary in political affairs, a trend that has been going on for years, upsets the balance between the three branches of government. In one of his latest controversies, in March 2020, Bolsonaro called on the public to attend street demonstrations against the Supreme Court and the Congress, and in favor of his administration. (He eventually backtracked due to concerns of mass gatherings amid the coronavirus outbreak but later attended the demonstration and took pictures with supporters.)
Such direct attacks on democratic institutions connect Bolsonaro and Duterte to other world leaders among the global Right, including U.S. President Donald Trump, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. All five use the free press as a punching bag and sow distrust towards journalism, another pillar of liberal democracies.
In September 2019, Bolsonaro mimicked Donald Trump in labeling mainstream media “the enemy.” That October, also following a move by his American counterpart, Bolsonaro picked a fight with national newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, announcing the cancellation of government subscriptions. He later retreated amid backlash from civil society organizations and a lawsuit charging that the move was unconstitutional. Bolsonaro has since directly attacked the paper’s reporters and barred them from covering events he attended. In 2019, the press was attacked 11,000 times per day on Brazilian social media, according to a study on threats to freedom of expression by the Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters.
In the Philippines, government-backed tax violation and cyber-libel lawsuits against journalist Maria Ressa and Philippine news website Rappler, as well as threats to not renew a Philippine TV network’s operating license, exemplify Duterte’s repression of an independent press. The worst incident to date was the 2019 arrest of Ressa, Rappler’s Executive Editor, for cyber-libel, among other charges. In 2019, the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network found that Filipino journalists faced at least ’s election.
On top of these obvious attacks on the free press, both Duterte and Bolsonaro resorted to well-structured social media operations that spread misinformation and heightened public distrust of the media by labeling factual journalism as fake news.
Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct British political consulting firm implicated in both Russia’s meddling in the U.S. 2016 election and for harvesting political data from millions of Facebook users, has conceded that it used Duterte’s social media strategy as a blueprint for Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
In the Global North, populists have prospered by playing to people’s perception that their way of living and national identity are threatened by newcomers from abroad. Inciting anti-immigration sentiment among portions of the middle class hurt by globalization is leveraging what Eatwell and Goodwin describe as the sentiment of destruction among voters.
Some of the problems, on the other hand, are exaggerated. Duterte’s campaign leveraged Filipinos’ fears that crime and drug use were rampant, and exacerbated those concerns by inflating data for drug addiction in the Philippines—classifying people who admitted to using drugs just once as “addicts.” Relying on inflated statistics, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency suggested that 92 percent of Metro Manila’s villages had a drug problem; Duterte promised that if he won, “change [was] coming.”
In these ways, both politicians argued that a safe and orderly way of life was under threat, in order to crystallize support nationwide. Filipino scholar and political analyst Richard Heydarian describes Duterte’s base as Filipino workers from the emerging middle class, including many in the business outsourcing sector, who have worked in the Middle East and Gulf regions to support families back home. As members of this new middle class reach better living standards, argues political science scholar Arjan Aguirre, they place greater value on disposable goods—a tangible proxy for their improved way of life—and become more impulsive, paranoid, and fearful of petty crimes. The prospect of criminals or drug addicts looking for money appears as a threat to not just their property, but their precarious new status.
The economy also plays a role in the populist agenda, which plays out in distinct ways in developed and developing countries. Heydarian argues that the current political scenarios in Brazil and the Philippines can be described as “emerging market populism,” as they have different causes than those in more mature democracies and operate in institutional environments with comparatively fewer checks and balances.
In societies where inequality proliferates, the middle class grew frustrated with policies favoring the poor over their interests. In Brazil, socioeconomic improvements achieved in the 2000s stagnated in the following decade, then plunged, between 2014 and 2016, as the country faced one of the worst recessions in its history, sending 4.5 million people back into poverty and fomenting social unrest. Approval ratings for sitting politicians cratered, creating a void ready to be filled.
Bolsonaro spoke to a society hurt by economic decline and spiking unemployment. The sense of relative economic deprivation was disseminated in ways similar to those in the U.S. and the UK, where neoliberal policies led to increasing levels of income and wealth concentration, as Eatwell and Goodwin argue. In Brazil, affirmative action developments in the 2000s, both for Black students entering federal universities and in new income redistribution programs aimed at elevating the nation’s low-income population, generated resentment among the middle class, which believed it was being squeezed as the poor rose from misery but their own road to the upper class was not clear.
In the economic downturn of the mid-2010s, many saw their living conditions actually deteriorate. The share of Brazilians living on less than US $1.9 per day increased from 4.5 percent in 2014 to a record high of 6.5 percent in 2018, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.
Likewise, despite the Philippines being one the fastest-growing economies in Asia, average Filipinos face shabby living standards, widespread corruption, and bureaucratic red tape. The country consistently ranks poorly among nations in terms of starting businesses, acquiring credit and enforcing contracts, according to the World Bank Doing Business report. The failure of political elites to provide quality social services, safer streets, or to meet the demands of those lifted out of poverty led many to begin doubting the efficiency of the political system as a whole, and to consider trying something different, Heydarian notes.
The fourth element that has opened the doors of Western democracies to national populists is the weakening of bonds between the electorate and traditional parties. The notion of dealignment, however, does not follow suit in the Brazilian and Filipino cases.
In contrast to the bipartisan model of the United States, or fairly defined political groups in Western Europe (such as conservatives, greens and social democrats), Brazil has 33 existing political parties, with 77 others in the process of being formed. Bolsonaro himself has been a member of eight political parties and has recently proposed a new one.
“’” “—— ‘Wcarte blanche ’”
“Bolsonaro, very similarly to Duterte,” he added, “kind of sees violence as a cathartic solution.”
Shoot to Kill
’“penal populism,”’s Gerald Neuman.
The initial death toll—nearly 1,800 in the first seven weeks—prompted global headlines and international condemnation. Human rights groups have since tallied the number of extrajudicial killings between 20,000 and 29,000 lives since 2016. Official government numbers are far lower, at around 5,000, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Bolsonaro campaigned on a platform of relaxing such rules and also reducing police liability for civilian deaths, presenting both ideas as solutions to Brazil’s widespread public security issues. In 2015, he declared that “armed citizens are a country’s first line of defense.”
His words turned into action in May 2019, when he extended the right to bear arms to members of 20 different professions, including politicians, truck drivers, lawyers, farmers while on their properties, and journalists covering the police beat. Bolsonaro withdrew that decree after pushback from Congress and the Supreme Court, but shortly issued three new decrees that loosened the requirements for civilians to buy guns and keep them at home.
Shades of Populism
Although Bolsonaro and Duterte bear many similarities, there are also stark differences in their policies, especially when it comes to social issues.
In comparison, in the Philippines, Duterte has sometimes embraced progressive positions on LGBTQ rights, but has flip-flopped over the years. At the start of his term, he appointed members of the Left to head the departments of social welfare, agrarian reform, and the anti-poverty commission. Months later, Duterte’s allies in Congress rejected the appointments, but continued the government’s cash handouts to the neediest. Unlike his Brazilian counterpart, Duterte believes that more action is warranted against climate change since developing countries bear the brunt of the devastation.
This stands in sharp contrast to Brazil, where Bolsonaro’s approval rating dropped to 29 percent in December 2019, down from 35 percent in April. His disapproval rate increased from 27 percent to 38 percent over the same period.
In mid-March 2020, Brazilians quarantined amid the coronavirus crisis banged pots from windows and balconies on several consecutive nights to protest Bolsonaro’s downplaying the pandemic risks and his refusal to implement social distancing measures nationwide. In the Philippines, citizens took to social media to condemn preferential COVID-19 testing for the political elite, the lack of mass testing for the public, and the messy logistics of Duterte’s lockdown of the country’s most populous island.
The most obvious reaction to the increasingly challenging scenario Bolsonaro is likely to face, as rifts with Congress multiply and the economy underperforms, came in early March 2020. Bolsonaro claimed to have evidence of fraud in the 2018 election and that he should have been elected in the first round vote. Again playing to public distrust of institutions, he challenged journalists to find “one Brazilian who trusts the electoral system.” He has not revealed proof of his claims since.
Duterte is not eligible for reelection after his six-year term ends in 2022. But the risk that he might also flout the rules concerns Heydarian. “In countries like the Philippines, Turkey, India, or Indonesia, once you have an authoritarian populist in power, as long as the military is not against them, they’ll have an easy time railroading their way to consolidations of power,” he said. In the Philippines, where institutions are vulnerable, the country could be flirting with a transition to an even more authoritarian dictatorship.
Democratic rupture is one of the most serious potential consequences of populist movements in the Global South. However, even if both leaders honor the law, and allow for a peaceful transition of power, their policies will have long-lasting effects on Brazilian and Filipino societies.
Support for democratic ideals fell during Bolsonaro’s first year in office. The share of Brazilians who agreed that democracy is the best form of government declined from 69 percent in 2018 to 62 percent in 2019, while 22 percent said they are indifferent to whether the government remains democratic or becomes a dictatorship, up from 13 percent a year before.
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