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Mexico’s AMLO and Brazil’s Bolsonaro: very different... and very similar

Two rising Latin American leaders have figured out voters are hungry for messiah figures, not lectures about the institutions that limit presidential power

Moisés Naím
Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.MAURO PIMENTEL (AFP)

One has already been elected, the other looks certain to be. The first is president-elect of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his acronym AMLO), and the second is Jair Bolsonaro (often referred to as Bolso), the front runner in Brazil’s upcoming second-round election. Their success says a lot about how the world is changing.

Both owe their success at the polls to global trends that favor disruptive candidates

The differences between them are profound, certainly, but it’s their similarities that are most revealing. Their roots, political careers, ideologies, styles, and platforms are poles apart. López Obrador is a man of the left, Bolsonaro of the right. AMLO has antagonized big business, Bolso promises to liberalize the economy. The Brazilian has declared a no-holds-barred war on crime, while the Mexican talks about amnesty. Bolsonaro liked the military while López Obrador likes the labor unions. The media tend to paint Bolsonaro as homophobic, misogynist, sexist and racist. Naturally, he is against abortion and same-sex marriage. AMLO, on the other hand, avoids these issues altogether, saying that on decisions on these matters he will “consult the people.” Jair Bolsonaro admires Donald Trump while Andrés Manuel López Obrador is cautious with his words about Trump despite the fact that the American president often refers to the Mexicans with disdain and derision.

On Venezuela, the Mexican president elect has taken great care to avoid expressing sympathy for Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution, something that many in his party – historically known for their solidarity with the Venezuelan regime – have not been shy about. Many in AMLO’s court defend Caracas’s current rulers. In one of his first statements after the election, Marcelo Ebrard, López Obrador’s incoming secretary of foreign affairs, announced that his government will treat the Venezuelan crisis as an internal affair and therefore will not intervene in its domestic politics. In sharp contrast, General Hamilton Mourão, Bolsonaro’s running mate, said that they support a regime change in Venezuela and will not recognize Nicolás Maduro’s government.

Yet, the similarities between AMLO and Bolsonaro are more interesting than their differences. Both owe their success at the polls to global trends that favor disruptive candidates who know how to persuade voters that they have nothing to do with the traditional politics and politicians of their country. Both have crafted a persona as outsiders, as radical voices largely excluded by the ruling political elites and, until now, victimized by those AMLO calls “the power mafia.”

The new mantra, which is now almost universal, is, ‘Kick all the rascals out!’

Their campaigns are based on ruthless attacks on a political system that they promise to uproot. That, of course, is not true. Both are long-standing professional politicians. AMLO was a long-time member of Mexico’s hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). For five years he ruled the sprawling, populous capital, Mexico City, and has been a presidential candidate in each of the last three elections. Bolsonaro, for his part, has been a congressman for almost three decades and three of his sons are already successful politicians who have won congressional seats

The fact that AMLO and Bolso present themselves as “anti-establishment” candidates is not surprising. That is exactly what you have to do to win elections these days. It’s a global trend. Anti-politics reigns: the broad-brush rejection of all leaders and parties that have been close to power. It’s not surprising either that politicians are passing themselves off as newcomers to the scene. They want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the incumbent politicians who have so enraged voters. The new mantra, which is now almost universal, is “kick all the rascals out!”

From this perspective, AMLO and Bolso are normal candidates.

Unfortunately, these days it has also become normal for the winning candidate to have a deep disdain for the rules and institutions that limit the power of the president. In country after country, we are seeing efforts to undermine the independence of congress, stack the judiciary with “friendly” judges, attack the media while creating alternative media channels under their control, as well as spread frequent and abundant lies that deepen existing social divisions, create new ones and polarize voters. They are, sadly, part of the political milieu that has become popular everywhere: from Hungary and Thailand, to the United States and Turkey.

Their campaigns are based on ruthless attacks on a political system that they promise to uproot. That, of course, is not true

Bolso and AMLO have done and said things that reveal that, in this way too, they are normal politicians.

This worldwide onslaught on the checks and balances that limit executive power benefits greatly from the deep disappointment that voters have with democracy. More than half of Brazilians say they would accept an undemocratic government if it “solves problems.” The same sentiments have become common in Mexico.

Brazil and Mexico have fallen in love with a very dangerous political narrative. It’s the story of the proverbial strong man: a fresh and uncompromised figure willing to fight corruption, defend “the people” and give hope to an entire society traumatized by terrible levels of graft and violence. Promises of salvation garner more votes than talk of institutions that keep presidential power in check and protect citizens. It’s a lesson Bolso and AMLO have learned all too well.

Twitter @moisesnaim

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