As displeasure with corruption and inequality brewed throughout Latin America in 2018, the region’s two largest countries, Mexico and Brazil, took a marked turn toward populism. Mexico chose a leader from the populist left while Brazil turned right, offering an interesting policy contrast in the region. Within four months of one another, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also referred to as AMLO, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro defeated establishment opponents and transformed the region’s political landscape. The last two years have challenged most political leaders, with the rise of political division, as well as the coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic impact. For AMLO and Bolsonaro, however, this time has also been a test for their specific brands of populism. It has revealed some important shortcomings for the new class of Latin American populists, hamstrung by their distaste for the nuances of policy and governing.
In Mexico, AMLO campaigned on lofty promises, committing to break with ruling orthodoxies, put an end to corruption, and even upend the country’s economic model to favor the poor and working class. However, the results of his first two years in office show the significant challenges AMLO has faced in governing the country and implementing his transformative agenda.
Notably, AMLO’s overwhelming victory coincided with his party securing large majorities in both houses of Mexico’s congress, essentially freeing him of the need to build coalitions and compromise. However, this has also further isolated him and his allies from the rest of the Mexican political landscape and civil society. AMLO and his allies have used aggressive rhetoric and a heavily divisive discourse to attack opposition parties and journalists, dismissing outside input and engaging in a heavily politicized anti-corruption campaign. AMLO’s combative leadership style has brought Mexico’s opposition parties together, threatening to frustrate future efforts to build cross-party coalitions. While this may not present a challenge at the moment, the congressional elections set for next summer make it likely that AMLO will lose his compliant congress, and with it, his ability to pursue his agenda through new legislation.
Despite control of congress and durable approval ratings, Mexico’s populist president has made little progress toward the transformation that his campaign envisaged. For example, AMLO’s implementation of his centerpiece anti-corruption agenda has seen mixed results. He has made progress in adopting some meaningful reforms, empowering some anti-corruption institutions and withdrawing the veil that has protected some high-level officials from scrutiny in the past.
However, he has largely failed to address deeper challenges such as stifling coordination issues between anti-corruption institutions and underfunded investigators and prosecutors. Meanwhile he has resisted shining a light on corruption within his own coalition or the institutions he favors. Last month’s embarrassing revelation that Mexico’s Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People had itself suffered institutional graft serves as a perfect metaphor for the qualified success of AMLO’s anti-corruption fight.
AMLO has also shown broader deficiencies in leadership, including a notable resistance to address urgent crisis and policy challenges that fall outside of his circumscribed agenda. For example, amid record-high homicide rates, high-profile incidents of violence, and rising concerns about violence against women, Mexico’s president has failed to devise a comprehensive security strategy to address these threats, opting instead to downplay their severity.
Similarly, AMLO has been loath to fully address the coronavirus pandemic. Mexico’s president has fiercely resisted even temporary measures to combat the spread of the pandemic, failing to adopt a coherent strategy or adequately support Mexico’s flailing public health system. This neglect of the pandemic challenge has contributed to Mexico’s worryingly high mortality rates. At the same time, Mexico’s economy has suffered significant, lasting damage as AMLO has refused to enact the kind of stimulus spending or emergency financial support that economists and business leaders insist is necessary.
In Brazil, by contrast, President Bolsonaro, the man supporters famously refer to as O Mito (“The Myth”) for his purported ability to tackle corruption, benefitted from a polarized political environment. Bolsonaro rode outrage at the corruption of the establishment all the way to the Palacio Planalto. In a campaign light on policy and filled with nostalgia for bygone days of economic growth, greater security, and military order, Bolsonaro ran largely on cultural issues, such as the purported “gender ideology” that he argued was furtively overwhelming the school curricula of Brazil’s children. As such, Bolsonaro did not articulate many concrete promises in his 2018 campaign—precisely because he did not have to. Instead, he railed against the establishment and presented himself as the savior of the nation.
The few promises Bolsonaro has managed to keep have complicated his capacity to govern and ruptured key relationships. Bolsonaro has encountered a legislative branch unwilling to countenance one of his most reiterated campaign promises: to expand gun rights as a means of allowing Brazilians self-protection from persistent insecurity. While Bolsonaro has leveraged his ability to expand gun access by executive order, which forced the Brazilian Congress to consider his measures, this legislation was watered down to cover only hunters and avid gun collectors. Further, Bolsonaro’s economic reform agenda has collided with deep institutional interests that have stymied his efforts, such as his attempt to privatize Brazil’s state-run monopolies and roll back regulations.
With dozens of political parties enjoying representation in Brazil’s Congress, Bolsonaro was always going to be bogged down by Brazil’s coalitional presidentialism, which demands an ability to cobble together a ruling coalition of ideologically amorphous political parties. In Bolsonaro’s case, he entered office declaring that he would rid Brazil of its debilitating “politics of old,” which favored pork-barrel politics (and sometimes extralegal maneuvers) to serve as the glue holding together the interests of diverse political parties. Bolsonaro’s inability to focus on breaking the deadlock and avoiding the pitfalls of unnecessary controversies has exacerbated his inability to govern steadily. In a brutal twist of fate, he now finds himself doing what he pledged not to—negotiating with the parties of the Centrão (Big Center), which excel at selling their votes to sitting presidents.
Even Bolsonaro’s fight against corruption has been met with mixed success. Bolsonaro’s stance against the renewal of Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), the celebrated and highly successful anti-corruption probe, indicates that the investigation’s growing proximity to his family risks denting his image as an anti-corruption crusader.
Unforced errors and administration infighting also engendered several periods of intense cabinet departures, leading to a particularly worrying moment this summer when the administration couldn’t find a permanent health minister while Brazil’s coronavirus wave crested. Bolsonaro’s downplaying of the virus, overall poor response management, and endemic graft have all contributed to dismal health outcomes in Brazil, which with more than 150,000 people dead has the second-highest death toll in the world.
It is too early to declare Latin America’s new class of populists to be a failure. Both AMLO and Jair Bolsonaro have ample time remaining in their mandates, and it is entirely possible, if not likely, that other countries in the region will see the rise of populist leaders. However, the past two years in Mexico and Brazil demonstrate the common pitfalls such leaders face in translating electoral victory into governing success.
Among these are a failure to work within the established political systems to broaden their political coalitions, a tendency to wade into avoidable political controversy, and a worrying resistance to shifting their agendas to address urgent crises. Until populist leaders in Brazil and Mexico can move past these tendencies, they will continue to face significant difficulties in governing.
Ryan Berg is a research fellow in Latin America Studies at the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington. Andrés Martínez-Fernández is a senior research associate with the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches economic development and illicit finance in Latin America. The views expressed are the authors' own.