On 28 October 2018 the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential elections in Brazil with 55% of the vote. This result has been viewed by many as yet another instance of the global rise of authoritarian populist leaders, grouping Bolsonaro alongside the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump in the USA – indeed, Bolsonaro has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.” The focus on Bolsonaro himself reflects the strong emphasis on executives in a rapidly expanding literature suggesting the emergence of a new form of would-be autocrat who is democratically elected but who hollows out democratic rule over time. However, this Article argues that, far beyond Bolsonaro, the Brazilian experience is an important case-study as it prompts reflection on three fundamental propositions. First, any analysis of liberal democracy as the perceived object of attack must be highly cognizant of the democratic “starting point” and history of a given state. Second, an excessive focus on executive-led assaults on democratic rule can impede fuller analysis of a broader suite of actors and factors relevant to the (declining) health of the democratic system. Third, authoritarianism is a more appropriate analytical lens than populism for identifying potential democratic threats, especially in the Brazilian context.
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