On Sunday, voters in Brazil delivered a blow to the far right when they chose the leftist former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. But fears that Bolsonaro may not accept the results demonstrate a global trend undoubtedly on the rise this year, one that will also take center stage in the U.S. midterms: increasing threats to democracy, elections and democratic institutions.
The far right didn’t prevail in Brazil, but that’s not because of a broader rejection of far-right ideologies. Bolsonaro’s defeat was more a result of reasons specific to Brazil and these candidates — including da Silva’s outsize persona in politics and public dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro’s tenure as president — than a referendum on the global far right. Meanwhile, far-right ideologies have gained a foothold in many parts of the world, including clinching seats in parliaments and transferring their messaging to more mainstream parties.
Broadly speaking, these parties promote nativist, “our country first” rhetoric, often pairing it with hard-line policies on immigration and refugee issues. They’re largely skeptical of efforts to combat climate change and often seize on cultural issues, like LGBT rights. And in recent years, many of these parties have increasingly promoted conspiracy narratives, whether about the coronavirus pandemic, election fraud or other topics. In the United States, this ideology shows up in the “America First” rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and his supporters, as well as many Trump-aligned candidates’ focus on conspiracy narratives around election fraud.
These movements often seek to undermine democratic institutions and elections. In Europe, far-right parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have similarly raised the specter of election fraud ahead of national elections, sowing doubt among supporters about their legitimacy. In places where far-right parties lead governments — Hungary in particular — leaders have sought to chip away at institutions like the free press, an independent judiciary and transparent governance. And across different countries, the growing closeness between far-right parties and conspiracy movements has led to polarization and radicalization among such parties’ supporters.
“Significant challenges to democracy are a trend, and I think maybe they’re the most worrying trend of all,” said Daphne Halikiopoulou, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading in Berkshire, England, who focuses on the far right. “Because despite case-specific and country-specific differences, it’s something we’re seeing in more and more countries.”
There’s ample reason to be concerned about these issues in Brazil: Throughout the campaign, Bolsonaro stoked fears of widespread fraud among his supporters, saying this summer that he would hand over power if he lost but only if there had been no fraud. Last year, he even suggested the only possible election outcomes were that he would be arrested, killed or declared the winner. And Bolsonaro’s son, Flávio Bolsonaro, voiced unfounded concerns in the days before Brazil’s second-round vote that his father had been the victim of “the greatest electoral fraud ever seen,” a comment that echoed Trump’s frequent claims of electoral tampering.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 12 hours after the election was called for Lula, Bolsonaro had not yet commented publicly on the results, raising fears that he might not accept them.
More support for populist far-right parties
In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric mostly echoed Trump’s: He spread false information about the coronavirus, badly mishandling the country’s response to the pandemic; he bucked environmentalists’ concerns, approving heavy deforestation in the Amazon rainforest; he doubled down on culture-war issues like guns, anti-LGBT rhetoric and religion. The fact that Bolsonaro narrowed the contest with Lula to less than 2 percentage points, and did so while espousing his signature far-right rhetoric, suggests Bolsonaro’s brand of politics — a mix of culture-war issues and Brazilian nationalism — still has significant appeal.
It’s hard to extrapolate from one election to another, since each country has its own set of campaign issues and unique systems. Still, across a series of key elections in Europe this year, populist far-right parties showed that they could make gains at the ballot box: They won more seats in national and state-level parliaments and, in some cases, are now leading governments.
“We did see that in one way or another, the radical right parties did quite well in these elections,” said Halikiopoulou.
Back in the spring, Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally failed to unseat President Emmanuel Macron — but she did significantly increase her vote share over 2017, winning 41.5 percent of the vote (compared with 34 percent five years before). What’s more, her party won its highest-ever number of seats in France’s parliament two months later, helping keep Macron from winning a parliamentary majority.
A few weeks earlier, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the standard-bearer of the far right in Europe and the darling of the Trump-aligned American right, won another parliamentary supermajority, giving him another four years of broad power to fast-track legislation and amend the constitution. For the first time, six different parties chose a prime minister candidate to jointly run against Orbán, but without success: Orbán actually increased his vote share compared with 2018, with his Fidesz party winning 52.5 percent of the vote, compared with 48 percent four years ago.
In September, the populist far-right Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots, won its highest-ever vote share in Sweden’s parliamentary elections, reaching 20.5 percent. This put them in second place, behind only the center-left Social Democrats, and in prime position to be an unofficial partner to the country’s new conservative governing coalition.
And on Oct. 22, Giorgia Meloni was sworn in as Italy’s newest prime minister, just weeks after her Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, came in first with 26 percent of the vote. As part of a coalition with the right-wing League and the conservative Forza Italia party, right- and far-right parties won a majority of seats in Italy’s parliament, signaling a significant shift in the direction of Italy’s government.
On the whole, these levels of support aren’t necessarily unprecedented, Halikiopoulou cautioned: Some populist far-right parties have won similar support in the past as well, and have seen “ups and downs” in their vote share over the last few decades.
But this year, many of them seem to be on the upswing, partly a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the resulting inflation and energy woes. Populist parties have instrumentalized these developments across Europe, drawing on them in campaign rhetoric and organizing protests in different countries.
“Viktor Orbán in Hungary, for example, was able to win by emphasizing, ‘We will do everything just for Hungary and the Hungarians,’“ said Ruth Wodak, a professor of linguistics and an expert on far-right rhetoric at the University of Vienna. The Hungarian leader positioned himself, despite Hungary’s membership in the European Union, as opposed to tough sanctions on Russia because they went against the interests of Hungarians, she said, adding that “his persuasive rhetoric got him a lot of votes.”
That focus is seemingly already having an impact: Although Germany’s AfD had lost support in the wake of the pandemic in last year’s federal election, it nearly doubled its vote share in a state election in Lower Saxony in early October, going from 6.2 percent to 10.9 percent. Nationally, the AfD has seen its poll numbers rise from 10 percent earlier this year to 15 percent this fall.
Normalizing far-right positions
Many of the populist far-right parties on the ballot this year accomplished something perhaps even more significant than gaining seats in parliament: They’ve managed to bring their positions and rhetoric into the mainstream.
When more moderate parties adopt the rhetoric of the far right and, in some cases, agree to work with them in coalitions — breaking down the so-called cordon sanitaire, or the lines drawn by mainstream parties to keep the far right from gaining governing power — they make that rhetoric more politically acceptable.
In Sweden, for example, the center-right Moderate Party spent campaign season focusing on the same law-and-order, anti-immigration rhetoric used by the Sweden Democrats. By doing so, they helped legitimize that kind of hard-line rhetoric among the electorate, making it seem less extreme.
In the new Swedish government, led by the Moderate Party, the Sweden Democrats aren’t officially part of the coalition but have agreed to back its policies. This brings them closer to power, even informally, than they’ve been in the past.
“The Swedish case illustrates the extent of the problem, which is the breakdown of the cordon sanitaire and the mainstreaming of these parties,” said Halikiopoulou. “More of these parties are entering governments, more of these parties are entering coalitions, more of these parties are being treated as legitimate actors.”
In France, too, mainstreaming and normalization played a significant role in this spring’s campaign. The presence of a second far-right candidate in France’s presidential election, the commentator Éric Zemmour, helped make Le Pen look more moderate by comparison. That contrast helped speed up what the National Rally has long referred to as its “de-demonization” among the electorate, or its effort to shed its antisemitic and xenophobic roots.
And, like in Sweden, more centrist parties helped bring far-right rhetoric into the mainstream: Valérie Pécresse, the candidate from the center-right party Les Républicains, invoked a popular far-right conspiracy narrative about immigrants replacing local populations in Europe. Her reference to the so-called “Great Replacement Theory,” the racist belief that a conspiracy exists to replace white Christians in Europe with nonwhite and non-Christian immigrants, gave mainstream attention to the narrative.
With Lula’s victory in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s tumultuous tenure will come to an end — but it remains unclear how the aftermath of Sunday’s vote, in particular Bolsonaro’s response, will play out. Like in the U.S., Brazil’s election has shown how deeply polarized its electorate is.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.