The 2022 midterms may be over, but Split Ticket’s foreign coverage continues. Today’s publication is the first of a two-part World Report release breaking down both the biggest global developments since our previous installment and 2023’s important electoral contests.
What’d We Miss?
If political squabbling doesn’t seem tumultuous enough in the United States, try looking abroad. One country where American-esque political polarization has intensified beyond recognition is Brazil. The erstwhile Portuguese colony is the seventh most-populous state in the world, houses hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, and disposes over an advanced emerging economy rich in environmental resources.
The country recently concluded a divisive presidential campaign, narrowly voting out right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in favor of former two-term President Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party. To understand the results, we need to briefly look at the history underlying modern politics in Latin America. You can read some of the backstory here.
While Brazil is culturally unique, its historical experiences mirror, to some extent, those of other Latin American countries. Analyzing these similarities contextualizes modern political divides in Brazil and Latin America as a whole, particularly the stratification of electoral coalitions on socio-economic and/or ethnic lines. (The concept of race in Brazil is too fluid to be discussed fully in this article.)
The similarities are striking from the first glance. Until 1808, Brazil was a Portuguese colony administered from Lisbon. The Spanish Empire, whose foundation began to crack in the 18th century, long before U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, likewise oversaw vast colonial holdings in South America. Colombia and Venezuela are just two of the modern states that can trace their roots back to Simon Bolivar’s successful efforts for liberation from Madrid.
The Netherlands and Great Britain partook in the race to colonize the Americas as well, evidenced today by a look at city names in Suriname and Guyana. Nearby Guiana is a French dependency to this day.
Though lessened by the United States’ insistence that the Monroe Doctrine be respected, the remnants of European colonial influence fundamentally impacted politics and cultural ties in the young South American republics of the 19th century. Extractive institutions formerly overseen by imperialist powers are in many cases at least partially responsible for modern issues dealing with poverty and the marginalization of indigenous peoples throughout the region.
If the direct and indirect relics of European colonization connect Brazil to some of its counterparts, so does the historical influence of the United States ー today a valuable ally. Despite its 1823 proclamation, the U.S. did not initially have the capability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine against European whims. (French Emperor Napoleon III actually used his country’s military to prop up an ultimately-fruitless Habsburg regime in Mexico as late as 1866, exploiting America’s preoccupation with the Civil War.)
Some of the first American forays in Latin America were conducted by third-party businessmen, known as Filibusterers. The best example was William Walker, who in 1855 invaded and temporarily controlled Nicaragua. Besides hubris and clear financial incentives, these men generally shared similar motivations to southern politicians who, before 1865, wished to seize places like Cuba and Mexico for the expansion of slavery.
The United States began exercising increased economic and political influence over Latin America after victory in the Spanish American War, culminating in President Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary, which aimed to “protect” American neighbors. Intervention in Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala by the U.S. and its non-governmental allies peaked during this period.
Attempting to modernize America’s imperialist public image in the region, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 pushed the non-interventionist “Good Neighbor” policy. This change in tone did not stop the U.S. from covertly pursuing its “anti-Communist” interests in Latin America throughout the Cold War, even when it meant CIA-sponsored attempts at regime change (e.g., Operation Condor).
Brazil, like many of its South American counterparts, was not immune to such American interference. After the resignation of democratically-elected President Janio Quadros in 1961, the U.S. supported the successful military coup led by Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco against reformist President Joao Goulart. The country would not have free elections again until 1989, after the establishment of the New Republic.
Ethnic Backgrounds & Electoral Coalitions
Similarities between Brazil and other South American states aren’t just historical. One country that also owes much of its ethnic diversity to steady immigration is Peru. The 2016 Peruvian presidential election, which pitted Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Keiko Fujimori against each other, exemplifies this phenomenon well. Both candidates were born in Peru but had clear foreign ancestries. Argentina, a hub for Italian and Spanish immigrants during the 20th century, could be categorized similarly.
The consistency of electoral coalitions across borders is also fascinating. Simplifying highly-complex regional differences for the sake of clarity, maps of election results in South America sometimes appear “backwards” to Americans. In Brazil, Peru, and even Colombia, some affluent urban quarters have historically backed conservative parties, while rural areas, especially those with high indigenous populations, have preferred left-wing movements ー tell-tale signs of economic stratification.
But returns from the second round of Brazil’s 2022 presidential election, which Lula won 51-49%, suggest that that dynamic is far from universal and may even be weakening. In the populated states (federative units) of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, for instance, Bolsonaro’s vote shares fell from 68% to 55% and 68% to 56%, respectively ー significant downturns. Lula even flipped São Paulo City, which Bolsonaro won with 60% in 2018. All the while Lula managed to maintain or improve Haddad’s rural margins for the Workers’ Party, even flipping Amazonas.
The caustic campaign preceding Bolsonaro’s ultimate loss did not result in an official coup d’etat, though some of the defeated president’s supporters urged the military to initiate one. Lula swore into a third non-consecutive term in Brazil’s highest office on Jan. 1st, with his predecessor departing for Florida. Despite a commuted jail sentence for corruption, Lula finds himself in the good graces of the global political establishment thanks in part to his progressive views on defending democracy and fighting climate change. His election goes a long way to ensure a rapidly-advancing Brazil’s acceptance on the world stage.
Despite the ostensibly-smooth transition of power, the 77-year old ex-union leader, once dubbed the most popular politician on earth, will face more challenges governing than he did after starting his first term back in 2003. His biggest obstacle, besides a narrow mandate resulting from increased polarization (he received about 60% in 2002 and 2006), will be a Congress controlled by a right-wing coalition sympathetic to Bolsonaro.
On an inauspicious note, some supporters of Bolsonaro recently stormed the Brazilian Congress in an incursion eerily reminiscent of America’s January 6th incident. Calls for Bolsonaro’s extradition to Brazil have since spread through world diplomatic circles. Whether there is any hard solution to political divisions in South America’s most important country remains to be seen. The former president has denied culpability for the riots, which he condemned.
Peru, located on the opposite side of the continent, is one of the few Latin American states to witness political chaos more heated than Brazil’s. The domino effect started in 2018, when President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, elected narrowly over Fujimori two years prior, resigned from office. He was succeeded by his more popular Vice President, Martin Vizcarra, whom Congress eventually removed from office.
The impeachment was purportedly made to address the poor economic climate accompanying the coronavirus, but some Peruvians considered the action a clandestine attempt to catapult right-wing leader Manuel Merino into the presidency. Merino himself was later forced to leave office by public pressure, relegating centrist Francisco Sagasti to sail the ship of state. All of this turmoil, especially the usurpation of Vizcarra’s government, contributed to the threadbare election of Marxist Pedro Castillo over Fujimori in 2021.
Like Chile’s Gabriel Boric, another benefactor of Latin America’s “Pink Tide”, Castillo’s lease on political life with the electorate quickly faded into buyer’s remorse. Just over a year after taking office, the Peruvian president’s approval ratings hit single digits. Castillo’s relationship with Congress naturally deteriorated, leading to two impeachment votes. Before the third attempt could be made, the president tried to dissolve the chamber and give himself dictatorial powers. He was subsequently removed from office, arrested for an attempted coup, and succeeded by Vice President Dina Boularte.
The transition to Boularte’s government has not been easy. Despite her initial association with Castillo, the Boularte administration ultimately decided to connect with right-wing forces in Congress and the military. Progressive reformers have since taken to the streets in protest, leading to violent clashes with federal troops and general uncertainty about the long term stability of Peruvian democracy.
The second part of this World Report edition, providing concise rundowns for some of 2023’s most important elections, is currently in the works. That piece will serve as a roadmap for our upcoming coverage, including more detailed releases planned for publication ahead of individual contests later this year.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or email@example.com