Democratic Backsliding and Personalization of Power in Brazil

By Micah Presley Feb. 18, 2021 Weekly Graphs

This week’s graph focuses on personalization of power in Brazil under military and democratic rule. We plot V-Dem indicators for person of the leader and rational-legal legitimation from 1960 to 2019. 

The “person of the leader” indicator measures how much the government portrays the leader or chief executive as a hero, extraordinary leader, or phenomenal warrior, to justify its rule. By contrast, the “rational-legal legitimation” indicator assesses governments’ reliance on customary legalities and regulations to legitimize their existence. These indicators range from 0 to 4, with higher values representing greater reliance on personalist or rational-legal legitimation respectively. 

Both indicators build a picture of how power is legitimized in the Brazilian context. From 1964 to 1984-1985, the military regime controlling Brazilian politics resisted personalist claims to legitimacy but also did not routinely follow constraints of law. This is reflected by the low person of the leader and slightly higher rational-legal legitimation indicators for this period. After Brazil’s transition to democracy, the paths for these two types of legitimation diverge. Rational-legal legitimation rose from 2.34 in 1984 to 3.53 in 1988, with the election of Tancredo Neves, while person of the leader remains near constant. This pattern persists aside from 2003-2010, when person of the leader legitimation spikes under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  In 2019, the rise of Jair Bolsonaro as president is associated with another sharp increase in person of the leader legitimation, but this time also a decline in the rational-legal indicator.

A comparison between the presidency of Lula and that of Bolsonaro illustrates the relationship between these two indicators. At the end of Lula’s presidency, he held an approval rating of 87%, especially among the impoverished and working class, while his chief of staff along with major policies of his government had significantly lower ratings, reflecting Lula’s personalized popularity and image. Yet, the Lula regime did not actively undermine rational-legal institutions and, in addition to Lula’s personal popularity, it routinely drew upon programmatic appeals of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) as a source of legitimacy.

By contrast, during his short tenure, Bolsonaro has used his populist base of support to undermine rational-legal legitimation, especially that of the justice system. From reports of him wanting to use the military to shut down the supreme court, to fighting his federal police on investigating him and his allies, Bolsonaro has shown signs of pushing the limits of his power. In 2020, Bolsonaro attempted to personalize power by appointing a close family friend, Alexandre Ramagem, as federal police chief. After the courts blocked the move, Bolsonaro appointed Ramagem’s close aide Rolando Alexandre de Souza. There are also reports of Bolsonaro and other his allies spreading fake news and misinformation. Such interference with the justice system, installing loyalists, and controlling the narrative, are all common signs of personalization.

To learn more about the different types of legitimation claims, you can visit the Online Graphing section of V-Dem’s website.


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