Religion & Liberty Online

Compulsory vote and populism — an urgent problem in Latin America

In the United States there is a significant amount of criticism on the political left towards the Electoral College Voting System. The ones making this argument normally state that the “winning takes all” measure creates a bias against minorities, destroying the country’s popular vote. Critics use the 2016 election as an example, when President Trump lost the popular vote but got elected by the Electoral College.

What some Americans do not know is that some countries adopt a compulsory voting system, where citizens are legally required to vote. This is the case of Brazil — along with most of Latin America. The compulsory vote is normally implemented alongside direct elections, contrary to the Electoral College. In Brazil, citizens must have an extraordinary justification for absence in Elections Day, otherwise they are charged a fine of 3.51 reais ($0.92). If the fine is not paid, the individual becomes ineligible for a number of things, such as obtaining passport and national ID, working in the public sector and receiving loans from public banks.

It is true that the rise of populist movements has been happening internationally in the past years. However, the compulsory vote facilitates the rise of populist leaders, and not only Brazil, but the entire Latin America is an example of it. It is not a coincidence that the “continent” historically known as the epicenter of populist movements, has in its major countries the exclusively adoption of the compulsory vote. This text will examine specifically the case of Brazil, but a lot of the principles discussed can be applied to other countries, such as Argentina.

Brazilians have a very unique culture, which can be easily seen by tourists and explained by the popular saying that states “God is Brazilian.” The reality is that, culturally, Brazilians do not have a profound interest in politics. The average Brazilian is more worried about watching a soccer game and drinking a beer after a long day of work than looking for information about the current political scenario of the country. 

A study done by IBOPE (Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics) in 2018, indicated that 61% of the people interviewed have little or no interest in politics. Another study made by the Abcop (Brazilian Association of Political Consultants) indicated that 15% of electors make their choice moments before executing their vote.  In the lecture “International Economic Development: Latin America” that took place at Acton University 2019,  the Brazilian congressman Marcel van Hattem stated that the average Brazilian forgets who he voted for in less than 6 months after elections.

Now, these are not necessarily harmful sociological issues, but only individual preferences. The cultural phenomenon described above becomes a problem when the compulsory vote is established. It generates an addictive and harmful cycle. As the average Brazilian citizen waits for election time to choose a candidate, he gets convinced by simplistic, catchy and impactful sentences created by politicians during the short period of campaign. However he does not know their political or economic plan.

During election time politics becomes a matter of passion. Brazilians idolize political candidates, as they support their soccer team — something that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. Most of the time, the discussion becomes more about the candidates themselves than their plan for the country. Brazilians create an empathy with the character portrayed by candidates. However, after the elections they forget about politics. After four years, they are there again, like social media maniacs.

Talking about social media, it is a fundamental tool in this process that correlates the compulsory vote with populism. Today, Brazilians are alienated from social media. It is the most practicable source of information for many, making individuals choose it rather than the traditional vehicles, such as newspapers, television and magazines. Suddenly, any kind of politician can became popular, due to the tremendously fast spread of information. Candidates become social media celebrities, by posting videos on Instagram and making controversial statements on Twitter. This trend is not exclusive in Brazil or Latin America, happening around the entire world. Nonetheless, it is a factor that interferes in the process being described

This cycle becomes an easy target for populists, who use smart sentences during their campaign to catch the attention of those who vote only because it is mandatory. The ex-President and current prisoner, Lula, was a specialist on using this phenomenon in his favor. He used silly sentences, describing his wishes to decrease poverty in the country in order to turn “the people” against the elite. Lula is followed by the more virtuous current President Jair Bolsonaro, who is not as populist as Lula, but also used catchy sentences against corruption and in favor of rule of law during his campaign to get elected.

The Austrian School of Economics has in one of its main arguments the difficulty to obtain perfect information in society. Those who constantly seek information have a hard time gathering the necessary facts to form an opinion. Now, imagine those who choose not to seek meaningful information. They are misled by captivating statements, and in Brazil, they are required to vote. In a free society, citizens should be free to have their own preferences and allocate their time accordingly. If they do not want to pay attention in politics and vote, they should be free to do so.

Of course abolishing the compulsory vote will not solve the problem of populism by itself. If that was the case, countries that do not adopt the compulsory vote would not have populism. Nonetheless, it must be an urgent reform in the Brazilian political system. Based on the statistics and reasoning developed, it is reasonable to assume that a significant part of the population would not vote if it was not mandatory. In the United States where voting is voluntary, statistics indicate that only 50%-60% of electors actually vote. By taking out of the picture disinterested electors, the abolishment of the compulsory vote would reduce populism, which in Latin America is more an illusion than reality.

Even though the reform is not widely discussed in Brazil at the moment, it has been in the agenda of the New Party –the first classical liberal party in Brazil and the only one looking for a real political reform. However, its members argue that there are bigger problems to be taken care of nowadays. Indeed there are, but the compulsory vote is something to be urgently revised not only by Brazil, but the whole Latin America.


Home page photo published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License: Dilma_empossa_Lula_como_Ministro_Chefe_da_Casa_Civil

Rafael Junqueira

Rafael Junqueira is a intern at the Acton Institute. A native of São Paulo, Brazil, he is a senior at Northwest Nazarene University (ID), where he studies Economics and Political Sciences.