Strategies Around Populist Protests

Are you working to promote democracy abroad?

If so, chances are you’ve run into populist protests – a challenging fixture of democracies the world over.

Sometimes these protests emerge from movements that are clearly anti-democratic. But others are sparked by groups who are just interested in achieving their partisan agendas. Recognizing this distinction is crucial for developing effective responses to both kinds of protests.

That’s one finding from our newest study, which took GPPi’s Melissa Li to São Paulo. She interviewed researchers, populist activists, and staff members of international organizations who were active in Brazil over the last decade. During this period, right-wing populist protest groups mobilized millions, helping to impeach one president (Dilma Rousseff) and elect another (Jair Bolsonaro).

Yet despite their leverage and visibility, these groups operated largely unchecked – at least by the efforts of democracy promoters. Why was that?
For one, external actors were wary of interfering in domestic politics on behalf of Brazil’s democracy. And their progressive civil society partners on the ground were uniformly opposed to dialogue with the populist protest groups, even when some of them later turned on Bolsonaro. So democracy promoters felt their hands were tied.

To be sure, they faced significant challenges – but Melissa also found there were other strategic options worth considering. She details four of them, which range from engagement to containment approaches: cooperationconversationignoring; and marginalizing.
Each approach comes with its own benefits and drawbacks, which democracy promoters will have to weigh for their own contexts. With this in mind, Melissa recommends these steps:

1. Develop analytical tools to mitigate biases in how you assess populist protest groups.This is the key to identifying which groups are relatively moderate and which are extreme. In Brazil, democracy promoters found their judgment clouded by their own political leanings, and did not distinguish between groups pursuing a constitutionally-defined process and others demanding a military intervention.

2. Engage with moderate populist protest groups and contain extreme ones. This rule of thumb also applies within groups, not just between them. For engagement to work, the groups themselves must be open to dialogue. As was the case in Brazil, some populist protest group members may already be part of democracy promoters’ networks – and serve as good first points of contact.

3. Establish a network of politically diverse democracy promoters and prioritize defending democracy. When democracy is under attack, democracy promoters must come together. If the populist protest groups are far on the right, like in Brazil, an independent or conservative organization will be best positioned to approach them. And vice versa for the left – making a broad coalition indispensable for defending democracy.We invite you to dive into the full study to learn more about the Brazilian context and what the rest of the world can take away from it.

Originally published under the title “How to Respond to Populist Protests” by Global Public Policy Institute on 25 January 2024

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