Populism, whether of the left or the right, is a threat to democracy. Yet in Latin America today, the graver and more sustained danger is coming from the leftist variant. Chávez set the model, writes Kurt Weyland, the Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics at the University of Texas–Austin.
Around the turn of the millennium, prominent Latin America specialist Scott Mainwaring highlighted the surprising endurance of democracy in that region after the transition wave of the late 1970s and 1980s.During that interval, no democracy had permanently succumbed to a military coup or slid back into authoritarian rule. After decades marked by instability in numerous countries, especially Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador, this newfound democratic resilience came as a welcome surprise.
But at about the time Mainwaring was writing, onetime coupmaker Hugo Chávez was winning election to the Venezuelan presidency and beginning to move his country away from democratic rule. Venezuela had survived the rash of military coups that swept the region in the 1960s and 1970s to become a byword for democratic stability in Latin America. Economic deterioration, political ossification, and rampant corruption had brought sustained decay, however, and paved the way for this radical populist, former army officer, and would-begolpista (he had led a violent putsch that failed in February 1992) to decisively win the free and fair December 1998 balloting. Using plebiscitarian strategies to transform the country’s liberal institutional framework, concentrate power, and entrench himself, Chávez set about strangling democracy and putting competitive authoritarianism in its place. He remained as president till he died of cancer on 5 March 2013.
The Chávez phenomenon has had strong demonstration and contagion effects beyond Venezuela. Eager to overcome instability and cement their own supremacy, Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia (2006-) and Rafael Correa of Ecuador (2007-) have emulated Chávez’s script. As did their political ally and financial benefactor, they have used constituent assemblies to augment executive powers, allow for presidential reelection, and weaken institutional checks and balances. From that position of strength, they have made discretionary use of the law for political purposes. With this discriminatory legalism, they have attacked, undermined, and intimidated the opposition in their respective countries, moving toward competititve authoritarianism as well.
With its electoral façade and progressive rhetoric about helping the excluded, the soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America has an attractive face.
Similarly, strong informal pressures and disrespect for constitutional principles have enabled Daniel Ortega (2007-) to establish his hegemony in Nicaragua. President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras (2006-2009) also sought to follow in the footsteps of Chávez, Morales, and Correa by convoking a constituent assembly and preparing his own perpetuation in power; yet coordinated opposition from Congress, the courts, and the military aborted this effort through a controversial June 2009 coup. Even President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina (2007-), whose fervent supporters take inspiration from Chávez, is eyeing constitutional changes and renewed reelection (she is now in her second term). Given Argentina’s weak and disunited opposition, this push for entrenchment, combined with continuing attacks on the press and the president’s personalistic command over the state, has created alarm in civil society about looming threats to the country’s hard-won democracy.
That Venezuela had already fallen under nondemocratic rule was confirmed in October 2012 by Chávez’s unfair reelection, achieved with the help of intimidation tactics, tight restrictions on the opposition, and the massive misuse of the state apparatus. Since the third wave reached Latin America in 1978, the region had seen only occasional threats and temporary interruptions of democracy in individual nations. The recent suffocation of political pluralism in a whole group of countries is without precedent. For the first time in decades, democracy in Latin America is facing a sustained, coordinated threat. The regional trend toward democracy, which had prevailed since the late 1970s, has suffered a partial reversal. Unexpectedly, democracy is now on the defensive in parts of the region.
With its electoral façade and progressive rhetoric about helping the excluded, the soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America has an attractive face. It exerts an appeal on regional and global public opinion to which academics are not immune. The military dictators of the 1960s and 1970s were ogres with no legitimacy who depicted themselves as stopgaps–house cleaners putting politics in order so democracy could return. By contrast, Chávez and friends have claimed to institute a new participatory–and hence qualitatively better–form of democracy and to promote social equity and national independence. Rather than a short-lived detour, they seek to carve out a distinct development path purportedly leading to what Chávez called “socialism for the twenty-first century.” Their competitive authoritarianism appears not as a limited interruption but a permanent alternative to pluralist, representative democracy. This appeal is unusual among contemporary non-democracies; it contrasts with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s more bluntly unsavory brand of autocracy, for instance. These “progressive” claims aggravate the risks emanating from the recent turn to authoritarian rule.
As Steven Levitsky and James Loxton and Raúl Madrid have emphasized, Chávez and his friends used populism to entrench their predominance and install competitive authoritarian regimes.Populism, understood as a strategy for winning and exerting state power,inherently stands in tension with democracy and the value that it places upon pluralism, open debate, and fair competition. Populism revolves around personalistic leadership that feeds on quasi-direct links to a loosely organized mass of heterogenous followers. Bypassing or subjugating intermediate institutions such as firmly organized parties, the leader– often a charismatic figure–establishes face-to-face contact with large numbers of citizens. In earlier decades, mass rallies were crucial; nowadays, television allows populists to reach their followers “in person.”
As a political strategy, populism can have variegated and shifting ideological orientations and pursue diverse economic and social policies. Contemporary Latin America has seen populist presidents from the right, such as Argentina’s Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-99) and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), and populists of the left such as Chávez, Morales, and Correa. Many populist leaders have embraced economic nationalism and state interventionism, yet others have imposed free market reforms.
Populism will always stand in tension with democracy. The logic of personalism drives populist politicians to widen their powers and discretion. Because these leaders sustain their influence via personal appeals rather than intermediary organizations, they see any institutions outside their control as obstacles to be bypassed or overcome. Determined and politically compelled to boost their personal predominance, populist leaders strive to weaken constitutional checks and balances and to subordinate independent agencies to their will. They undermine institutional protections against the abuse of power and seek political hegemony.
Left-wing populists act in coordinated ways. Morales, Correa, and Zelaya (who was stopped early in the process) sought to retrace Chávez’s path through constitutional change to political hegemony and discriminatory legalism. Daniel Ortega took advantage of Nicaragua’s low level of institutionalization to push his changes through by informal means. They all benefited from Chávez’s petrodollars, political advice, diplomatic support, and security protection. This comprehensive backing from Caracas strengthened left-wing populists both at home and abroad. Thus did Chávez help to smother democracy in several countries.
Why has left-wing populism been doing more damage to democracy in Latin America than right-wing populism did? This asymmetry reflects differences not in intention, but in capacity. Today’s populists of the left command greater political strength and have more policy tools. They can push further down the road toward concentrated power than could their neoliberal cousins of a few years ago.
First, right-wing populism has a temporary (usually crisis-driven) support base, while leftist populism has more lasting roots, particularly in the “informal” sectors that figure so largely in the economies of many Latin American countries. Second, by reducing the power of the state over markets and private economic actors, neoliberalism diminishes the power of right-wing leaders. The growing state interventionism favored by left-wing populists, by contrast, gives them additional means of influence. Third, neoliberalism exposes right-wing populists to international pressures for democracy; economic nationalism, by contrast, insulates leftist presidents from such exhortations. Finally, right-wing populists acted separately, while today’s left-wing leaders form a coordinated group. This cohesion further disarms international pressures to maintain democracy. For all these reasons, Bolivarian leaders have managed to strangle democracy much more effectively than neoliberal populists ever could.
This is an extract from a longer article from the July 2013 issue of the Journal of Democracy.