There is an interesting thread (in which I have been participating, though that’s hardly the most interesting aspect of it) at bloggings by boz about the “scorecard” of leftists/populists in recent Latin American presidential elections.
I will not try to replicate the discussion here–just follow the link and see for yourself–but it is a reminder of how imprecise, and potentially useless, concepts like “leftist” and “populist” are in current Latin American electoral politics.
The label of “leftist” is often applied to social-democratic presidents like Bachelet and Lula, but also to a rehabilitated “Tercertista” like Ortega (who made alliances with elements of the right to come back to power), and self-proclaimed revolutionaries who rose through the military like ChÃ¡vez. As many (including boz) have noted, this diverse group hardly fits neatly under one ideological label.
What about “populist”? This is a term that has less ideological baggage, though it has baggage of other sorts all its own. Boz proposed neo-populist, but as another commentator (Greg Weeks) noted, this term was applied by Weyland in the published literature to refer specifically to anti- or above- party, but pro-market, leaders in the 1990s (e.g. Fujimori, Menem and sometimes Salinas).
It is fairly clear that nominees of internally democratic parties like the Chilean Socialists (in coalition with other left and center parties) or the Brazilian PT cannot be meaningfully called “populists.” They represent a democratic center-left. They also have sought to retain generally good relations with the US, unlike ChÃ¡vez and several of the others. But what of Ortega and ChÃ¡vez? And, let’s add, LÃ³pez Obrador, Correa and Morales?
The term, populist, has a long and not entirely distinguished history in Latin American studies. Many of the definitions refer to specific policy directions, as in the move towards import substitution by the so-called classical populists (e.g. PerÃ³n). It was in part due to this concepts’ own policy baggage that Weyland added the “neo-” to refer to Fujimori and Menem.
But should populism be understood by reference to policies? I do not think so. It is a specifically political concept. As Riker suggested in the title of a book that deserves to be better known among students of comparative politics than it is, Liberalism against Populism, the latter term is contrasted with notions of limited government, the hallmark of liberalism. A populist conception of democracy assumes that there is such thing as a “popular will” and that it can be inferred from the electoral victory of a leader who presents himself as the embodiment of that “will.” Unlike a liberal, who accepts (at least in principle) the constraints of institutional checks and balances and competing political parties, the populist sees institutions and parties as devices for thwarting the authentic representation of the popular will.*
If we accept such a definitional dichotomy between liberalism and populism (and then recognize that they really represent endpoints of a continuum), it is not too hard to identify the populists in contemporary Latin America. ChÃ¡vez and Correa would be clear examples. Both won their elections, in part, on promises to set aside existing parties and institutions (courts, the legislature, and the constitution itself). ChÃ¡vez had a personal electoral vehicle (hardly a “party”), while Correa did not even have that. (In that sense, Correa is perhaps more authentically “populist” than any of these current leaders, as was Fujimori.) Morales might also fit this definition, although unlike either ChÃ¡vez or Correa, he has an electoral vehicle that won a majority of lower-house seats at the same time as his initial election. Given that said fact does not necessarily imply that he is checked by a party (which, in any case, is probably not well institutionalized), perhaps it does not push him outside the “populist” concept.
What about LÃ³pez Obrador? His “to hell with the institutions” discourse certainly is consistent with populism, though his candidacy at the head of the PRD, which could be considered a reasonably institutionalized party (for such a young democracy as Mexico has) suggests he should not be seen as populist. Besides, not only did he lose the election, but even if he is right that he was cheated out of the 230,000 some votes that would have given him victory, that still would amount to only around 35% of the votes. Some popular will! (LÃ³pez Obrador seems to have missed the irony here.) So, he might have a “populist” style and ambitions, but if the term is to be meaningful, it should reflect actual political conditions, and not mere aspirations.
Then there is Ortega. Populist? Absolutely not! Not only did he win a share of the vote not much greater than LÃ³pez Obrador in Mexico, he came (back) to power on the back of a political party that he helped create decades ago. If anything, the Sandinista Front is over-institutionalized. That is, it is such a rigid organization that it has proven impossible for internal reform movements to alter its leadership. Yet it controls a formidable vote-delivering machine that has won it around 38-40% of the votes in every election since 1990 (but not a plurality till 2006). The populist seeks to override institutions in order to represent the “popular will.” Ortega has employed the institutions of his party and the electoral law to return to power from within. I see no sense in which that is meaningfully populist.
Fitting some of the aspects of populism (as I have defined it), but not others, would be a former president such as Menem. Like Ortega, Menem came to power through an established political party, although the Peronist party was never, according to most accounts, particularly institutionalized. It was flexible and manipulable. Whether it was “populist” after the initial burst of energy that brought Peron himself to power is debatable. Once in power, Menem certainly attempted–and in some sense, managed–to govern in a way that circumvented institutional checks. On the other hand, aside from getting approval for and winning reelection, he was also forced by the opposition both inside and outside his party to accede to new checks, including losing a bid to be allowed to run for a third term.
Salinas, classified by some as “neo-populist,” hardly even belongs in the discussion. He came to power through the long-ruling PRI, and his tenure in office was marked by efforts to re-entrench that very same party against the threat from the new PRD and the rising PAN.
In short, once we accept a political definition of populism, it is not hard to identify ChÃ¡vez, Correa, Fujimori, and maybe Morales as fitting quite well. It is likewise not hard to see that LÃ³pez Obrador and especially Ortega and Salinas do not qualify, and that Menem probably does not. The question is whether the leader seeks to replace and override institutional and partisan checks, and not any particular ideological or programmatic leaning.
One could make a case for simply abandoning the term, populist. Yet it does have analytic value, as long as it is not used as a synonym for leftist or as a means to describe any leader who employs a discourse of being set against the status quo. Or against US influence.
* I think there is potentially a useful parallel with how these terms are used in economics. Whereas “populist” economics is often understood as redistribution of wealth and the politicized provision of benefits to lower classes without concern for their fiscal implications, liberalism subjects economic policy to the discipline of market competition and the constraints of financial markets. Of course, in the political sense, liberalism subjects executive leadership to the discipline of party competition, regulated and channeled by political institutions. Populism does not.
Previous discussion of labels like leftist, populist, Leninist, and even fascist: Getting the labels all mixed up (29 May, 2006).