Can Democracy in Latin America Survive the Populist Temptation?

Brazilian presidential candidates Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro participate in a debate over Brazil's future. (Shutterstock/Issac Fontana)

A growing indifference in Latin America towards democracy has manifested itself in the form of populism, writes Jessica Ludwig, Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute.

In many countries across Latin America, a wave of political uncertainty is testing democracy.

In recent elections, citizens have repeatedly voted out incumbents and ruling political parties in favor of opposition candidates. In cases such as Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru, electorates have voted in untested political leaders who have struggled to garner a coalition that allows them to govern effectively. And in Ecuador, where President Guillermo Lasso’s party holds only 10% of seats in the National Assembly, the country experienced months of turbulent protests and Lasso faced an impeachment attempt under a staunchly divided government.

Democratic legitimacy has also been marred by the weaponization of badly needed efforts to root out corruption. Accusations of political retribution have undermined the prosecution of corruption in places like Argentina and Guatemala, while in other instances, questionable legal allegations have been levied to sideline and silence political opponents.

Meanwhile, the popularly elected (and still-popular) presidents of El Salvador and Mexico have made strides — albeit at different paces — to erode the independence of crucial democratic institutions. The morning after Brazil’s October 30th presidential run-off, the country waited with bated breath to see if President Jair Bolsonaro would accept the outcome of the vote electing his rival, former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva. Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro repeatedly signaled that he would not respect the elections results if he lost.

According to Latinobarómetro, the long-running public opinion survey of attitudes about democracy in Latin America, support for democracy as the most preferred form of government has declined across the region. Respondents who prefer democracy have dipped from 63 percent in 2010 to a low of 48 percent in 2018 and 49 percent in 2020, the most recent year for which survey data is available. Over this same period, the percentage of respondents who expressed the view that “for people like me, it doesn’t matter whether we have a democratic or non-democratic regime” increased from 16 to 27 percent.

This growing indifference towards democracy has manifested itself in the form of populism — more of a style than formal mode of governance. The emergence of populism has seen leaders catapulted into power through highly personalized campaigns that play to voter frustrations with the political establishment and government performance.

Populism can be understood as a form of responsiveness to citizens. But it is also a dangerous dynamic. When populism gains sufficient momentum, it can be wielded to erode and ultimately eliminate the crucial checks and balances restraining political power that represent one of the defining features of democracy.

What is populism?

Political scientists and other observers often debate the best way to describe populism because of the slippery ways it has emerged in different contexts and domains. Kurt Weyland, the Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin and a keen expert on democracy, authoritarianism, and populism in Latin America, has described populism as “a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.” While other scholars have developed their own variated definitions, there is general agreement that populism typically displays the following characteristics:

  • Efforts to bypass or redesign political institutions, norms, and procedures.
  • Charismatic, personalistic leadership that eschews or coopts traditional political parties and established organizations in favor of mechanisms for more directly mobilizing constituents.
  • A deep distrust of experienced political leaders, government authorities, and other experts who may be perceived to have captured the state.
  • A divisive discourse of “Us” vs “Them.”
  • Fervent appeals to nationalism and patriotism.

Strong democracies depend not only on the quality of their institutions, but also on society’s commitment to a democratic culture. Upholding such a culture depends on responsible participation by citizens, leaders who govern with integrity, and accountability when any part of the body politic fails to uphold their commitment.

Institutions designed to mediate conflicts, such as the courts, and channel communications between governments and the general population, such as the media, usually guarantee accountability. But what happens when both political leaders and everyday citizens begin to doubt, dismiss, and even deconstruct such intermediary institutions that should guarantee the rules of policymaking and power-sharing?

Strong democracies depend not only on the quality of their institutions, but also on society’s commitment to a democratic culture. Upholding such a culture depends on responsible participation by citizens, leaders who govern with integrity, and accountability when any part of the body politic fails to uphold their commitment.

The problem with populism is that it advances narratives that undermine the perceived legitimacy of the culture, rules, and institutions that democracy relies on. For example, in both Venezuela (under President Hugo Chávez and the Nicolás Maduro regime) and Ecuador (under President Rafael Correa), the country’s top leadership were known for employing the use of frequent cadenas, or publicly broadcasted presidential addresses, to verbally attack political opponents, government ministries, civil society organizations, media outlets, and anyone else they personally deemed as standing in the way of the agenda of the popularly elected president.

In more recent years, populist leaders around the region such as El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have become increasingly adept at using social media platforms to accomplish the same objectives.

The concept of unfiltered communication may seem democratic on the surface. But when the messages seek to capitalize on deep-seated frustrations among parts of the population who have become increasingly cynical about the value and culture of liberal democracy, they can unleash a particularly potent, toxic force that Moisés Naím refers to in The Revenge of Power as “anti-politics.”

A force that rejects politics and, by association, the established political elite can quickly destabilize democracies. It can foster a faster rotation of new leaders in and out of power as citizens become disenchanted with political performance. As Naím also cautions, anti-politics creates space for aspiring autocrats to concentrate power. Populist leaders who aim to “defend the people from malignant elites” can use this to their advantage.

The illiberal temptations of populism

It is important to note that populism is not ideologically exclusive to governments on the right or the left. In Latin America, examples of political leaders who employed populist governing techniques abound on both sides of the political spectrum.

Venezuela is perhaps the ultimate illustration of how unchecked populism under a charismatic leader who feeds on citizen dissatisfaction with democratic performance and political leadership can lead a once-consolidated democracy down a path into full-blown authoritarianism.

The personalization of politics and rise of populism in Latin America largely stem from waning trust in established political parties. The reasons for this are two-fold.

First, in many countries around the region, political parties have largely failed to renew themselves, allowing their leadership and platforms to stagnate. In his Democracy Talks interview for this series, former president of Mexico Felipe Calderón laments how the leaders of political parties around the region have lacked “historical vision” and failed to renew their parties. This has rendered them “unable and incapable [of developing] a social movement that would be able to reestablish democratic conditions.”

Second, corruption scandals involving the top leadership in many countries and political movements have further discredited the integrity of established parties and politicians. In Peru, a series of major corruption scandals implicating several former presidents and the principal opposition leader in Congress, among other members of Peru’s political elite, have repeatedly rocked the country. Peru’s current president, Pedro Castillo, has narrowly survived two failed impeachment attempts at the cost of shuffling 72 ministers in and out of his cabinet in just 14 months in office. Now, he is facing down a third challenge to his tenure via a constitutional complaint that could see him suspended from office over corruption allegations.

These dynamics lay out the welcoming mat for anyone who presents themselves to the electorate as a political outsider. This is not necessarily undesirable. But the emergence of leaders who have built their own political movements around themselves, rather than the other way around, leaves those movements vulnerable to the particular characteristics of the individual leader. And those leaders may or may not ascribe to liberal democratic values.

Venezuela is perhaps the ultimate illustration of how unchecked populism under a charismatic leader who feeds on citizen dissatisfaction with democratic performance and political leadership can lead a once-consolidated democracy down a path into full-blown authoritarianism. In stark contrast to the late former President Chávez’s proposed vision, the hollowed-out state he left behind entrenched power and wealth in the hands of a few, held shakily together by systemic corruption. In its wake is a humanitarian disaster surpassing that of most war-torn countries.

In the era of globalization, the dynamics of populism that make a country vulnerable to further illiberalism are hyper-charged. The combination of new technologies and the interconnected information space enables populist political leaders to disseminate mis- and disinformation at a scale not previously imagined.

Populist leaders with illiberal ambitions especially benefit from the normalization of attempts in other countries to rewrite the rules of democracy. At the international level, populist political leaders with power-grabbing aspirations are also less likely to criticize other heads of state aspiring to follow the same path.

Can democracies survive populism?

Fundamentally, populism is a symptom of a much larger problem — citizen dissatisfaction with government performance and the perception that political authorities are unresponsive to citizen concerns. The ability to hold officials to account is fundamental to the legitimacy of a democracy, and democracies that struggle to deliver must engage in serious dialogue towards effecting meaningful change through policies. However, the tempting shortcut to accelerate change that populism offers comes at the steep price of political accountability, space for pluralism, and the integrity of institutions.

In the era of globalization, the dynamics of populism that make a country vulnerable to further illiberalism are hyper-charged.

To be sure, Latin America is not the only region of the world where the illiberal populist temptation threatens to undermine democracy. But given the diversity of political experiences and responses evident in the region, societies around the world can learn valuable lessons about the risks of undermining the integrity of established institutions.  And perhaps they can even benefit from political innovations which might emerge from Latin America that could lead to democratic renewal, rather than erosion and decay.