Populism in Latin America: a double interview

POP interviewed two scholars – Saskia Ruth and Bruno Castanho Silva – in order to understand the causes and consequences of populism, especially in Latin America. We discussed also about negative cases (why populism does not always show up when it is supposed to?), use of violence, populist paradoxes, and direct democratic tools.

From this dialogue emerged a (quite long and dense) interview full of relevant examples, concepts and arguments. It therefore constitutes a clear and comprehensive point of access to a broad variety of topics about populism in Latin America.

Enjoy the  interview.

1) By comparing populist actors in Latin America and Europe, which ideas of “the people” and “the elite” emerge in the two contexts? In other words, which different types of populism are present in the two regions? Is it correct to portray them as inclusive and exclusive types of populism?

Saskia Ruth: While Latin America has often been equated with left populism and Europe with radical right populism, cross-regional research was able to highlight that although these patterns exist, they are far from deterministic. We can also find left populism in Europe (e.g. SYRIZA in Greece) and right populism in Latin America (e.g. Fujimorism in Peru). Thus, country contexts matter with respect to the representation gap that enables political actors to mobilize with a populist appeal, but this is not necessarily predetermined according to regions.

Bruno Castanho: The specific ideas of people and elites vary not only across the regions, but also widely within the regions – depending on the country, host ideology (left populists have different targets than right populists), and so on, so it is difficult to give a clear picture simply of who is the people or the elites in the two regions. The question of whether one is inclusionary while the other is exclusionary also hinges much on the examples chosen, and what one refers to.

SR: A more relevant difference is not necessarily the regional divide but the spread of different systems of government which overlaps with the regional pattern: presidentialism vs. parliamentarism. This, in my opinion, is the main reason why populists have been more successful in forming majority governments and controlling the presidency in Latin American countries compared to coalition governments in European countries (with a few notable exceptions).

BC: On the one hand, it is true that populist movements in Latin America have often been associated with expanding political enfranchisement to marginalized groups – that’s been true for Vargas and Peron empowering urban workers in the 30’s and 40’s Brazil and Argentina, or for Evo Morales reaching out to the Indigenous majority in Bolivia in the 2000’s. In that sense, it has performed an inclusionary role more often than European populists, which arrive at the picture in moments when (at least in Western Europe), we don’t have countries where very large portions of the population are almost completely absent from the political process. On the other hand, those on the streets protesting Chavismo these days might have a different opinion on whether they feel very much included in Maduro’s idea of a Venezuelan people.


Santiago de Chile – Spring 2016

2) Under which conditions populist actors usually take power in Latin American countries: high unemployment, malfunctioning of democratic mechanisms, or discrimination of minorities?

BC: Economic issues seem to have little to do with the rise of populism in Latin America, especially when we talk about the recent “pink wave” of left-populists from the 2000’s. While they’re often explained as a reaction to liberal economic policies adopted in the continent during the previous decade, most research shows that the main determinants of populists’ success are in fact dissatisfaction with political institutions, led by the endemic corruption and/or bad governance observed in throughout the region.

SR: Indeed, the rise of populism in Latin America after the Third Wave of Democratization has been closely related to declining trust levels in core representative institutions like parliaments and political parties since the 1990s, the so called “crisis of representation”. Hence, most successful populists in the region came to power against the background of a power vacuum in their political party systems – the most paradigmatic examples are Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

3) While in many countries populism is on the rise as a reaction to repeated scandals of corruption and low trust in political parties, this does not happen everywhere. For example, how do you explain the absence of populism in Chile and Brasil?


Santiago de Chile – Spring 2016

BC: A few things have to be considered here. First, the benchmark for populist success in Latin America is higher than in Europe. Chavismo has been extremely populist and in power for more than 15 years. A similar story is found in Ecuador or Bolivia. In Mexico, which is usually not considered one of the strongest cases of populism in Latin America a very populist candidate lost by very small margins in the two last presidential elections – and that is a better performance by a populist than in almost any European country ever. In Chile we observe a similar story. In Kirk Hawkins’ and mine coding of manifestos and campaign speeches for populism, the 2013 Chilean presidential campaign is one of the lowest scores in Latin America but has as much populism as some European countries usually considered typical (concerning) cases of populism. For example, Marco Enriquez Ominami’s speeches score a 1, on a 0-2 scale, and he received a bit more than 10% of the votes. That is about as much as observed in Geert Wilders’ PVV manifesto, who received a very similar vote-share in the 2012 Dutch elections. So, to give some perspective, a typical case of “absence of populism” in Latin America has as much success of populism as a typical case of successful populism in Europe.

SR: A first answer would be that the institutional context in these two countries plays against the likely rise of populism to power. Although both countries have presidential systems of government, they combine this institutional feature with an electoral system that contributed to the development of highly fragmented party systems, which on the other hand induces political parties to form coalitions in Congress. In Chile, the binomial electoral system led to the development of two stable, pre-electoral party coalitions that compete for power. In Brazil, the candidate-centered electoral system led to the development of more flexible pre- and post-electoral coalitions supporting different presidential candidates. However, this feature did not entirely preclude the rise of populism to power in Brazil, as the example of Fernando Collor de Mello in the beginning of the 1990s shows. Staying in power, on the other hand, may be more difficult for populists especially in more fragmented contexts.

BC: Now, the question then is why these cases do not have populists in power for two decades. For Latin American standards, Chile (like Uruguay, another negative case of populism) has fairly low levels of corruption and a functioning state with decent provision of public goods – the two main explanations for populism in the region. Brazil is perhaps more complicated. Corruption and trust in government are among the lowest in the region, and have been for a long time. However, and this is an explanation that is not necessarily backed by extensive research, a) its post-dictatorship party system is more stable than it’s given credit (what might be changing with the current massive corruption probes), and in 2002, the most auspicious scenario for populism in the country up to now, Lula da Silva was a functional equivalent for a populist leader – an outsider promising deep structural reforms. He did not use a populist discourse in that specific campaign, but the rest was probably close enough to mobilize any populist dissatisfied voters. Now, with the current apparent collapse of the political system (almost every main politician is being investigated on corruption probes as I write), it might be that the 2018 presidential elections will bring a populist resurgence to the country.

4) Venezuela has been governed first by Hugo Chávez and now by Nicolás Maduro, two textbook left-wing populist politicians. Currently the economic and social situation is dramatic. However, Maduro “has responded to bad news with bluster (he blames foreign and domestic “mafias”) and denial.”[1] Do you think this is a typical populist reaction? And how can “the people” be at the center of Maduro’s political discourse while the same people is in the street asking for his resignation?


Puppet of Hugo Chávez

SR: I would not characterize Maduro as a classical populist. For one, he came to power in the aftermath of Hugo Chavez’ death and through an electoral process that has been labeled as highly flawed by international observers. Second, populism in its essence is (radical) democratic – at least in a Rousseauan sense – where power should ultimately rest in ‘the people’. As soon as power is used to oppress opposition forces and constrain individual liberties we are more in the area of competitive authoritarianism than populist democracy.

BC: Not necessarily a typical populist reaction. There’s never been a politician who willfully took the blame for conducting their country to chaos. Even less so authoritarian ones. It’s always the circumstances, foreign powers, internal saboteurs, etc. That’s how Putin reacts to Russia’s economic problems, for example, and he’s not quite a populist. And “the people” in the streets are not “the real Venezuelan people”, of course. Much like, when 80.000 Hungarians took the streets to protest the Orban government and the lex CEU on April 9, government-aligned Hungarian media was quick to say that George Soros was giving free plane tickets for foreigners to attend the demonstrations. It’s the populist logic of starting with “They’re against the people, therefore they’re my enemies” and turn that into “They’re my enemies, therefore they’re against the people”.

5) As the example from Venezuela shows, populist actors often face the following paradox: while they claim to embody and represent the people, they oppress and negate freedom to the very same people. Is it enough to include in the constitution mechanisms of direct democracy to be sure the popular will is implemented? Under which circumstances do politicians introduce this kind of direct democratic tools?


SR: First, the people is an elusive term and may be defined in many different ways. This is why we observe populism as inclusive in some contexts and exclusive in others – depending on how the demos is defined. Second, the problem with the people-centrism of populism is that in essence it is grounded in a strongly majoritarian logic since it assumes that through majoritarian decisions the so called “will of the people” may be identified. This is one reason why many populists have a substantive affinity towards direct democratic decision making. However, as I show in my research with Yanina Welp populists are also strategic with respect to direct democratic institutions, since they only foster their institutional expansion if they anticipate majority support in favor of their cause.

BC: Well, the first three lines already answer the first question. As Venezuela shows (and many examples before also have), it’s not enough to use direct democracy. Especially when such mechanisms are used with the only goal of giving a justification for rulers to implement whatever policy they want while claiming that “that’s the will of the people”.

6) When do populist actors in power become problematic for liberal democracy in general and horizontal accountability in particular?

BC: When they decide that liberal democracy and horizontal accountability are standing on the way of their implementation of the “people’s will”, aka whatever they want to do. Which is precisely the role of said institutions, reason why we so often observe clashes between elected populists and legislative or judiciary bodies.

SR: The relationship between populism and horizontal accountability is especially pronounced in presidential systems in Latin America. As I show in my research the success of populists to accumulate power in the executive depends on both their incentives to do so as well as their capability to engage in the erosion of checks and balances. For one, populist presidents do not have strong incentives to engage in institutional change if they have ample possibilities to influence policy making at their disposal (e.g. through strong constitutional powers or the majority support of their party or a stable party coalition in Congress). However, if opposition forces are able to block the political agenda of populist presidents through controlling other institutional veto points, populists face strong incentives to change the power balance in their systems. In these cases they heavily rely on both the weakness of opposition forces (e.g. former governing scandals, party system breakdowns) as well as ample public support.


7) Despite the introduction of mechanisms of direct democracy, presidential systems in Latin America are similar to delegative democracies with strong majoritarian elements. Isn’t it a contradiction?

BC: Absolutely not. A direct democratic consultation mechanism gives the ruler an appearance of popular legitimacy to take measures against any limitations potentially set by parliament or the judiciary. Delegative democracy rests on the idea that the president, elected with a majority of votes, has the popular mandate to do virtually anything. That mandate is only emboldened if every now and again their policies are backed by popular consultations.

SR: I agree, the concept of delegative democracy at its core favors vertical accountability with a strong majoritarian logic – which is not just given in presidential elections but in direct democratic institutions as well. However, there is not one kind of direct democracy, but many different types of direct democratic mechanisms – while delegative democracies in theory are more in line with so called top-down direct democratic mechanisms that may only be initiated by political elites to ask the approval of the public in selected situations, populism in its essence may favor both top-down and bottom up procedures – as long as it leads to the identification of “the will of the people”.


8) More often than not, research focuses on the causes for populism. However, you analyse the effects of populism on democracy. Can you summarize the main consequences of populism in power?

SR: We are just beginning to understand the consequences populism in power has for democracy. Comparative research on the phenomenon has grown in recent years and confirmed in essence the ambivalent nature of the relationship between populism and democracy. While we find the negative consequences of populism to be mostly related to an erosion of liberal democratic institutions – like checks and balances, minority rights, or the freedom of the press – the analysis of positive effects of populism on representation and participation is just in its infancies. While we were able to confirm an affinity of populism in power in Latin America towards the introduction of direct democratic institutions, we do not yet know who and how these institutions are used once they are available. Moreover, we find mixed effects of populism on descriptive and substantive representation across regions. The most alarming finding with respect to representation, however, is that we can find a negative association between populism and (the absence of) corruption – one of the core issues on the agenda of populist contenders across different regions.


BC: Naturally, it varies across cases. But we may identify some consequences that are fairly common, and most give cause for concern. Populists in power often lead to increases in political polarization, by their continuous use of an “us-versus-them” discourse. Also, we frequently observe attacks on various democratic freedoms and rules: cooptation or harassment of independent media and critical civil society organizations, politicization of courts and public service bodies, and concentration of power in the executive branch. Most are done gradually, slowly bringing democratic countries into a route towards competitive authoritarian states. One important issue here, however, is that we talk about these consequences when politicians win elections and govern with a populist discourse. It is not rare that candidates are very populist during the campaign and take a U-turn once in office, dropping much of the populist discourse or, at least, using it only as an occasional rhetoric instrument. Those will not differ much from average, non-populist leaders.

9) The presence and effectiveness of checks and balances might reduce the impact of populist actors in power. Do you think this will be the case also for the US under the presidency of Donald Trump, or will he be able to overcome and bypass those mechanisms of liberal and constitutional democracy?

SR: While I believe that Donald Trump’s presidency may have severe consequences for US society as well as the political environment within the country and between the US and other nations, I still think that the system of checks and balances is strong enough to countervail any serious attempt to institutional change. Although Trump may have incentives to try to circumvent the due institutional process, he still faces strong opposition both within Congress (including some parts of the Republican Party) as well as in the wider public. Hence, opposition forces – which according to Trump and his team also include the media – are both determined and well organized to defend the core values of US democracy.

BC: This will be interesting to watch (at least from a researcher’s perspective, if nothing else), as it is the first time a populist comes to power with a strong mandate in an old, established democracy. Given the strength of American institutions, and the fact that Trump does not control the Republican Party near to the same extent as populists in other countries control their political groups, we might expect that the negative consequences for democracy we’ve observed in Venezuela or Hungary, to name two, should be much harder to achieve in the U.S. Then, there’s also the fact that Trump’s populism appears to be much shallower than that of Chavez or Orban – Kirk Hawkins had a team coding primary candidates’ speeches for the 2016 elections, and they find that Trump did not start using populist discourse until quite late in the primary season. And even later, his populism is not as consistent or frequent as cases in other countries. So, while there might be several concerning issues about his discourse and presidency, I’d not expect populism to be responsible for much damage.


[1]  The Economist, “Let them eat chavismo: As Venezuela crumbles, the regime digs in.” Available here

profile_pic (800x711) (2)Bruno Castanho Silva is an advanced doctoral candidate in Comparative Politics at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. His research interests are on causes and consequences of populism in Europe and the Americas, and on research methods. Bruno’s work has appeared in the European Political Science Review, and he is currently co-writing a textbook on Mutilevel Structural Equation Modeling with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu and Levente Littvay.

Dr. Saskia Pauline RuthSaskia P. Ruth is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Science at the University of Zurich and the Center for Democracy Studies in Aarau. She holds a Diploma in Latin American Studies and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cologne (Germany). She has been a visiting scholar at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Mexico and the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). In her research she specializes in comparative politics, clientelism, populism, and Latin American studies. Saskia Ruth has published articles in The Journal of Politics, Political Studies and Latin American Politics and Society. She recently edited the volume “Let the people rule? Direct democracy in the twenty-first century” together with Yanina Welp and Laurence Whitehead (ECPR Press 2017).

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