Does populism in power lead inexorably to the end of electoral democracy? And if not, what explains why populism leads to regime change in some cases but not in others? In this article, Julio Carrión answers these question by comparing the evolution of populism in power in five Latin American countries from the Andes region: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Carrión explains that populist leaders are elected when two critical antecedents are both present: deep popular unsatisfaction with existing political choices, and deeply divided or disorganised political elites. At this point, whether democracy survives or it is replaced by authortiarian rule, it depends on the outcome of what Carrión calls “Hobbesian moment”. This is a conflict between populist leaders—who want to expand their power—and socio-institutional elements fighting to preserve the checks and balances crucial for the functioning of liberal democracy.
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Ghiƫa Ionescu and Ernest Gellner wrote almost half a century ago, paraphrasing Marx and Engels, that a specter was haunting the world—populism. That declaration undoubtedly rang true at the time but now sounds outright prophetic. A search in Google Scholar, performed in March of 2022, shows that in the decade between 1969 and 1979, there were 3,800 articles and books with the word “populism” in their title. By contrast, in the ten years that span from 2012 to 2022, Google Scholar returns 70,200 titles. One could even argue—now paraphrasing Schmitter—that we are living in the century of populism. The return of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s came with a growing resurgence of populist politics. In the new millennium, populist leaders have come to power in many other countries, including the United States. Populism in now a global phenomenon.
As more populist leaders came to power, a debate emerged over the relationship between populism and democracy. A body of literature stresses that populism and democracy are incompatible for several reasons. First, populism is anti-pluralist and confrontational and therefore inimical to the pluralism that underpins liberal democracy. Second, the logic of populism is to depict one part of the people as representative of the whole, and to conceive this imaginary “people” as an ideal unity confronting a dangerous enemy. Third, populism rejects “otherness” and therefore delegitimizes any challenge that disrupts the unity of that idealized people. Finally, one of three possible pathways of populism leads to autocracy.
Alternatively, some have argued populism is compatible with democracy, and even beneficial for it. Margaret Canovan, while clear-eyed about its risks, suggests that populism can realize the promises of popular sovereignty that liberal democracy offers, but all too often fails to deliver. Populism, then, is recurrent because it resides in the gap between the “two faces” of democracy: its “redemptive face” (the promise of liberation through popular power) and its “pragmatic face” (a form of government that manages conflict). A related perspective argues that populism can be both a corrective and a threat to democracy, for it strengthens participation but weakens public contestation.
In my book A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power: The Andes in Comparative Perspective, I approach this debate by asking: does populism in power lead inexorably to regime change, that is, the end of electoral democracy? And if not, what then explains why populism leads to regime change in some cases but not in others? I examine five presidencies in the Andes, a sub-region in Latin America that encompasses Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Two of these presidents had a center-right orientation (Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia), and three claimed to represent the left (Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador). All these cases come from a sub-region that shares a relatively similar historical and cultural background. The cases also offer variability in terms of their political orientations (left/right). Finally, they provide diverging trajectories. In Colombia, the election of a populist leader did not lead to regime change, whereas the four other cases it did. My book offers a theory to explain these contrasting outcomes. To illustrate how democracy evolved under populism in power in these five countries, I rely on a series of quantitative indicators and analytical narratives.
To consider the impact of populism in power on regime change we need to look at it dynamically, that is, over time. Populist chief executives come to power through free and fair elections. Therefore, to be able to augment and accumulate power—something they want because of their anti-pluralistic and confrontational character—they first need to undermine the system of checks and balances. This does not happen overnight, but after a process of confrontation with societal and institutional actors, including the judiciary. If populist chief executives emerge victorious from this moment of confrontation, they will acquire power asymmetry, which will eventually lead to the erosion of democracy. If, on the hand, they are defeated, then democracy will persist. In what follows, I explain the theory more fully.
Populist leaders are elected when two critical antecedents are both present: deep popular unsatisfaction with existing political choices and political elites are deeply divided or in disarray. Under normal circumstances, people unhappy with their personal or national conditions turn their attention to traditional opposition parties. When none of the traditional parties or politicians are seen as desirable alternatives of change, people start demanding, like Argentines did in 2002, “out with them all.” When we add to this the fractioning of existing political parties, the collapse of the party system, chronic political instability manifested in frequent turnover in the executive branch, then we have the conditions for a populist surge. The reasons for popular discontent are contextual; it could be economic recession, a security crisis, cultural anxieties, or even political dysfunction. What is important is that popular discontent and elite crisis soften the terrain for proposals of radical institutional change.
Because of their anti-pluralist and controversial character, populist chief executives seek to increase their power once in office. These efforts, naturally, are contested by societal and institutional forces that want to keep the populist chief executive in check. A moment of acute confrontation ensues, which I label the Hobbesian moment, because is a moment of power politics. Existing constitutional rules, informal practices or norms, normal checks on executive power, all are set aside in the pursuit of power asymmetry. The state’s repressive apparatus could even be used for political purposes. How this crucial moment plays out determines the ulterior trajectory of populist governments. If populist chief executives succeed in achieving power asymmetry, a boosted executive office will emerge, and with that electoral democracy will transition to a hybrid regime or even a full-scale authoritarian regime. By contrast, if power-seeking populist leaders are defeated or contained, the possibility of regime change is averted.
The outcome of the Hobbesian moment is determined by the combination of permissive and productive conditions. The most important permissive condition for the victory of the populist chief executive is the degree of popular support for radical institutional change, which can also manifest as approval or general support for the populist leader. But the main reason—the productive condition—that explains the victory of power-seeking populist leaders is the use of the state’s repressive apparatus to defeat the opposition. An additional productive condition is present in some but not in all cases of victorious populist leaders: the organization and mobilization of civil society.
We thus come to the identification of the two central varieties of populism in power. When populist chief executives are prevented by societal and/or institutional forces to achieve power asymmetry, a contained or constrained variety of populism will settle, and politics will re-equilibrate. Democratic governance may be eroded but democracy as a regime will persist. This is the case of Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, who sought, and obtained from Congress, a law that would have enabled him to run for a third term. The Constitutional Court, in an act of bravery, considering that Uribe’s approval was hovering 80% at the time, declared the law unconstitutional, putting an end to his political ambition. Uribe is an example of contained populism. Donald Trump is another one. Both undermined many of the formal and informal norms of the presidency and its relations with the legislature, but neither was able to effect regime change. By contrast, when populist chief executives defeat the opposition during the crucial Hobbesian moment, then power asymmetry ensues and with that an unconstrained variety of populism in power emerges. This variety, as I show in the book, leads to regime change, and democracy will transition to a hybrid regime first and, in some cases, to full-scale authoritarianism.
Julio F. Carrión, PhD (University of Pittsburgh) is an associate professor of Latin American Politics at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware. His primary areas of research are public opinion and the relationship between populism and democracy. He has been part of the Barometer of the Americas team, housed at Vanderbilt University, since 2006. He is also a member of the Public Opinion Group at the Institute of Peruvian Studies (Lima, Peru). He is a member of the editorial board of the Revista Latinoamericana de Opinión Pública. Prof. Carrión edited The Fujimori Legacy: The Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism in Peru (in 2006) and has published numerous articles in both English and Spanish. His analysis of Peruvian politics has been featured in the Latin American Advisor, World Politics Review, Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets. His most recent publication is A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power: The Andes in Comparative Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2022).