By María Belén Camacho Sequeira - International Relations degree student
Populist leaders have been present in Latin America’s political landscapes, and will continued to be a staple of the political system until something changes. Politicians such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, and populist innovator Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, pursued confluence and persuasion to get to power. These governments have arguably marked the beginning of a new stage of populism in the continent. The main issue evolving this political concept is whether a political figure that got to power by populism can turn out to implement an authoritarian regime in the country.
Populism is characterized by Müller (2016) in “What is populism”, as involving the criticism of the elite and consider it as corrupt and incompetent, anti-pluralism and a reliance on the notion of exclusive representation of the people based on ‘moral’ rather than factual or rational grounds, and appeal to a homogeneous ‘one group’ identity. The main issue around this is the fact that sometimes leaders, by offering people a “package deal” in which they include the excluded, the latter argue that they alone, once armed with extraordinary powers, can solve the country’s problems, are relying on populism to establish their political hegemony, corrode institutional checks and balances, severely misshapen political competition and marginalize the opposition through discriminatory legalism. 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. Social scientists have considered these measures as authoritarian approaches.
In Latin America, Chavez moved Venezuela away from the democratic rule. Strong informal pressures and disrespect for constitutional principles have enabled Daniel Ortega (2007-present) to establish his hegemony in Nicaragua. President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras (2006-2009) also hunted to follow the footsteps of Chávez, Morales, and Correa by calling a constituent assembly and preparing his perpetuation in power. So, it can be said that authoritarian governments nowadays haven't started with violence and human rights violations. The current soft authoritarianism has an attractive face and it has developed as a populist leader assuming an authoritarian character. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, by offering more indigenous rights and protection over the culture and land, get to power and once in there became rich and recklessly authoritarian, some people considered him as a classic, hidebound caudillo. Nevertheless, they did varying levels of damage, a snowslide of Latin American leaders turned toward one form or another of corruption, violence or suppression of opponents.
It is a fact that authoritarian rule and populism are coincidental in Latin American today. Populism is mostly a way to get to power, once these leaders are there, they can develop an authoritarian character. In a world dominated by neoliberalism, and with increasing inequalities, this promised social justice, and the democratization of society via the transformative power of constituent power. Yet, its views of the people as one, of rivals as enemies, and of popular sovereignty as one and undivided led to the creation of authoritarian governments. Populist Latin America's contemporary poses a significantly stronger challenge to democracy. Moreover, neither the domestic opposition nor the international community has found a way to stop discriminatory legalism. For these reasons, the end of the authoritarian populist trend in Latin America is not in sight.