Growing Populism in Latin America?

von Dr. Peter Köppinger

Conclusions of the Workshop


Growing Populism in Latin America?

Conclusions of the workshop

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the end of this workshop we can say that there has been a very fruitful mixture of inputs from different positions. Representatives of think tanks, non-state institutions and officials from several Latin American countries, experts and politicians from Germany and from the European Union Institutions have contributed their considerations and ideas. I will try to make some conclusions. This cannot be a summary of all the interesting information and opinions exchanged during the workshop, because this would take much more time than is available. I will therefore focus on the key topic of this workshop, the topic of populism in Latin America, and the views and recommendations expressed about this phenomenon during our meeting.

Let me structure my conclusion under five headings:

The general environment in Latin America in which the increase of populism is taking place

The different forms of populism which can be detected and which have been discussed here

The roots and causes of populism in the different countries

The effects of populism for democracy and development in the respective countries and in the region

Ways and possibilities of dealing with populism and of preventing the dismantling of democracy in Latin America by populism

The general environment in Latin America in which the increase of populism is taking place

In his brief analysis of Latin American developments during the last decades, Mr. Dupla del Moral from the DG External Relations of the European Commission stated that the countries of this region have seen three waves during this period: The wave of transition to democracy during the 1980s, the wave of transition to macroeconomic stabilisation and market economy during the 1990s, and now, ongoing, the wave of transition to social cohesion. It is obvious - and there has been agreement on this point among the different speakers and panellists - that in such an environment, the traditional political characterizations of right or left do not fit any more. We can see this, for example, in the economic policy orientation of the so-called left wing parties and leaders of Brazil and Chile. If a government wants to prevent endangering stability and development it has the responsibility to maintain economic stability, be it a “left” or a “right” government.

However, there also has been a broad consensus among the speakers of this workshop that the lack of this social component of development – besides the democratic and economic components – is threatening the democratic and economic achievements of the last decades.

Let me switch now to the second heading in this conclusion,

The different forms of populism which can be detected and which have been discussed here.

If I have understood rightly, there have been three different forms of populism reported and discussed during our workshop. Mr. Albornoz from Ecuador has stated that in the recent history of his country, populist politicians have missed key opportunities of achieving democratic and economic progress for the country on two occasions, and that even as we speak, following a very successful and satisfying economic development during the last seven years, the two leading candidates for the upcoming presidential elections are heading for a new constitutional crisis and the economic breakdown on the grounds of populism. Obviously, the type of populism which Mr. Albornoz describes is an attitude or political style that has politicians trying to stay in power or to achieve power by promising unrealistic benefits for the population or by stirring emotions on sensitive issues. I think we have to admit that such populism is not a phenomenon specific to Latin American only – we only need to take a look at the recent developments in Poland, Hungary or even the recent election campaigns in Germany. However, what we have to consider is why, - in Ecuador as well as in other Latin American countries - such populist policies can be successful and do not meet with much resistance from the majority of the population albeit entailing the destruction of democratic institutions. I will come back to this issue later.

The second type of populism has been described by Mr. Arenales Forno, Ambassador of Guatemala to the European Union. He characterized it as a reaction to big deficits in democratic participation and social justice, as a way of giving voice to the discomfort of the people with their living conditions, and as an alarm bell indicating that people have lost confidence in the functioning of their democratic systems and that they demand real democracy. The populist attitude of politicians, addressing the people emotionally and through movements which lie outside of or go beyond political parties, can be considered as an instrument to achieve progress in the fields of democratic participation as well as social justice and equality, which is impeded by the ruling elites as well as by the formal rules governing the political system. Populism, in such a situation, must not necessarily lead to the breakdown of democracy and to dictatorship but, on the contrary, may lead to necessary evolutions and reforms in the view of Mr. Arenales Forno.

Here, however, we are already approaching the third type of populism discussed during the workshop: A populism which on the pretext of necessary evolutions and reforms in a non-functioning, only formally pluralistic-democratic system seeks to abolish the pluralistic-democratic system and its institutions and replace them by a system of non-structured emotional participation of the population, lacking any checks and balances of power, under the leadership of a charismatic individual at the top of the populist movement in question.

I now will continue with some thoughts and remarks on the roots and causes of populism to be detected in the different countries, which have been discussed during the workshop.

There has been broad consensus among the speakers that the issue of non-delivering of the existing democratic systems, for the majority of the population, their persisting miserable living conditions, the growing inequality in the different societies, in short: the lack of a social dimension of the democratic and economic developments, is a key reason for the development and success of populism. However, as Mr. Neuhauß from KfW Banking Group explained, this should not be perceived as a reorientation towards socialism. Another key reason, which has been mentioned by many of the panellists and speakers, is the obvious low or even completely lacking participation of people in the decision-making processes of their formally democratic systems. This is partly connected to the weakness of the political parties, which in most countries of Latin America lack internal democratic structures as well as programmatic orientation and therefore cannot serve as instruments for democratic participation of the people. A third reason mentioned several times is the lack of moral and of ethic principles in politics, illustrated by the high level of corruption, which is undermining the reputation and the legitimacy of the political systems. Furthermore, it has been mentioned that in some countries the exclusion of large ethnic minorities or even of the indigenous majority of the population is contributing to the development of populist movements. It has also been mentioned, that the high revenues from oil and other natural resources, due to the current high prices at markets around the world, are essentially contributing to the stabilization of populist regimes and to their staying in power as they enable them to deliver to the population in spite of the lack of real reforms or in spite of disastrous economic policies. Finally, the underlying anti-US feelings in large parts of the population in Latin America also is contributing to the success of populism as the leaders of the populist movements normally build their legitimacy also upon nationalist rhetoric against the USA.

The effects of populism for democracy and development in the respective countries and in the region

During the workshop, Mr. Arenales Forno pointed out that populism must not necessarily be considered as a negative phenomenon in a country. He stated that in many cases it can be considered an alarm bell, making the political and economic elites of a country aware that something is seriously wrong in their country – be it the lack of democratic participation, corruption and the lack of credibility of the political institutions, social justice or even the exclusion of major parts of the population from political life and economic development.

Populism can also – another statement made by the Ambassador of Guatemala – pave the way for necessary evolutions and reforms which in the political system of the respective country were hitherto blocked by the dominating elites. It is obvious, however, – and this has been underlined by most of our speakers, panellists and discussants – that populism usually has disastrous effects on the medium term economic development of a country. Furthermore, it must be considered as highly dangerous for the existence of political pluralism and for the respect of the population’s basic political and human rights – simply because it tends to destroy the existing, even if often badly functioning, institutions which provide the system of checks and balances of political power.

Democracy, as was underlined by Mr. Hedrich, former State Secretary at the German Ministry of Development Cooperation, builds on the respect for human rights, the participation of the people in political decision making, the rule of law, a functioning and socially balanced, responsible market economy and good governance. The experience in Latin America shows that populist movements and governments, in the majority of cases, have to be qualified as enemies of democratic government as they tend to seriously neglect or even are in obvious breach of some of these criteria.

I would like to add – as has been mentioned by Mr. Blomeier, Director of the Latin America Department of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, – that there is also a risk that populism will cross national boarders and ‘infect’ neighbouring countries. This is due not only to the financial support provided, for example, by the populist regime in Venezuela to populist movements in other Latin American countries, but also to the fact that populist movements combine a political vision, a political project, with nationalist attitudes – a highly attractive mixture for populations fed up with the empty rhetoric of their political representatives.

Ways and possibilities to deal with populism and to prevent the dismantling of democracy in Latin America by populism.

There has been complete consensus among participants of the workshop – as Mr. Sandoval from Chile underlined again this morning – that a policy of addressing poverty and the exclusion of large parts of the population, of increasing equality and social cohesion, is a key measure to prevent the success of populist politicians and movements. However, one has to ask why in some Latin American countries, the ruling elites do not take up such obvious remedies against the emergence of populist movements.

Here we need to come back to contributions and observations made during the workshop by several speakers, among others Mr. Blomeier, Mr. Arias from Argentina and Mr. Arenales Forno: They pointed out that the system of representative pluralistic democracy is weak and malfunctioning in most Latin American countries. Political parties – as stated by Mr. Blomeier – in the sense of institutions providing programmatic visions and options and of integrating the population into the process of political decision making, in many Latin American countries do not exist. Parliaments and watchdog institutions are weak and often do not prevent corruption and the misuse of power by governments. Just the contrary: more often than not, they are part of the problem.

The second key measure to prevent the emergence and success of populist movements would be to address people’s growing indifference towards politics and towards constitutional democratic institutions – as stated by Ms Gregory from Brazil - by political reform and democratic awareness building. This agenda must include – with different focus and priorities in the different countries - the following elements:

(1)The establishment or reestablishment of functioning political parties – as explained, for example, by Mr. Dávila from Guatemala – so that these will fulfil their role of providing opportunities for the people to become involved in political decision making, developing programmatic visions and concepts and organizing the democratic selection of qualified political leaders.

(2)Strengthening the independence, power and qualification of the institutions charged with controlling political power and the work of the governments, i.e. parliaments, ombudsmen, election commissions, corruption watchdogs and – last but not least – constitutional and administrative courts, as explained this morning by Mr. Junghanns from DG EuropeAid at the European Commission.

(3)Enhancing the population’s actual participation in the political system by increasing the power, the professional competence and the democratic quality of local governments and administrations as well as by establishing inclusive mechanisms of development planning on local level. Wherever possible, this should also include the drafting and careful implementation of decentralisation schemes, especially in cases where ethnic minorities or even the indigenous majority groups of the respective population are de facto excluded from political life and economic development.

(4)Systematic efforts in civic education and awareness building on the importance and functioning of pluralistic representative democracy and its institutions among the population –focusing on young people and marginalized groups.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

at the end of these conclusions of a very interesting and fruitful workshop, I would like to come back to a remark which most of our Latin American speakers and panellists made, namely that the European countries and the European Union have in the past provided substantial assistance for the development of democracy and functioning market economy to the countries of Latin America. They also expressed their wishes as well as the urgent need, even, to continue this cooperation, in the spirit of critical partnership.

We have had with us four representatives from the European Commission, presenting valuable analysis and recommendations in the course of the di scussion. I strongly hope that the EU – and of course its member states – will assist the Latin American countries in their continuing cooperation to address the challenges of growing populism – be it within bilateral and geographic programmes, be it through thematic programmes and projects – in both key fields: the work on social cohesion, social justice and social integration as well as the reform of the democratic political system and the civic education of the population on democracy, its institutions and processes.