International Policy Digest

World News /05 Jul 2017

Latin American and European Populism: Expanding Horizons

By Elmer Hernandez for PGW Global

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have provided a rude awakening for many in Europe who had ignored the challenge of populism. As Europe braces itself for what will likely be a tumultuous future, considering other sources of valuable experience will become paramount.

In The Economist, Bello has recently pointed out the familiarity to Latin Americans of the type of populist nationalism espoused by the likes of Trump, with current techniques and narratives pulled straight from the “Latin American Manual.” However, and despite its rich populist history, the Latin American experience has often been overlooked. Those wishing to understand and counter in Europe and elsewhere would be wise to consider it.

Three lessons stand out. First, Latin America exemplifies the issues of a simplistic understanding of populism. Second, the region shows populism is persistent and more often than not has damaging consequences. Finally, Latin America has vast experience with post-truth politics, and confronting populism is impossible without tackling the post-truth politics that underpin it.

Avoid Homogeneous Thought

In Latin America, populism’s strong historical ties with the left have facilitated homogeneous thought. The term is often confined to the left of the political spectrum in order to attack opponents and make electoral gains. This has led critics to discount populism as nothing but a label used against any progressive governments.

Although Donald Trump and his campaign’s remarkable similarities with Latin American populists challenged such stereotypes, some were quick to dissociate him from populism in what seemed a suspicious defense of long-held conceptions of populism in the Latin American imagination.

A damaging dynamic is at play: as labelers apply the term selectively, critics grow tired and frustrated of its banality. Consequently for both, if everything is populism then nothing is. This is a misguided and problematic frame of mind. In restricting its understanding of a complex ideology to a single political instance, Latin America risks ignoring its existence all together.

In the struggle against its own prominent far-right nationalist strain of populism, Europe runs a similar risk. Instead, it should remain flexible and recognize populism’s complexity. A good start is to treat populism as what Cas Mudde calls a “thin-centred” ideology, easily attachable to other ideologies and political concepts, thin or not, such as nationalism, socialism, racism.

In this way we may better account for the subtle nuances and sharp contrasts amongst populists. For example, consider how the Dutch Geert Wilders and the Polish Jaroslaw Kaczynski are both equally wary of Muslims. Yet, the former is a secular-nationalist who claims to defend gay rights from Islam, while the latter is a religious-nationalist who believes homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilization. At the same time both are different from left-wing populists such as Pablo Iglesias and his Podemos party in Spain, often overlooked in the midst of current debates on populism.

The takeaway seems straightforward, but cannot be stressed enough. We must be wary of political fixations; populism is not synonymous with either right or left, nor is it restricted to a certain type of political party, regime and leader. A meagre understanding of populist ideology is detrimental and a costly first mistake, one that enables it to endure and do considerable damage. On this matter Latin America offers a second lesson.

Populism is Recalcitrant

While Europe faces its rising populist challenge, populist regimes in Latin America seem to be abating. Yet, the latter’s recovery is far from complete. Not only do important exceptions remain, the region is still suffering from serious economic and political fallout. Latin America attests to the endurance and persistence of populism, and its dire consequences.

Today, Argentina is in recession, a result of the fiscally irresponsible administrations of its various former populist leaders. In the equally recessed Ecuador, although Rafael Correa did not seek a fourth consecutive term, his backed successor Lenin Moreno secured victory in the elections, to the disappointment and outrage of the political opposition. As populism wanes elsewhere, in Mexico it might just finally make its way to the top, as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is leading polls for the 2018 Presidential election, his third attempt to become President.

No example is more egregious than Venezuela, which continues to prove “there is always another step to hell.” Nicolas Maduro has taken a number of measures to maintain his grip on power. He has nullified the opposition-controlled Parliament and denied them a recall referendum, while still holding opposition members as political prisoners. Meanwhile, levels of deprivation and starvation soar throughout the country with severe food and medicine shortages, persistent hyperinflation that makes the few reserves left unaffordable, despite yet another increase to the minimum wage, the sixth in a year.

Latin America shows that populism is recalcitrant and that the political struggle against it is lengthy and laborious; Europe must pay heed and treat it as such. Recent negative results for Wilders in the Dutch elections will hardly mean his demise; the same is true of Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the second round of the French elections. Setbacks for a particular leader or party while important do not themselves mean populist decline.

The Latin American experience is especially relevant further east in Europe, where populism has settled in. Hungary and Poland are two of the most pressing cases the European Union is attempting to control, as political and social freedoms keep eroding. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has recently threatened academic freedom with a targeted law, intensified already controversial measures against asylum seekers, and will seek to tighten rules for NGOs. Similarly, Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party is conducting a crackdown of its own in Poland. The political overhaul is expansive, covering everything from political institutions to the education system and the press, the latter of which have even been subjected to exorcisms.

While still far from becoming political and economic abysses of Venezuelan proportions, the two nations are worrying signs of a populist spread that is gaining momentum. The European Commission must consider its responses carefully. Waiting for populists to be kicked out of power is risky, as Latin America suggests, the damage inflicted may last and will be hard to undo. Economic measures targeting their European subsidies could backfire, as these are likely to hit populations and reinforce support for populist leaders. Stripping both countries of their voting rights, known as the nuclear option, is also difficult; both countries are likely to veto attempts against the other. In a time where a strong hand is needed, the Commission’s procedures seem “too weak and highly legalistic”; failure to deal with these initial symptoms could have significant repercussions for the rest of Europe.

Tackle Post-truth Politics

Key to the endurance, detrimental and conflictive character of populist regimes are so-called alternative facts and post-truth politics, or as Mudde says, how for populists “perceptions seem to be more important than facts.” For many, Brexit and Donald Trump brought such alternative truths to the fore, whether out of the mouth of politicians, their personal news outlets or vehemently displayed on the side of a bus.

These are known waters in Latin America. Post-factual politics are deeply ingrained in the region’s past and present and will continue to influence its future. Trump’s association with so-called “alt-right” outlets is reminiscent of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and his use of tabloid newspapers, the infamous “chicha press,” to praise his regime, influence public opinion and attack opponents. Similarly, some Brexiteers would have felt at ease with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s administration in Argentina and its forgery of official statistics, once claiming the country’s poverty rate to be under 5%, below that of countries like Germany.

In Venezuela, Maduro has blamed detrimental conditions on a fictitious economic war waged by the regime’s imperialist adversaries. The epitome of the country’s post factual reality is the cynical conviction by the Government that it has the overwhelming support of the people, despite low approval ratings of just 18% according to Datanálisis. Venezuela is truly an instance of populism without the populace.

Unfortunately countering post-truth politics is no easy task. Fujimori was controversially absolved last year of diverting public funds to purchase certain tabloid newspapers. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is still to face major action regarding several corruption charges, and the Maduro regime has become rather effective at delaying its supposedly imminent implosion.

The Latin American experience suggests that the consequences of recent setbacks in the US and Europe could be yet to come and be lasting ones, but that tackling post-truth politics is a difficult necessity.

In the US, the post-truth politics of the Trump Administration are one of the main factors behind a damaging and increasing political rift in Washington and the country as a whole. Cracks abound within and between several actors, including Trump’s own GOP staff and much of the American media. This last one ironically labelled by Trump as post-factual agents, responsible for inventing many of these rifts in the first place. Inside Trump’s close circles an internal rift between two different camps has been a major talking point of the young Administration. While Steve Bannon’s removal from his permanent seat at the National Security Council is a welcomed move to counter post-truth politics and get serious about US interests, alternative facts are endemic of the Administration as a whole.

Most worrying perhaps is the conflict with the law enforcement and intelligence communities, particularly over alleged Russian interference in the presidential election. In another self-damaging outburst, Trump recently accused the Obama Administration and the FBI of wiretapping Trump Tower during his election campaign; a claim that was unsurprisingly unfounded, despite misleading acknowledgement by the FBI of an unrelated case. A relationship fraught with lies and distrust with the world’s most powerful intelligence and security apparatus could have the most devastating consequences not only for the US but for its allies and the world at large.

In Europe, and particularly Britain, Brexit has for many already inflicted a heavy blow in this regard and could continue to do so. Now that Theresa May’s Government has triggered Article 50, a cool-headed rational approach is vital if the UK is to get the best possible deal, there must be no room for error.

Unfortunately, as Tunku Varadarajan has noted, the influence that pungent tabloid newspapers have over public opinion is considerable and could bring disastrous consequences. These post-factual outlets are accused of having spread several dubious claims that backed the Brexit campaign and have the ability to poison upcoming negotiations.

The prospect of having the “hardest of hard Brexits” is daunting but not impossible. Populist pressure might leave the Government with little room for maneuvers as anything short of a complete severing of relations with the EU could be interpreted as an affront to the volonté générale. Similarly, anti-European and post-factual rhetoric is likely to make EU officials adamant in their negotiations with Britain. Indeed, such intoxication is already evident in the provocations between the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the British tabloids. As Britain faces such a crucial period in its history, it is essential that it remains centered and reasonable.

Post-truth politics create fissured and fractured political establishments, leaving them vulnerable. A quick look at the Latin American experience will remind us of the potential consequences that may ensue if little is done to counter them.

Challenging Times

Difficult times lay ahead in the struggles against populism. Europe must counter contemporary populist momentum and prevent a political overhaul. To this end, considering the Latin American experience could prove useful as the region continues to suffure its remaining populist strongholds, while remaining vigilant of any relapses and attending to the damage caused. In its case, Europe will hope there is little debris to clear once the dust settles.