Tangled roots of populism: from Latin America to the Post-Soviet States

By: Hanna Baraban

Populism in its modern understanding has its roots mostly in the context of Latin America (Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, Victor Raul Haya De La Torre in Peru and others). After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, populist rhetoric was adopted by the political elites of the Eastern European countries. One of the most colorful examples of this phenomenon is the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. Moreover, it is surprisingly similar to the populist regime in Venezuela, despite the fact that they appeared and evolved in very different geopolitical, cultural, historical, and economic conditions.

How and Why did populism rise to the fore?

Talking about the reasons for the emergence of populism in Latin America, Kenneth Roberts points out two assumptions: firstly, populist regimes can rise in countries where the masses available for mobilization (usually lower classes of society) are not sufficiently represented by political institutions and cannot consistently express their views in the political arena. Secondly, «populism has an inherently ambiguous relationship with political democracy».[1] On the one hand, such a regime arises because of the request of the lower classes to include them in the political process and can be established through democratic procedures. On the other hand, the populist regime exists in conditions of institutional weakness, and when leaders tend to use undemocratic methods of governing. These criteria reflect the political situation in Venezuela in 1998, when Hugo Chavez won the presidential elections for the first time. The nonpartisan leader who promised to replace the unfair order with a new democratic system that would meet the needs of the people, looked much better against the backdrop of a corrupted bipartisan system and social inequality.

In Belarus, before the first presidential election in 1994, the situation was different. The party system did not discredit itself – it was in its infancy, like all other democratic institutions. They needed time to gain political weight and to win the confidence of voters. Nevertheless, the problem was that, in fact, parties did not have time: after the collapse of USSR, Belarus suffered from tough economic crises and political uncertainty. In these conditions, Belarusians supported Alexander Lukashenko – a nonpartisan parliamentarian with the reputation of a fighter against corruption.

Lukashism vs Chavizm

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Chávez and Lukashenko meet in Palacio de Milaflores in Caracas. Photo credit: chavezcandanga on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Bright charisma – the first and foremost important quality of a successful populist. Both president of Belarus and ex-president of Venezuela were extremely popular because of their noticeable difference from other politicians and simple but engaging rhetoric. They actively stressed their connection with ordinary people – for example, Chavez had his own radio program «Aló Presidente» where he personally spoke to Venezuelans, and connected with the population by making jokes and singing. In his turn, Lukashenko participates in typical agricultural activities of the country (like digging-up potatoes or driving a tractor). Moreover, he speaks «trasyanka» – a dialect consisting of a mix of Russian and Belarusian, widely spoken among the lower classes of society. Because of this, people and media in Belarus call him «Batska» («Father»). In short, these politicians demonstrated their proximity to the people in every possible way – and people reciprocated, voting for them in elections.

In addition, Chavez gained his political points also due to anti-American speeches: the world still remembers how in the United Nations General Assembly he called George Bush «the devil» and added «yesterday he came here. It smells of sulfur still today».[2] Lukashenko did not make such sharp attacks – largely because Belarusians – many of which sympathize with the West – could perceive it negatively. However, this small difference did not prevent politicians from becoming friends: the project of transcontinental Belarusian-Venezuelan brotherhood looked very ambitious but in fact failed both economically and politically.

A second characteristic of an empowered populist is personal control over the decision-making process. Thus, both Chavez and Lukashenko did not belong to any party. Even though pro-presidential organizations exist in both countries (the Movement of the Fifth Republic in Venezuela and «Belaya Rus» in Belarus), their structure is weak and they lack identity.[3] Logically, their main function is to serve the personal needs of populist leaders.

Also, the particularities of law-making should be emphasized. Decrees of the President of Belarus have immense legal power, which means that Lukashenko may personally set mandatory laws, even if they contradict existing ones. Chavez used a different mechanism: he ruled social and economic campaigns through so-called ‘missions’. For example, the aim of the Bolivarian mission was to establish social justice and welfare, fight with poverty and change the educational system. However, Mission Habitat should have helped the Venezuelan people secure housing by offering credits and relief for the purchase of homes, but failed to do so.[4] In sum, Lukashenko’s decrees and Chavez’s missions – shining examples of bypassing parliaments, ministries and other national democratic institutions for imposing presidents’ will upon the people.

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Consequently, in the short-term, populism was a successful strategy for the leaders of Belarus and Venezuela: it helped them gain votes even in times of economic crisis, political unrest and social turmoil. But in the long run, one-man rule and personal control is doomed to failure. It is obvious that after the death of Chavez, his successor Nicolas Maduro is not able to manage the reins of the populist regime and, most likely, he will have to vacate the presidential seat. Looking at this situation from another continent, Lukashenko, who just celebrated his 24th anniversary of presidency, should think about changing his traditional populist rhetoric. If only in order to prevent the economic and political collapse of Belarus after his era comes to an end.

 

References:

[1] Kenneth Roberts, Populism and democracy in Latin America, 2000.

[2] David Stout, Chávez Calls Bush ‘the Devil’ in U.N. Speech. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/20/world/americas/20cnd-chavez.html

[3] Шуленкова И. Современные популистские режимы: сравнительный анализ Беларуси и Венесуэлы / И.Шуленкова // Палiтычная сфера. – 2009. – №13.

[4] Fact Sheet. Social Missions in Venezuela. Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United States http://venezuela-us.org/live/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/socialmissionsinvenezuela-12.11.09eng.pdf

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