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Populism and Its Long-Term Consequences

Sunday 15 February 2009, by NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

In late 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez narrowly lost a vote on a constitutional referendum which would have allowed the President to run again in future elections. Hardly discouraged, he pressed forward. On Sunday, people will vote on a similar referendum and in the event that Chávez wins, he could stand for reelection in 2012.

That’s an outcome which the opposition seeks to avoid at all costs. What Chávez really wants, the opposition claims, is to become a fledgling tyrant and to institutionalize his own personal power. Originally elected in 1998, Chávez is now serving his third term in office. While pushing his referendum, the Venezuelan President has said that he needs more time in office in order to secure vital socialist reforms.

For Chávez, holding the referendum is a big gamble. If he should lose on Sunday, the opposition will be able to claim its second straight victory. Already, the right is feeling more emboldened following its decent showing in local elections last year. As a result, victory on Sunday might lead the opposition to call for a presidential recall in 2010.

Currently polls show Chávez with a slight lead, but if the President simply ekes out a victory this could reinvigorate the opposition which had been swamped by Chávez in previous elections. Perhaps, if the President had done more to groom and promote a political successor, the Chávez forces would be in a more politically advantageous situation right now. By tirelessly campaigning for his own right to reelection, Chávez has given ammunition to the opposition and, arguably, imperiled the future of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution which has done much to bring social and economic benefits to Venezuela’s neediest.
The dilemma over the constitutional referendum underscores a larger problem. At long last, Chávez forces are running up against the structural limitations which characterize populist regimes. A charismatic leader, Chávez has established a tight bond with millions of Venezuela’s poor. Indeed, one might argue that the fervor that many feel for Chávez verges on the religious. Given this high level of adulation, finding a political successor to Chávez is a challenging task.
Possible heirs might include Julian Isaías Rodríguez, a former vice-president and Attorney General; Diosdado Cabello, a former army Lieutenant Colonel, Vice President, Minister of Interior and Justice and Governor of the provincial state of Miranda; José Vicente Rangel, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense, or Jorge Rodríguez, who worked as a director of the National Electoral Junta as well as the nation’s Vice President.

There are a number of other promising and intriguing figures associated with the Chávez regime which I profiled in my new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), including the young Andrés Izarra, who headed up Telesur, a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela, and Nora Castañeda, who was appointed by Chávez to head the Women’s Development Bank in Caracas. Izarra and Castañeda however don’t have much of a political base and are even greater long-shots than Isaías Rodríguez, Jorge Rodríguez, Cabello or Rangel.
The fact that Chávez forces have not come up with alternative leaders is not very surprising in light of recent history. Chávez-style populism, which in certain respects resembles earlier Latin American populist variants, is characterized by an enormous focus on the individual leader and his dominant power—similar to the paternalistic hacendado on the traditional hacienda. In the populist model there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on unquestioned decision making power and seemingly “god-like” qualities that permit leaders to interpret the needs of the people and to chart the future trajectory of the state in order to satisfy those needs.

Populists whip up their own popularity and mythology by emphasizing a personal crusade. They rail against ill-defined “oligarchies,” entrenched political parties, local elites, the church or media establishment. Indeed, populists may seek to set up their own rival media in order to create a sense of public accessibility. Master orators, populists employ fiery, emotional rhetoric to establish a psychological connection with the people. They may seek to build up an image of themselves as the cultural epitome of the nation, while meanwhile channeling nationalism against various and sundry political threats. Hardly content to work within conventional political channels, they conduct militant street rallies and mass mobilization of civil society to achieve their long-term objectives.

While populist regimes in Latin America haven’t been particularly revolutionary, some have achieved a significant degree of economic redistribution. They may even succeed in empowering disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups for a time. The problem however is that populism is difficult to sustain in the long-term. Ideologically inchoate, populist movements rely on their leaders to provide vital political glue. Populism is socially heterogeneous and may succeed in bringing together a multi-class coalition, but only temporarily.

In the absence of a charismatic leader, populist movements may fall apart or languish. Will popular forces be able to advance in Venezuela if their leader falters? If Chávez does not win on Sunday or achieves only a modest victory, this question will be sorely put to the test.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)