External Affairs

Are Strong Populist Leaders Bad for Democracy in Latin America?

Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, with Cristina Kirchner, former president of Argentina, in Buenos Aires, 2015. Credit: Ministry of Culture, Argentina

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, with Cristina Kirchner, former president of Argentina, in Buenos Aires, 2015. Credit: Ministry of Culture, Argentina

The right-wing is obsessed with attempting to destroy the image of the great popular Latin American leaders of our time. Argentina and Brazil, among others, well know how this obsession has focused on the images of Juan Perón and Getúlio Vargas , as if their leadership would damage democracy, rather than strengthening and legitimising it.

The right believes that the left can only prevail through charismatic leaders, “populists” in their language, who gain leadership through deception, policies of concessions that are irresponsible from the macroeconomic point of view, sacrificing, according to them, the interests of the economy in order to affirm themselves as political leaders. There are theories as absurd as those that try to argue that Argentina had entered a period of decadence with Perón, instead of lauding the formidable social democratisation of the historical period of Peronism in power.

Now, when Latin America has returned to developing processes of social democratisation – running counter to the neoliberal hegemony at the global level – the right is engaged in attacking the leaders of these processes, as if they were dependent on their personal leadership. The destruction of the images of Lula, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Cristina Kirchner, according to the right-wing, could put a brake on the capacity of these countries to follow the route of social democratisation.

It must be asked: was Argentina more democratic under the military dictatorship and the neoliberal governments, or with the Kirchners? Did the state have more legitimacy and prestige with the military or with the dictatorship of the market, or when the rights of the people were reaffirmed?

Was Bolivia a better country, a more stable and democratic one, with the neoliberals of the white dynasties who dominated a country with an indigenous majority, or hasn’t it rather been with Evo Morales that the prestige of the country, the people’s support have never been so great?

Isn’t Brazil, that was the most unequal nation on the continent, now a better country, a less unjust, more integrated one, that enables people to live much better? Or was it when the markets and the big private corporations ran things without a counterbalance in the country?

Is Ecuador living the best moment of its history under the government of Rafael Correa, or was it when it was governed by oligarchs representing minorities?

These popular leaders have strengthened democracy in their countries, because they have integrated the broad majorities, affirming their rights, and thus legitimising their states because these majorities feel that they are represented by these governments – because they have produced periods of great stability and political continuity under the leadership of these political figures.

What characterises these popular leaders? The fact that they represent, in a direct way, the aspirations of the great majority of the population that was left out by traditional politics and its corrupt ways of electing representatives, by the power of money and that of the private media.

The right only fields strong leaders based on force and repression, as in the times of dictatorships.  Or presidents with ephemeral prestige, based on short-term economic plans, promoted by media marketing, until they inevitably fall into disgrace and their names are associated with the worst kind of politics.

Meanwhile, the popular leaders manage to evade the corporative mechanisms on which the right bases its power – Congresses elected on the basis of campaigns financed with big money, media monopolies, big business, among others – to express in a direct way the needs of the mass of the population, marginalised by the power mechanisms of the right. This is why they earn such broad projection and legitimacy, and receive popular support that no leader of the right possesses.

Strong leaders with popular support, through the legitimacy of their governments, make democracies more solid and do not harm them. The right persists in campaigns to tarnish the image of leaders such as Evo Morales, Cristina Kirchner, Lula and Rafael Correa because they have no real arguments against them. They know that a people without leaders, without self-respect, without national sentiment, is more easily the victim of the defeatism that the right wants to impose on our peoples and countries, in order to annul the conquests achieved under the leadership of these leaders in the last few years.

Emir Sader, Brazilian Sociologist and Political Scientist, is the Coordinator of the Laboratory of Public Policy of the State University of Río de Janeiro (UERJ)

(Translated from the Spanish for the Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion by Jordan Bishop)