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Post-populism in Latin America

Post-populism is determined by the tension of maintaining the political project and by the slow and imminent distancing of the leader operated by secondary leadership competing for the political center.

On June 2, if the majority of the Mexican electorate votes for Claudia Sheinbaum, candidate of Morena, the governing party, or for Xóchitl Gálvez, of the opposition coalition, Mexico will have a female president for the first time, but on that day the populist government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador will also enter its final phase. What are the effects of the withdrawal of populist leadership? Several Latin American countries are beginning to suffer the consequences of the populist legacies of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, the Kirchners in Argentina, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, just to mention a few. Although it would seem that the departure of populist leaders creates better expectations for the functioning of democracies, this is not necessarily the case, as the imprint of these governments is difficult to erase. 

What is post-populism?

If populism is a political regime where the vertical relationship between a charismatic leader and the people prevails, without the need for mediating institutions and based on a personal political project, post-populism is determined by the tension of maintaining the political project and by the slow and imminent distancing of the leader, operated by some satellite leaderships that emerged during the mature stage of populism and compete to take the leader’s place. This depends on whether the populist party or movement remains in government. Suppose it remains in government and the populist leader is only formally out of power. In that case, the satellite leadership will try to create a project of their own from the vertex they now control, which requires a greater effort of political operation to superimpose themselves on their predecessor, but without breaking, at least by media, with their leadership. Such is the challenge that Claudia Sheinbaum will have if she wins the presidency in Mexico; Luis Arce and the MAS in Bolivia have been relatively successful in trying to reduce the leadership of Evo Morales and keep him away from major government decisions, while the negative case was the government of Alberto Fernandez in Argentina, which was always burdened by the leadership of Cristina Fernandez who ruled de facto. On the other hand, if the populist project is defeated at the ballot box, then the movement will depend on its relative ability to institutionalize itself under the leaderships that have emerged during its tenure in power, even if they are rivals of the populist leader, or it will tend to fade away and become a myth, as seems likely to happen with Kirchnerism in Argentina.

What is the legacy of populism?

Populisms try to modify the status quo before their rise to power. Some are more or less successful in doing so, but the consequences usually tend to be far from the initial projections. In the economic sphere, they tend to encourage the concentration of wealth in those sectors that are favorable to their political project, and consequently in an abject and opportunistic business class, but lacking economic efficiency in market terms. While populism is in power, these sectors receive fiscal benefits to operate under the facade of economic efficiency, but when the project goes into decline, these sectors become a fiscal burden and are politically difficult to disengage, as happens with all the companies, usually inefficient, that populism creates or shelters under the State. 

Yet the main legacy is the “social policies” implemented under populism, generally designed with questionable rationality, improvised or created “on the fly”, as a result of the populist leader’s ideas. These policies are highly dependent on State resources, which is why they become the main drain on public spending, due to their inefficiency, and end up increasing the public deficit, which governments end up making up by increasing the State’s debt. This explains why most post-populist states are highly indebted. Just to give an example, in 2022 the public debt in Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil reached 80% of their GDP; in Venezuela, even though the Maduro regime has hidden the information, it is estimated that in 2024 the debt is in an unpayable situation, more than 200% of its GDP, while in Mexico in this same year it reached almost 50% of GDP and projections indicate that, if this trend continues, by 2030 it will be 64%. 

Populism, by its anti-elitist nature, breaks ties with the intellectual and scientific spheres of its country, and allies itself with groups resentful of the elites because there it finds voices that, as in the case of some business sectors, are willing to defend its project even if it operates against their own interests. Post-populist governments are forced to reorganize these relationships because the opportunism that served the populist leader has limits and cannot be maintained in his absence.

What are the challenges for democracy?

Post-populist governments are forced to restructure public administrations, since populism conceives them as a booty of positions to be distributed among their militants over and above their professional capacities. This task becomes more complicated if it is necessary to demilitarize sectors of public administration that some populist leaders hand over to the armed forces in order to remove them from civilian control and keep them in the shadows. Finally, one of the most important challenges is to reinstate the primacy of the rule of law as an essential component of any democratic system. Populists tend to pervert its spirit or outright violate the law systematically and, if possible, modify it to their convenience. Any post-populist government, whether or not it is part of that project, is directly and indirectly constrained to transcend the one that preceded it, and whether or not democracy is recovered depends on its success.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues


Political Scientist. Professor at the University of Guanajuato (México). PhD. in Political Science from the University of Florence (Italy). His areas of interest are politics and elections in Latin America and modern political theory.


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