From Latin America: Five sobering lessons about populism

America's long democratic tradition keeps presidents from seizing undue power. But the campaign of president-elect Trump contained striking echoes of the mass appeals of several Latin American populist leaders.

Karel Navarro/AP/File
A supporter holds a photograph of former Peru President Alberto Fujimori during a protest in Lima, Peru, in 2007. Mr. Fujimori's 10 years in office started as a democratic uprising against the elite but ended in authoritarianism and corruption.

A charismatic outsider runs for the highest office in the land, framing the election as a struggle between hardworking, common people and a corrupted, unresponsive elite. Difficult to pin down ideologically, he promises dramatic change and reaches out to voters directly. All they have to do is put their trust in him.

Sound familiar?

Donald Trump’s rhetoric may seem original to millions of American voters, but to many Latin Americans, it’s a populist language they’ve come to know well. Since the 1930s, the region has experienced three waves of populists. Some of them came from the left (think Hugo Chávez in Venezuela). Some come from the right (Carlos Menem in Argentina). But it matters little.

Populists frequently switch policies. The focus on the individual candidate reduces the need for clear ideologies or party platforms. Instead of building government institutions, they promote themselves.

None of this is meant to suggest that Mr. Trump will become a Latin American-style dictator. America’s democratic tradition stretches further back than the nations to its south and it’s more mature. Its system of checks and balances makes it difficult for any one political leader to dominate. Moreover, Trump was legitimately elected; he did not come to prominence via a coup.

Nevertheless, Trump’s presidential campaign contained striking echoes of other populist leaders’ mass appeals. These echoes should serve as a warning that populism, no matter how democratic and politically noble its beginnings, has a dark, authoritarian side that eventually emerges. In Latin America, it has always compromised hallmarks of democratic rule.

The saga of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) illustrates five lessons about populism we can learn from our southern neighbors:

1. Populists thrive on unresolved turmoil

The 1980s were not kind to Peru. Recently returned to democratic rule, it battled ballooning levels of public debt, hyperinflation, and slow growth. Over an entire decade, the economy shrank by 0.15 percent with the final three years averaging an annual contraction of 8 percent. With multiple left-wing guerrilla groups carrying out high-profile murders, kidnappings, and robberies, voters demanded change.

Enter Mr. Fujimori, an obscure academic of Japanese descent with no political experience. During the race, “El Chino,” as he came to be known, emphasized his ethnic heritage and wooed a broad coalition of small business owners, lower class voters, evangelicals, and indigenous voters. His hastily assembled Cambio 90 party promised dramatic change. Light on specifics, Fujimori lashed out against the International Monetary Fund and its neoliberal reforms for Peru’s economy. In an upset, he outpolled Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa, the preferred candidate of traditional elites.  

2. Populists enact radical change

After two weeks in office, Fujimori abandoned his campaign promises and adopted one of the most radical liberalization programs in Latin America. Subsidies for food and gas were abolished. State companies were privatized or opened for foreign investment, netting approximately $900 million in revenue. Public employment was curtailed, while labor and financial sectors were deregulated. The budget was balanced and a new currency was introduced.

Initially, these structural adjustments created great hardship, yet the economy stabilized. Under Fujimori, the economy grew an average 4 percent per year and inflation fell from over 6,000 percent to 3 percent. Meanwhile, the leaders of Peru’s main terrorist organizations were captured and sentenced. Their organizations faded in relevance. Having “fixed” critical problems, Fujimori’s popularity surged.

3. Majoritarianism undermines checks and balances

Originally inheriting a legislature controlled by the opposition (“unproductive charlatans,” Fujimori called them), in 1992, he launched a presidential coup (autogolpe). He rescinded the constitution, purged the judiciary, and closed Congress.

Despite condemnation locally and abroad, Fujimori constantly referenced public support for the coup and justified his measures as breaking the power of corrupt elites. He created a new Congress, with key opposition leaders exiled, where supporters drafted a new constitution ratified by referendum.

At every stage, Fujimori worked to concentrate power in his hands. A strict ban on consecutive terms was readjusted to permit reelection. Judicial independence was undermined at the Supreme Court and the National Elections Commission. Reflecting the populist penchant for anti-institutional organization, over 10 years in power, Fujimori created four different political parties.

4. Civil liberties deteriorate

By 2001, Freedom House considered Peru to “have one of the worst records on press freedom.” Intimidation, death threats, libel suits, police harassment, and imprisonment pressured most television and print journalists into self-censorship or exile. Fujimori relentlessly attacked opponents in the press and universities. His national service director, Vladimiro Montesinos, eventually controlled most media outlets and manipulated coverage to increase the president’s approval ratings. Additionally, Mr. Montesinos used his control over the media to blackmail political opponents he secretly recorded.

During elections, Fujimori constantly used government money to maintain and expand his fiercely loyal base of support. The Ministry of the Presidency, accounting for 10 percent of the annual budget, funded projects in politically sympathetic communities. He easily won two reelection campaigns. Nevertheless corruption and abuse of power scandals surfaced, forcing Fujimori to flee to Japan where he resigned via fax.

5. The cult of personality remains potent

The Fujimori decade has left the country broken and polarized. While the economic outlook is stable, the party system has collapsed. Elections are a never-ending series of outsider candidates competing on their personal traits. Fujimori and Montesinos remain imprisoned on charges ranging from corruption, human rights abuses, gun smuggling, and drug trafficking. Nevertheless, recent elections are more a referendum on Fujimori’s tenure than a competition of new ideas. His daughter, Keiko, finished second in the last two elections and currently leads the largest party in Congress. His son, Kenji, was reelected to Congress for a second term. Even out of power, populists can live on through their children.

The Fujimori story is not unique and highlights the perils of populism. It serves as a reminder that democracy is more than elections. Political opposition, judicial independence, institutionalized rules and norms, and civil liberties matter as much as the popular will.

– Grant Burrier, a professor of political science at Curry College in Milton, Mass., has researched Latin America extensively.

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