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The Upsurge of Far-Right Populists and its Challenges to Latin American Democracies

Comparative Politics
Democracy
Latin America
Populism
Qualitative Comparative Analysis
Aline Burni
German Development Institute
Aline Burni
German Development Institute
Matheus Ferreira
Federal University of Minas Gerais
Eduardo Ryo Tamaki
German Institute of Global And Area Studies

Abstract

Populism has been historically present in Latin American politics. The region is particularly known for left wing populist experiences, often featuring authoritarian leaders. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the so-called “classical populism” was marked by clientelism, controlled participation of the masses, and expansion of social rights granted by paternalist and charismatic leaders like Vargas in Brazil and Peron in Argentina. In the 1990s, a second wave of populism was largely influenced by neoliberalism and recommendation of reforms by the International Monetary Fund. In line with such policies, presidents like Menem in Argentina, Collor de Mello in Brazil and Fujimori in Peru were elected under the promise to fight corruption and high inflation. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a third wave of populism was characterized by radical left experiences, with the rise of strong leaders appealing to ethnical nationalism and the idea of recovering the “sovereignty of the people''. Countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador went through constitutional reforms and deep changes in their liberal democracies. Following the so-called “Pink Tide” of the 2000s, the recent rise of politicians like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (2018), Sebástian Piñera in Chile (2017), Ivan Duque in Colombia (2018), and Mario Abdo Benítez in Paraguai (2018) has spiked a discussion about a fourth wave of Latin American populism. Different from the previous waves, many of the new populists are distinguished by a far right ideology and antidemocratic orientation. They were elected through democratic processes, but there is a debate about potential challenges they pose to democratic systems. Indeed, in recent years, democracy has been under risk in several countries, particularly due to reducing space for civic action, weakening institutional checks and balances, rising levels of inequality, and attacks on human rights. These political tensions and disruptions simultaneously affect and reflect in the latest indicators measuring the quality of democracy in Latin America, which have been in decline according to the institutes V-Dem, Freedom House and IDEA. Against the backdrop of these two simultaneous phenomena - a new right-wing (populist) turn and the erosion of some aspects of democracy - , this study examines three research questions: i) Do newly emerged right-wing populists share similar characteristics regarding political, economic, social and cultural issues? ii) What factors would help explain the emergency of this new trend in Latin America? and; iii) To what extent (and in which terms) do they pose a threat to democracy? Given the complexity of these questions and the qualitative nature of our empirical data, we will conduct an exploratory analysis using the method of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), covering 19 Latin American countries. The aim is to assess the configuration of necessary and sufficient conditions that help explain the phenomena under analysis, as well as the role played by institutional, party, contextual and public opinion factors. By also looking into conjunctures and political agency, we expect to be able to expand the literature that tends to attribute more emphasis to socioeconomic and structural factors to uncover populism in Latin America.