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Polarization and Party-System Populism: the Case of Ecuador

Latin America
Populism
Big Data
Sebastián Vallejo Vera
University of Houston
Angelica Abad Cisneros
Universidad de Cuenca
Raul Aldaz Pena
Universidad San Francisco de Quito
Diana Lucia Davila Gordillo
Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden
Sebastián Vallejo Vera
University of Houston

Abstract

In the last two decades, populism and populist rhetoric has become a pervasive feature in Latin American politics. The literature on populism has linked populist appeals to polarization in the electorate. By dividing the political space between the people and those who support the status quo, populist discourse can increase the perceived differences between supporters of opposing political camps. Thus far, research on populism and polarization have focused mainly on the description of successful cases (e.g., populist outsiders that get elected) and domains. However, it is not clear if populist rhetoric is a property of a populist leader/party or if it emerges at the party system and can be located horizontally independently of the political actor. Nor is it clear the extent to which populist discourse can polarize a contentious political field. To address these shortcomings, we analyse effect of social media content created by political actors during the 2021 Presidential Elections in Ecuador. The presence and interaction of politicians in social media during the elections reveal that populist rhetoric is present at the party-system level, in all candidates independent of political filiation. The variation on the tone and pervasiveness of populist content also show that it can have an adverse effect on polarization –i.e., increased network homophily, reduced interaction between political communities, and increased toxicity in the content. We complement these finding with an analysis of the rhetoric used by candidates in “real-life events” and find significant overlap of content. Our results point to the consequences of populism in the political interaction of voters. Furthermore, it shows how, once populist rhetoric has been a successful political strategy, it can transcend leaders and become engrained in the political system as an electoral tool.