Populism and the danger to Democracy: The Spanish example, Freedom of the Press and a Warning

Populism offers the promise of democratic renewal, bringing new actors and policies into the political system. Populist governments generally stand by three fundamental claims: (1) elites and “outsiders”work against the interests of the “true people,” (2) populist represent the “true people,” and (2) since populists are the voice of the “true people,” nothing should stand in their way. But while populist parties in power can make politics more representative, they can also undermine accountability when their lack of ability or interest in legislating shifts policymaking to other actors outside the ruling party. Populists in government can also erode the institutional checks on executive power inherent in a democracy that are necessary for a durable democracy, even in previously resilient advanced democracies. Historically, populist mobilization has precipitated democratic breakdown in the wealthiest democracies and have often reverted to autocracy: with examples such as Turkey, Venezuela, and Thailand.

When Hugo Chávez was first inaugurated as President of Venezuela in February 1999, he modified the oath of office to announce: “I swear in front of my people that over this moribund constitution I will push forward the democratic transformations that are necessary so that the new republic will have an adequate Magna Carta for the times.” He added: “the Constitution, and with it the ill-fated political system to which it gave birth 40 years ago, has to die.” Within hours of taking office, he would issue a decree calling for a new constituent assembly. Revising the Constitution was a key part of Chávez’s election campaign against the “corrupt” traditional parties, and would make good on his pledge to re-found the republic

Populists like Chávez offer the promise of renewing democracy and advancing social progress, bringing new actors and policies into the political system. But they also claim that their constituency represents all of “the people” rather than a portion of a diverse electorate, and—seeking to institutionally lock in their temporary political advantage—they frequently abuse the power of government to suppress their opponents.

The Danger of Populist Governments

Some scholars have warned that populists tend to be phenomenally corrupt, perpetuate their hold on power by delegitimizing the opposition, and inflict lasting damage on their countries’ democratic institutions. Others, including the historian Niall Ferguson, have suggested that populist governments are usually so incompetent that they prove short-lived. Yet others, including the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, have emphasized the positive potential of populism, and characterizes critics of these movements are simply defenders of the failed status quo.

However, history has shown that populist governments do not fulfill the promise of advancing democratic principles. In many countries, populists rewrote the rules of the game to permanently tilt the electoral playing field in their favor, often rewriting or amending their country’s constitution – such as is the case of Venezuela –when they gained power, frequently with the aim of eliminating presidential term limits and reducing checks and balances on executive power.

Some scholars draw a sharp distinction between left-wing and right-wing populists. While right-wing populists victimize unpopular minorities and weaponize public anger for illicit goals, left-wing populists are supposedly far more likely to correct elite failures on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. The best response to right-wing populists, according to this camp, is not a preference for parties and candidates that respect long-standing democratic rules and norms—but rather the election of left-wing populists.

The data do not bear out this argument. An empirical report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published in 2018 concluded that populist rule, whether left- or right-wing, leads to a significant risk of democratic backsliding (https://institute.global/policy/populist-harm-democracy-empirical-assessment) The authors examine the effect of populism on three major aspects of democracy: the quality of democracy in general, the checks and balances on executive power, and citizens’ right to politically participate in a meaningful way. They conclude that populist governments are four times more likely to cause harm to democratic institutions than non-populist governments. Also, more than half of populist leaders have amended or rewritten the countries’ constitution, frequently in a way that eroded checks and balances on executive power. Lastly, populists attack individual rights such as freedom of the press, civil liberties, and political rights. This suggests that left-wing populists are not likely to be a cure for right-wing populism; they are, on the contrary, likely to accelerate the speed with which democracy erodes at all levels.

The shift in the Spanish Government

Spain has become one of the latest examples of populism in governance. The 2008 Great Recession altered party allegiances in many countries, including Spain. In Spain, those changes brought a fully newly created radical-left populist party, Podemos, headed by a charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, that started as a grassroots movement and attracted sizeable support.

At the 2015 election for the national parliament, Podemos reached 20.65% of the vote and became the third largest party in the parliament after the conservative People’s Party (PP) with 28.71% and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) with 22.02%. Pedro Sanchez (PSOE) won a snap election in April of 2019 but struggled to form a government led by his party. As a result, another snap vote took place in November 2019, culminating with the first coalition government that Spain has seen in modern times.“A progressive coalition” – is how Pedro Sanchez described his deal with Podemos.

Podemos’, (now Unidas Podemos) success is partly due to its capacity to attract many former supporters of the established radical left, Izquierda Unida. Unidas Podemos’ supporters present a combination of elements – protest, anti-mainstream sentiment and unfulfilled expectations. Unidas Podemos highlights the need to regain popular and national sovereignty, as they interpret that both have been taken away by the caste and by unelected actors (the Troika, the German government, the European Central Bank, the elite, etc.) and emphasizes ‘the people vs the elite’ divide as their ideological defining element.

Since the Unidas Podemos became part of the coalition government, there are worrying signs that show signs of populists tendencies that curtail on democratic principles. In what some describe as an attack against freedom of the press, the ministerial order called “Procedure for Intervention against Disinformation,” approved last month by Spain’s National Security Council makes provisions for the possibility of carrying out communication campaigns to counter fake news stories, stopping short of censoring them. However, it leaves it up to the government to decide what exactly constitutes misinformation, with no representatives from the media or journalist associations involved in the process

Populist governments often seek to vilify the media and attempt to control the freedom of the press. To participate in politics in a meaningful way, a country must have freedom of the press, so that citizens can make informed choices; protect civil liberties, so that citizens are free to voice their preferences and organize around their interests; and maintain political rights, so that most adults have the right to participate in free and fair elections. On all of these counts, populist governments fall short.

Citizens of countries that are governed by populists may be concerned that similar governments have eroded checks and balances in a large number of cases. That should be a reason to be vigilant of populist measures proposed by the government and to fight for a more democratic system of governance.

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