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.

Ukraine to Venezuela, where do we go Next?

Just when it seemed that the protest movement so prevalent in the Arab Spring was a distant memory, we have new, powerful civil protests in Ukraine and Venezuela to remind us of the power of “protests movements.” What is most interesting is not the reasons per se for the protests but the way in which, like in the Arab Spring, the failures of leaders to stay ahead of a crisis in today’s Twitter, Facebook, internet news world, mundane events quickly spiral out of control and can engulf an entire government. Ukraine presents a good example of how one can go from a fairly run of the mill event to a full-scale street revolt in a matter of weeks or months.

It was in November of 2013 that former President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine announced that it would abandon an agreement that would strengthen ties with the European Union and instead sought a new strategic alliance with Russia. Within days of that decision, protesters take to the streets, and on December 1 staged a rally with 300,000 people against the proposed realignment and asking for greater ties with the West. In spite of, or perhaps in reaction to, Yanukovych announces a 15 billion dollar finance deal with Russia.

The protests continue unabated and in mid-January register their first deaths during violent confrontations between protesters and the police. By the end of January, the government begins to make concessions and starts negotiating with “opposition leaders,” and, eventually, the Prime Minister resigns on the 28th of the month. But the protests still do not end, in spite of pronouncements about truces and deals with the opposition coming from the government.  Under a European-mediated plan, protest leaders and Yanukovych agree to form a new government and hold early election, and again it is announced that the protests are over. The people on the street, however, continue their protests. By mid-February, Parliament slash the President’s powers and votes to free his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. With protests continuing and the presidential palace under siege, and with Yanukovych on the run, he is voted out of office by the Parliament in Kiev.

Which brings us to the not so unexpected case of Venezuela where the Chavista government of Nicolas Maduro is facing the most violent protests since the election of Hugo Chavez as president. Although Venezuela has experienced large rallies and popular movements against the Chavista governments the violence that began last Thursday (20 Feb 2014) is without precedent. In that antigovernment rally, which was called to protest rising crimes rates and inflation, three anti-government protesters were shot dead in the capital, Caracas. Following the protests, authorities issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on charges of conspiracy and murder in connection with the protests. Lopez surrendered to the authorities and is currently in custody.

However, the anti-government protests have continued and as of today the death toll sits at thirteen as a direct result of the protests and clashes between pro and anti government elements. Each side has accused the other of inciting and promoting violence, and each has mounted vigorous online and media campaigns to control the public opinion, internationally and domestically. More protests have been called in spite of President Maduro’s calls for dialogue and claims of a soft-coup being promoted by his enemies in Venezuela and the United States.

As these events drag on in Venezuela one begins to sense the quickness with which tides shift and popular protests begin energized and take on a life of their own despite the efforts of “conventional leaders” to control events. Regardless of what Washington may want or even opposition leaders in Venezuela may desire, the true test of the power of the street in Venezuela will be the intensity with which people continue to demand vindication for their grievances as evidenced in Ukraine.  The Arab Spring is not just series of isolated events, the power of the street helped by unfettered communications is here to stay.




Hugo Chávez’ Legacy and the Meaning of Democracy

Hugo Chávez died March 5 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer, he was 58. Chávez was a career military man who served over a 17-year period and whose decorated service culminated in the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1992, he led an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, for which he served two years in prison before being granted a pardon. He then relaunched his party as the Movement of the Fifth Republic and made the transition from soldier to politician.

First elected in 1998, Chávez promised “revolutionary” social policies, and constantly accused the “predatory oligarchs” of the establishment of being the corrupt servants of international capital. In July 2000, he was re-elected under a new constitution for a six-year term. Chávez thereafter won a series of elections and referendums, including one in 2009 that abolished term limits for all elected officials. Last October, Chávez won his last presidential race for another six-year term.

What was the effect of Hugo Chávez’ ruling for Venezuela?

Using data gathered from sources such as the World Bank, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) there are a variety of key indicators that show the positive effect of Chávez’ government to Venezuelans. During his mandate, unemployment dropped from 14.5% of the total labor force in 1999 to 7.6% in 2010; GDP per capita rose from $4,105 in 1999 to $10,801 in 2011; poverty decreased from 23.4% of the population recorded as being in extreme poverty in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011; infant mortality also decreased, from a rate of 20 per 1,000 live births in 1999 to a rate of 13 per 1,000 live births in 2011; and oil exports boomed, from net oil export revenues of $14.4bn in 1999 to $60bn in 2011.

However, the negative consequences of Chávez’ ruling are just as manifest, including the mismanagement of unprecedented oil revenues received by Chávez’ government; a consecution of isolationist political policies that kept Venezuela outside of the sphere of influence in the international arena; and across the board corruption so extensive that it made Venezuela rank 172 out of 182 countries surveyed by Transparency International in 2011.

Chávez’ government was authoritarian, patriarchal and unforgiving to opposition. His decision to shut down the oldest and most popular TV station, RCTV, because of its critical opinion of his government, illustrated his disregard for freedom of expression. During Chávez’ ruling, opposing the government was considered a threat, and Chávez government targeted journalists and private broadcasters with higher taxes, difficult procedures to air shows, and even encouraged violent groups to destroy their equipment and attack journalists. Chávez also showed a fundamental disregard for the principle of judicial independence, such as when Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni released an accused person whose pre-trial detention was in violation of Venezuelan law, and Chávez demanded on national TV her imprisonment for 30 years.

Chávez’ government’s disdain for the private sector was evident. Government intervention spanned from oil and gas to a wide range of other strategic sectors and industries, including aluminum, cement, gold, iron, steel, farming, transportation, electricity, food production, banking, paper and the media. From 2005 to 2012, Chávez’ government was responsible for almost 800 expropriations and nationalizations of property held by foreign interests. The expropriations of private property held by Venezuelan citizens were commonplace during Chávez mandate.

What form of democracy does effective government require?

Some see Hugo Chávez’ legacy as favorable to the disadvantaged, who saw their standard of living increase during his ruling. He was seen by many as a savior who stood up for the poorest. However, others saw his disregard for human rights, his nationalization of industry and oil, his inflationary economic policies, and his authoritarian regime as contrary to the meaning of democracy.

The man Chávez designated as his successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, became acting head of state last week and will represent the governing leftist PSUV party in next month’s special election. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is running against Maduro. Whoever becomes the new president of Venezuela will have to decide about the type of government Venezuela needs and deserves, and as to what is the meaning of democracy in the 21st century.