Chavismo without Chávez: a populist conundrum

Those who analyse Chavismo should not forget that large sections of the Venezuelan population not only share the populist ideology, but also have emotional and rational motives for adhering to the Manichean worldview inherent in populism. 

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser
9 March 2013

Hugo Chávez has died: in the coming days we will witness an impressive ritual of redemption and sacralisation. What is going to happen once the ritual is over? According to the existing constitution, new presidential elections must be held 30 days after the death of the president. The question is not only who will succeed, but also whether the new head of state will be able to cope with the serious problems that Venezuela is facing. Besides all the improvements that are normally highlighted by the friends of Chávez (social policies in favour of the poor, increasing political participation of the underrepresented, etc.), his foes are right in pointing out that the economic situation of the country is more than alarming. In addition, the country ranks amongst the most corrupt nations in the world and the murder rate in Venezuela is one of the world highest.

To think about what will happen in Venezuela in the near future, it is crucial to understand that Chavismo is essentially a populist movement. Although there is an on-going discussion about how to define populism properly, there is growing consensus in the scholarly debate that populism should be conceived of as a specific set of ideas. Populism is a moral worldview that relies on the Manichean distinction between ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’ to propose that politics should be the expression of an allegedly self-evident general will. If it is true that populism is first and foremost a set of ideas, those who analyse Chavismo should not forget that large sections of the Venezuelan population not only share the populist ideology, but also have emotional and rational motives for adhering to the Manichean worldview inherent in populism.

This means that it is flawed to assume that Venezuelans believe in populism because they have been simply enchanted by the charismatic figure of Hugo Chávez. Given the corruption and nepotism of the parties that governed the country in the past, Venezuelan citizens have good reasons to interpret the political reality through the lenses of populism. In other words, under certain circumstances, ordinarily people like you and me might become fervent populists. If we observe that those who are in charge of the government systematically act against our will and we believe that democracy means government by the people, many of us would probably have faith in the populist set of ideas. This is exactly what is occurring in different places of the world. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to the Tea Party in the United States, and from Evo Morales in Bolivia to the Five Star Movement in Italy, we are observing the rise of populist forces claiming that the time has come to give more power to ‘the people’ and get rid of ‘the establishment’.

True, most manifestations of populism count on a strong and charismatic leader. This is why many scholars of populism seem wedded to Carlyle’s great man theory in the sense that they put an excessive emphasis on the leader, tending to forget that in fact the word ‘populism’ comes from two movements of the late nineteenth century characterized by its leaderless nature: the US people’s party and the Russian Narodnik. Accordingly, populism should be seen as a Manichean discourse that – as Paul Taggart[1] – has rightly noted, inevitably has a chameleon character: it can be left-wing or right-wing, organized in top-down or in bottom-up fashion, rely on strong leaders or even be leaderless. Depending on the context in which populist forces emerge, they will adopt different features that certainly have an impact on their capacity to succeed in the electoral arena and be sustainable over time.

In consequence, scholars should avoid the temptation of explaining Chavismo as merely the strategic outcome of an extraordinary leader. Not by coincidence, many authors have struggled with the question of how to understand the existence of Peronism without Perón. The best answer to this puzzle has been developed by Pierre Ostiguy[2], who maintains that the very rise of Perón ended up establishing an ideological divide in Argentine society that is more powerful than the left-right cleavage. This means that certain populist experiences can be path-breaking in the sense that they can foster the formation of durable cultural and political identities. As a matter of fact, after the death of Chávez, Venezuela will continue to be divided between those who believe and those who do not believe in the populist ideology.

As paradoxical as it might appear, the main legacy of Chávez will be ‘Chavismo without Chávez’: hundreds of millions will continue to favour the construction of a political regime based on the populist set of ideas. To what extent this political regime can be considered a democracy or not largely depends on the way in which we define democracy. Populist forces favour a model of democracy that seeks to foster political participation and is underpinned by a majoritarian logic. Otherwise stated, populist forces are against the liberal democratic model, which is characterized by the coexistence of mechanisms of enactment of the popular will (e.g. elections) and unelected bodies involved in the production of common goods (e.g. central banks and constitutional courts).

Detractors of the model of democracy advanced by populist forces argue that the defence of popular sovereignty at any cost can well lead to the formation of (competitive) authoritarian regimes. This fear is not unfounded – there is no better example of this than the government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru between 1990 and 2000. Nevertheless, those who are in favour of liberal democracy are inclined to forget that democracy without adjectives is, or threatens always to be, a self-consuming artefact. To paraphrase Bonnie Honig[3], we cannot have democracy with constitutionalism and we cannot have democracy without constitutionalism either. This paradox is at the heart of contemporary politics and is the reason why populist forces are becoming increasingly influential. ‘Chavismo without Chávez’ is one of these populist forces, which will continue to generate passionate debates about the state of democracy in Latin America and elsewhere.

[1] Paul Taggart, Populism (Buckingham: London University Press, 2000)

[2] Pierre Ostiguy, “Argentina’s Double Political Spectrum: Party System, Political Identities, and Strategies, 1944-2007,” Kellogg Institute Working Paper, 361 (2009).

[3] Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics. Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

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