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Will Latin America’s “Populist Hangover” Last?

In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Shannon O’Neil claimed that Latin America is experiencing a “populist hangover.” Many of the region’s populist leaders, particularly those on the Left, have lost power—either voted out or impeached—or have seen their popularity collapse in recent years. From the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil to the collapse in support of the Chavista movement in Venezuela, populist leaders are losing ground in much of Latin America.

A “populist hangover” does not mean that Latin America won’t return to drinking from the populist fountain in the near future. Populism has a long history in Latin America and legacies from mid-20th century populist leaders remain strong. This long history and certain aspects of the region’s underlying political and economic conditions make it naïve to believe that current trends mark the end of populism in the region.

Preference for a Strong Leader over Electoral Democracy in Select Latin American Countries

Author’s calculations using: Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP).
Note: Different initial years were used due to data availability.

The decline in populism in Latin America is not mirrored in the public’s support for democratic governance. The lack of a swell in support for democratic governance that corresponds to the current decline in populism questions the durability and longevity of the populist hangover. A minority, albeit significant, portion of the population in many Latin American countries still prefer a strong leader over a democratically elected one. This problem is exacerbated by the disconnect between measures of democratic practice in many Latin American countries compared to public support for the functioning of how well democracy functions. This means that the public does not actually support democratic governance, but rather is satisfied with “democracy” even if the government practices undemocratic principles that benefit them. This is has been particularly true in Venezuela. Furthermore, only 47.3 percent of the region’s population strongly believes that democracy is the best form of government. The case of Argentina, where the populist Peronista party, named after the 20th century populist president Juan Peron, lost recent elections highlights a case where the public voted for a strong leader that they believed could address the economic problems plaguing the country rather than a vote against populism and the Peronista party.

The populist surge in Latin America over the first decade of twenty-first century is receding as many populist leaders have failed to meet the expectations of their citizens. However, the preference among Latin American voters often favors strong leaders. If non-populist leaders are unable to meet the expectations of their constituents, Latin Americans may vote back into power the populist leaders they eschewed or even allow non-democratic means to resolve challenges faced by their countries.

Unless Latin American governments can manage to drastically reduce poverty and inequality, boost economic growth, and reduce the overreliance of the region on commodity exports, it is likely that Latin America will get drunk again at the populist party. Latin American leaders must address these challenges so that the region can escape the return of populism, fully embrace democratic governance, and ensure that the region’s trajectory of economic prosperity and political stability.


Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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