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Former Chilean official describes neopopulism

Mark Manley | Friday, November 2, 2007

Populism in South America has given birth to neopopulism, said Ignacio Walker, the president of Corporacion de Estudios para America Latina.

Walker, who is Chile’s former minister of foreign affairs, spoke Thursday at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies about current political movements in South America. The talk, titled “Democracy and Populism (Old and New) in Latin America,” was sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Walker described many of the current ruling governments in South America as “neopopulist.” The use of the word “populism” has been nebulous in recent years, he said, with no clear definition and with regional idiosyncrasies.

When talking about South America, though, he said populism is typified by an elasticity of economy. It originated as an alternative to liberal democracy.

Populism, in turn, gives birth to neopopulism, Walker said. It quickly decomposes from reform to economic collapse, he said. This leads the populace to a sharp reaction to the political right.

Failure of the extreme right to enact effective change then shifts opinion to the left and the government follows to a plebiscite democracy. Neopopulist regimes like that of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president Evo Morales are outcomes of this decomposition, Walker said.

Leaders of populist regimes tend to hold power through illegitimate means, Walker said, while neopopulist leaders are elected by legitimate means. Walker found fault with the neopopulist system because it relies too much on the leader and sets him up to be the redeemer of the people.

Chavez, he said, takes his legitimate election to mean that he is the absolute voice of the people, the direct representative of the people and their savior. As such, he believes he is above the institutions in place and wields supreme authority, Walker said.

The situation in South and Central America, however, is more complex than just neopopulist or neoliberal, Walker said. There is a nonpopulist government in Mexico, for example.

The South American governments all tend to lean left, he said, but within that sphere there are three different types of governments: Marxist, populist and social democratic or nonpopulist governments.