Foreign Policy Blogs

The Life Cycle of Populist Leaders

Juan and Eva Peron, the World’s most well known Populists

In my city, we had one of the first internationally known populist leaders in our city government. He won because his main challenger was seen as a part of a corrupt regional government that were far from allergic to scandals. His personal life was complicated and tragic, with the man himself succumbing to cancer after a few bouts at rehab for his drug and alcohol addictions. His funeral seemed to be one fitting a fallen President or Prime Minister, even though he was the mayor of a city for only a few short years. People either despised him or saw him as a voice of the average person. He was given the image of someone who challenged the former elite running the government in my city. Since he has passed, there are many that have been elected that fit a similar profile worldwide. They are often called Populists.

The years since my city had its populist experiment, the electorate chose someone who was often called a severe character by his opponents. The truth is, despite negative press on the current mayor before his election, he was a centrist and people had grown tired of a populist left in constant battle with a populist right. They elected someone that was too passive to be successfully labelled anything extreme. It seems as if the microcosm of my city, where populism gained international fame for some time, was the first to experiment with it and was also the first to balance itself politically for the time being. People do not like an elite cabal running their lives into the ground, and will choose the one who will challenge them effectively. In this case however, most people really seemed to want peace and tranquility in their political leadership in the long term. People just want to trust their leaders and know that someone will keep them safe and be honest with them it seems. Populists gain momentum because there are no other alternatives that offer solutions in their perspective. Populists often do not resolve many issues either, but its often the case of bad vs worse in conjunction with someone who commits to listening to their public.

Brazil has recently elected a populist President after years of every mainstream political party being indited in a large corruption scandal. While the mainstream parties were not populist, they burned away much of their credibility when Brazil’s judiciary sought to purge Brazil of corrupt party politics, dragging many of Brazil’s leadership with it in the process. The reality in Brazil is that very conservative politics are often feared due to the dictatorial governments of the past that were harsh and violent and seen as coming from the right. Politics coming from the left are also out of favour, as much of the scandals came out of left of centre parties in power over the last twenty years, mixed with fears that more extreme leftist parties might mirror Chavismo currently tearing apart Venezuela. In the end Brazilians elected their outsider, newly elected President Bolsonaro came into power being extremely hated or extremely liked by most partisans in Brazil. At this point, he has not been indited in the national corruption scandal but has created a vacuum of news around his new Presidency.

A new populist in Brazil might draw from populist movements in Europe and the US. The mid term populists seem to gain support when challenging issues that affect many people and are seen as ignored by elites. French President Macron in his election was able to separate himself from the mainstream parties and politicians, but was unable to maintain his position as an outsider as his policies did not reflect the needs of the average French citizen, according to many yellow vest protestors. President Trump may gain success in the long term if he retires himself but is able to encourage someone apart from the two main parties to push for his policy goals but is less of an obvious orange target. The argument that populism will take the place of current elite fuelled politics did not survive the life cycle in the case of the first real modern populist in my city, but the movement behind it may enshrine itself into the political system of these countries as Peronismo existed for generations in Argentina. While Peronismo adopted left and right positions over the years, it was often a party that fought internally for its mainstream identity as much as it did with opposing parties. As long as there is an elite that is seen as self serving and overbearing, Populismo will likely have a home in modern political discussions.

 

Author

Richard Basas
Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration

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