As a Brazilian myself, I grew up hearing that word through most of my life, citing either Brazil or virtually any country in South America. But what is populism, can we learn from the past and, more boldly, can we make a prediction of the future?
A quick search online and multiple news sources will identify populism in most of Western European countries: the French Front National in France; the 5Star Movement in Italy; the Freedom Party in Austria; Podemos in Spain; PVV in the Netherlands; True Finns in Finland; the People’s Party in Denmark; the Swedish Democrats in Sweden; the FpR in Norway; and, of course, Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s AfD. Other European countries were also identified with a rise in populist political parties. Outside of Europe the most notable populists are Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Lee Jae-Myung in South Korea and Donald Trump in the USA. Even Hillary Clinton was named a soft populist recently, but it is hard to explain populism without being too broad.
So what is populism after all?
Populism can be either conservative or liberal. In general, left populists will combine it with some form of socialism, while right populists do it with nationalism. The first is more prominent in Southern Europe while the latter in Northern.
It appears nowadays that any form of popular and charismatic leader is called a populist, regardless of its policies. “Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”, writes Cas Mudde, a political scientist specialized in the subject and in political extremism in Europe. In his book ‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’, Mudde explains the rise of populism in Europe from both left and right-wing parties. He states that economic crises “led to an outpouring of new anti-EU sentiment among the moderate left, while the refugee crisis has had a similar effect among the moderate right.”
Trump promised to tackle the establishment and ‘drain the swamp’ in the White House, stating a clear distinction between him and his followers against the elite. Trump also focused on putting “America First” and most populists in Europe do the same, claiming the European Union failed its countries (left-wing) and that migration rules should be stricter and decided on a national level (right-wing).
Lessons from South America populism to Europe
It is tricky to write about populism in South America especially because the word is not used often. Of course there were/are populists in government position, but each country is unique even if the rhetoric by those in power is somewhat similar. The major difference between populism in these countries and the rise of populism in Europe nowadays is that all mentioned above were left-wing populism, while European countries are mainly shifting to right-wing populism with a few exceptions such as Greece and Spain.
For example, in Venezuela there was Chavism, from Hugo Chaves; in Argentina it was Kirchnerism from Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Kirchner; in Brazil it was Lulism from president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. In the XX. century there was also populism in Argentina with Juan Perón, in Chile with Carlos Ibanês del Campo and in Brazil with Getúlio Vargas, to name a few.
Populism in South America was responsible for some considerable improvement in the life of everyday citizens, such as the reform of labour laws, better income for the lower class and lesser people living in extreme poverty. Lula, in Brazil, managed to be the first left-wing president of the country in recent history. With social programs that would benefit the poorest with food, houses and education, under his leadership the country got out of poverty for the first time. Although being under investigation for the Petrobras state oil company scandal, polls put Lula as the next president of Brazil in 2018 elections, which probably indicates another wave of left-wing populism is about to happen in Brazil.
The problem with populism is its inflexibility and narrow minded vision. Either left or right-wing populism, it always ignores one or multiple groups, undermining and neglecting opponents’ views. In Brazil, Lula’s socialism gave voice and power to the poor in the north while neglecting the rich in the south. While his successor Dilma tried to follow a similar path, she encountered a strong resistance from the elite and was ousted last year.
Nevertheless populism has an important role historically and it often shifts the Overton Window – a range of ideas the public will accept and normalise. Brexit was considered unthinkable before. Trump was mocked for attempting to be president. After these two events became a reality it changed the Overton Window and a populist Europe is now a plausible reality.
The future for Europe
In many countries right-wing parties have taken the wheels of government. France and the Netherlands have elections this year and in both countries the front runners are simulating the same anger rhetoric against immigration. Also, Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland are enjoying record popularity.
On December 4th Austrians voted against its populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and gave a breath of fresh air to E.U. backers. Despite all its flaws, the European Union has accomplished its main goal: to prevent a war between members of the union. If anything, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe will be important to shift the Overton Window once more, this time focusing on a general and practical reform of the E.U.
What it cannot be predicted is how Europe is going to be if more right-wing populist parties win important elections, for example in France, the Netherlands and Germany. In different countries in South America, the populism in the 20th century was replaced by a military dictatorship, but those were left-wing populism. If right-wing populists in Europe win and try to dictate their agenda neglecting the other side, a violent outcome can be expected and the ‘political warfare’ among citizens will be the new ‘class warfare’ Marx predicted more than a century ago.
In 2016 the most anticipated election was in USA, this year all eyes will turn to Germany as the strongest beacon of hope for the E.U.