Over the last week, the extensive media coverage of the fires raging in the Amazon has caught the attention of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries. The G-7 meeting of western nations offered $20 million (U.S.) in aid and urged the Brazilian government of right populist president Jair Bolsonaro to take measures to contain the growing inferno in the Brazilian Amazon. What is happening in the Amazon is a disaster of horrific proportions is beyond doubt; the fires are destroying vegetation and wildlife and threatening the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous peoples who live there.
With the third wave of democracy, which began in the 1970s, most countries instituted presidential term limits stipulating limits on the number of times presidents could be re-elected. Since then, an increasing number of countries have abandoned these limits, leading many observers to identify yet another piece of evidence that authoritarianism is on the rise. This phenomenon has been especially evident in Latin America where term limits have been a long-standing feature of constitutions; from the nineteenth century, reformers have sought to limit the hold on power of personalistic caudillo leaders. The link between authoritarian leadership and the removal of term limits was highlighted recently when President Trump was reported to have applauded Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of that country’s two-term presidential limit, remarking that “its great. . .[that] he was able to do that.” The obvious conclusion is that countries should strive to maintain or re-institute term limits in order to restrict unscrupulous authoritarian and increasingly populist leaders.
The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
Democracy, in its liberal democratic manifestation of free and fair elections, the guarantee of civil liberties, and the protection of minorities is under threat in many parts of the world. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is only the most obvious manifestation of the fragility of liberal democracy. There are reports that human rights violations, corruption, racism, and discrimination persist across Europe. A recent report by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe raises concerns about the damage caused to democracies by new populist movements and parties given their predisposition to undermine human rights and the protection of minorities. Most Latin American countries, which were under authoritarian rule from the 1960s until the early to mid-1980s, have particularly fragile democracies. Once again, the Latin American experience offers some important insights into the world-wide erosion of democratic practices.
A number of commentators in the mainstream media have recently lamented that authoritarian populism has been on the rise in Europe and in the United States, while apparently declining in Latin America—a region with a long history of this phenomenon. According to this perspective, while emotionally charged appeals to popular base emotions have now become predominant in the North, Latin Americans have sensibly turned to the political right, electing right-leaning political leaders with solid pro market credentials. There are some basic misunderstandings in this observation. While there are some startling commonalities in the origins of most populisms, there are also some very important differences in their recent manifestations.