Héctor E. Schamis – Populism, socialism and democratic institutions
If all Left wing parties in Latin America invoke the ambition of a more equal capitalism and a more inclusive political system, among other issues that define the Left, the political scene is far more diverse than the one their respective discourses could show and than what analysts have been able to conceive so far. Therefore, today’s disagreements among the governments that generally define themselves as center- left, have not gone further than making very wide references on two types of Left politics, repeating the well known analysis as to what are the factors that historically formed the progressive programs of the area.
For example, a recent essay, with the contribution of the Mexican academic and diplomat Jorge Castañeda, classifies one type of Left as emanating from communism and the Bolshevik revolution and afterwards identifying with Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. This Left, is Leninist in its ideological roots and in its organization and has unexpectedly taken a turn towards pragmatism and moderation in the recent years, staying closely attached to democratic institutions. On the other hand, the other type of Left, adopts freely the national symbols and the populisms of the past. This Left appeal to the poor, but through an inflammatory rhetoric and redistribution of wealth programs that are financed by economic expansion. The governmental expenses are increased in times of abundance, only to be reduced dramatically when relative prices are deteriorating and long term macroeconomic restrictions are imposed. Democracy suffers, under those circumstances, because the political process is reduced to a simple by-product of the financial circles, while vast political powers infiltrate political institutions.
If the distinction that Castañeda makes between the two types is a step towards the right direction, it needs a larger differentiation in order to describe the two types of Left that have emerged in Latin America in the recent past. We need finer characterizations and more exact classifications of the cases, not only for the purpose of consistency, but in order to describe complexities that a typology of two kinds is not capable of doing. What can also help us avoid to make the error to classify our observations based on concepts that right now have much less sense than the one they had 50 years ago, when socialism and populism presented a vision for the future – a classless society in the first case, and of a self sufficient industrialization in the second that managed to capture the imagination of large sections of the society. Of course, Latin American progressive politics will inevitably take one of the historical legacies of socialism and populism. Nevertheless, the hardly discernible, inorganic and shapeless way in which those legacies are expressed today implies that they can hardly represent analytical categories of use.
In any case, the Left in this part of the world seems like a mixture of post-socialism and post-populism. For example, how would we characterize the Labor Party (LP) of Brazil? Although not very Bolshevik (being however, a socialist formation), it is a party that emerges from the ashes of traditions with labor bases connected to president Jetoulio Vargas (1930-1945, 1950-1954). However, the economic discipline of the LP since it came into power in 2003 means that it can no longer be considered as populist. What is the meaning of the term populist – in Venezuela and in other places, with or without the “Bolivarian socialism” of Hugo Chavez – when the pillar of populist political economy of has become obsolete, that is industrialization that substitutes exports? How do we make sense out of “the Lefts’ populist” Nestor Kirchner, from Argentina, a president elected from the same Peronist party that formerly launched the “populist of the Right” and Carlos Menem to power?
The study of contemporary Left opens a useful window to Latin American politics and its unequal democratic systems, but the challenge stems from establishing criteria that allow us to differentiate one Left from another. This presupposes the use of conceptual instruments in their proper historic contexts, since the concepts that are detached from their place and date of birth tend to lose the capability for explanation. Terms such as Leninist and populist Left (or populist Right in our case) in Latin America have a more metaphoric function nowadays, as well as classifications that refer to a “fascist” right (which are generally valid for the extreme Right, independently of place) or to a “Maoist” Left (which are usually valid for explaining the motivations of farmers in developing regions).
To deal with this problems, I identify a series of Lefts taking as the basis of my analysis the nature of these parties and of the respective party systems, which could end up from institutional and functional to divided and even collapsed. In countries where the Left is moderate, with a tendency to parliamentary loyalty and of respecting the democratic institutions, the rest of the political parties tend to act in a similar fashion. On the contrary, where the Left does not respect the political system, where it limits the independency of mass media and ignores other aspects of governance; the Right tends to adopt similar measures.
Consequently, a relevant issue is why the party systems in the region have developed in such a random way since the transitions to democracy in the eighties. I raise this issue examining ‘dependence’ in the process of democratization, the conduct of the political elite, as well as the financial policies that have improved or maximized the effects of economic cycles. If they explain well the many types of Left, these three factors shed a light on important differences in the function of the party systems and the unequal profitability of democratic politics in Latin America.
Institutional politics of the parties of the left
If the Left or the Right hold power independently, the institutional politics of the party instigate flexibility and mutual concessions, and with those democratic stability. Some Latin American countries have reached this point, whereas others haven’t. The factors that have allowed for some countries to establish democratic politics based on a stable party system also explain the behavior of the Left parties.
The return of democracy in Chile, towards the end of the eighties, is a case worth of analysis. Since its beginnings, the process was counting on a strong institutional base, as a result of the constitution of the Military regimen of General Augusto Pinochet that was publicly announced in 1980 by means of a referendum. The document in question included a formula and a program that could lead the military government towards its conclusion, convoking a referendum in 1988 that would either keep Pinochet as President for another eight years or lead to national elections in 1989 and to the beginning of democratic transition. This development confronted the political parties with a decision: either to extend perpetually the situation that was stemming from the subversion of President Allende back in 1973, or become a part of the political process, which presupposed the possibility for the voters to legalize the same dictatorship against which the opposition had fought for more than 15 years. At the beginning, just a handful of leaders of the Social – Democrat party were set in favor of the latter option, but they managed to persuade their members, as well as their opponents in the Socialist party.
At the end, participation gave its fruit. The parties of the Center- Left, united as a Coalition, won not only the referendum of October 1988, but also the general elections of December 1989. Chile returned to the democratic regimen when Patricio Aylwin first became president, in March 1990. In spite of widespread doubts and distrust, the Pinochet government handed power over to the new democratic government, exactly as the Constitution which the same military regimen had drafted foresaw. This transitional process was an exception by itself, because totalitarian regimens rarely constitute rules that specify, with great detail and parsimony, when and how they will abandon power.
Consequently, seen in retrospective, the military regimen saw itself restrained by the constitutional context they had allowed. The Constitution of 1980 acted as a blessing in disguise. Not only did it eliminate the insecurity of transition, but also – giving an end to the deeply rooted problem of presidents who were elected by a minority of the popular vote and who needed more substantial majorities in the congress in order to approve the laws – it also minimized the instability that was plaguing the previous institutional order. The Chile paradigm reinforced the centripetal powers, going deeper and enriching a knowledge process that was already on the way.
In a country of an increasing ideological polarization that was defused violently in the seventies, the survival of democracy was also depending on the re- socialisation of the political elite. The new institutional motives facilitated this process. It made obvious that someone like Alejandro Foxley, Minister of Economy from 1990 to 1995 and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, would recognize from the dawn of democratic government that the constitutional rules that Pinochet had proposed had “ironically encouraged a more democratic system”, since they obliged the basic protagonists to end up in agreements, instead of juxtaposition, and “by avoiding populism” they increased the “economical way to rule”.
The classic portrait of Chile as «a champion of neo – liberalism” in Latin America is unhelpful for understanding how pragmatist its economical policies have been, even contrary to heterodoxy: from the emphasis to a type of competitive change to an agreement of free commerce with the United States, from a close control of the bank sector to the adjustment of the rates of interest, and from the restrictions of capital flow to the creation of a stock in order to protect economy from the fluctuations in the universal price of copper (which is the basic export product of Chile and that was always a resource in the hands of the State). These policies derive from a context where negotiation in the Congress has prevailed over politics in the streets and the agreement on discretion of the Executive power. Progressive politics in Chile is not a matter of radical transformations, but gradual reforms. The union of the Center Left, the Coalition, which emerged from the Social Democrats and the Socialists, has ruled since 1990 and it has converted the country to a model of democratic capitalism and stable party system in the region.
The left and the future of democracy
Populism as a political concept is a thing of the past and we probably ought to abandon it. From the moment that classical industrialization that would substitute imports ceased to be a viable strategy, the formation of social classes which would support populism, just disappeared. Without the material grounds of support, the structural foundations of populism were lost. The varieties of “populism” that made it to the power from the transitions of the eighties were clumsy imitations of the original one, capable of recreating its rhetoric and rituals, but without being able to reproduce its essence. Likewise, socialism is a matter of the past. As soon as State socialism showed its ugly face and its irrational economy, the system and its ideology decomposed. Ideas like a classless society, central programming and the acquirement of the means of production from the State, lost its meaning and power, in Latin America as well in other places.
However, the substantial concerns of populism are as alive as they always were. Decades after the end of military governments, far- fetched targets, like the State of prosperity, social justice and political participation, equality and dignity of the labor class, the rights of minority groups, remain unfulfilled and they continue to stir rallies. Despite all that, the political vehicles of the past have ceased to be viable in their original state. The issues continue to be the same, but new strategies are required in order to approach and resolve them. In general, the socialists have relatively easily found a new scenario, since they have found other places to look. Felipe Gonzalez had already managed to convert Spain to a model for social democracy in the mid eighties. In the mid nineties he reached the point where old communists from Hungary and Poland were chosen to go to their countries “returning from Europe”.
Populist politicians, however, had less success in transforming their mass movements to viable parties. The majority of those leaders found it difficult to come up with a story that would contribute to democratic stability in a valid way. The ghost of old populism continues to return, as a witness perhaps of how incomplete is the integration of poor people in Latin America, and as a painful reminder of how this area is still the most unequal of the world. The populist enigma confronts Latin America with the well known but complex challenge to animate a deep democratization, at the same time, when the processes for the unification of democracy itself are reinforced. The need to accomplish both tasks continues to present thorny issues in an area where the word “institution” itself has acquired the meaning, for a long time now, of a sack full of tricks that governing elites use to deceive, exclude and make the people poorer. Very often the leaders have proposed fair social ideals which they did not feel obliged to put into practice through social forms. It is a sad irony; those leaders have ended up weakening the rights and the institutions that the poor and marginalized desperately need, making even worse the inequalities those leaders should have corrected.
However, arbitrariness is not a good recipe for a democratic society. If the right wing Carlos Menem deserves to be criticized because he illegally appointed judges in the Supreme Court of his country, the left wing Ugo Chavez should also be criticized, independently of his goals which are entirely different. In a democracy the means are extremely important, not merely a formality, since the rules are the only thing on which opponents can potentially agree on.
That is the greatest challenge for the Left in Latin America today: to reconciliate the basic aims of inclusion and equality with the aims – equally fundamental, I insist – of counting on methods and stable institutions.
There are countries in the area where this double challenge has been addressed and actually achieved. The common denominator in such success stories is the existence of a stable party system and of a process of decision making that does not depend on the discreet power of the Executive committee, but on legislative negotiation. There are many things left to be done in the rest of Latin America towards this direction, but there are some good examples near us. It is necessary to imitate them.
This article has first appeared in Spanish in the pages of the Mexican reviewCONFLUENCIA XXI, and is published, here, in the context of the cooperation of the two journals
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