Populism, Socialism and Democratic Institutions
By: Hector E Schamis
In rapid succession, leftwing parties and leaders have been elected to government in some
of the most important countries in the LatinAmerican region.Although the underlying social
forces at work began earlier, the electoral shifts started with the election of President Hugo
Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, followed by the 1999-2000 election of President Ricardo Lagos,
who led the Socialist Party of Chile, a member of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy to
victory in Chile. The Workers’Party leader Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva won election in Brazil in
2002, and was re-elected to a second term in office in October 2006. In the Southern Cone,
leftwing Peronist leader Nestor Kirchner (of the Partido Justicialista) was elected inArgentina in
2003, followed by Tabare Vasquez who led Broad Front to victory in Uruguay in 2004.
According to Hector E. Schamis, ‘all left-wing parties in LatinAmerica invoke the
aspiration for a more egalitarian capitalism and a more inclusive political system...’
This suggests that Latin American leftwing forces repudiate inequality, unfettered
markets, and the exclusion of marginalized groups. In contrast to the neoliberal faith in trickle-
down economics, the left is defined by a commitment to the idea that neither full citizenship nor
high levels of human development can be achieved without overcoming extreme poverty and
inequality, and that the barriers to participation created by discrimination, neglect, and other
legacies of colonialism, often exacerbated by neoliberal policies, constitute an intolerable limit
on democratic life. There is, however, less agreement on how to characterize differences within
the left. Schamis notes that ‘the political landscape is far more diverse’than the ‘similar
discourse’of the left in LatinAmerica might suggest.
The distinction between populism and social democracy derives plausibility from
differences between leaders in the region that are largely an artifact of the countries they govern.
It is obvious that Chavez is harsher than Bachelet, and that Morales is more radical than Lula.
Beyond the personal traits of the leaders, this reflects, however, differences between the Southern
Cone and theAndes. As a result, even when analysts disagree with Castaneda, they often wind
up appearing to accept or refine his classification of cases. For example, Schamis lauds
Castaneda for taking ‘a step in the right direction’but argues for ‘further differentiation’to
‘account for the various lefts that have emerged in LatinAmerica’s recent past’. He distingui