By FEDERICO FINCHELSTEIN and FABIÁN BOSOER
Published: December 18, 2013
BUENOS AIRES — Authoritarian populism, long associated with Latin American regimes, is generally considered a thing of the past in Europe. But this view is misleading. While countries like Argentina and Venezuela have slowly begun to move away from the Kirchners’ brand of Peronist politics and Hugo Chávez’s cult of personality, a dangerous right-wing brand of populism is returning to Europe. Indeed, the rise of movements like Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, and the violence and assassinations that have accompanied it, are far more worrying than the residual authoritarianism that pervades Latin American politics.
Broadly speaking, populist movements, which tend to gain traction following the implementation of austerity measures, are an attempt to redress perceived crises of representation in government. The hallmark of Latin American populism has historically been the election by wide majorities of presidents with authoritarian tendencies, who expand social rights even as they curtail political freedoms. Euro-populism, on the other hand, generally targets immigrants and demands the disintegration of the European Union.
Following the demise of European fascist parties after World War II, Argentina’s Juan and Evita Perón made populism a staple of Latin American governance throughout the mid-1940s and 1950s. The persistence of social inequality also opened the gates for paternalistic leaders like Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas and Ecuador‘s José Velasco Ibarra. They extended mass participation in politics while at the same time placing major restrictions on the opposition.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez brought this tradition into the 21st century; Néstor Kirchner took up the classic Peronist mantle in Argentina in 2003. For both, the goal was concentration of power in the hands of one leader, with minimal public consultation or genuine representation of voters’ wishes.
In the wake of Mr. Chávez’s death in March, Venezuela has witnessed the rise of a new cult of personality centered on the departed leader. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, ritually invokes Mr. Chávez’s name to legitimize his own populist policies, and has spoken of several “apparitions” of Mr. Chávez’s soul in birds, shadows and other paranormal phenomena. Government propaganda frequently depicts Mr. Chávez as a God-like figure.
However, with inflation currently at 54 percent in Venezuela, magical thinking has not been enough to generate mass public support for a government characterized by serious economic mismanagement and currency controls. Mr. Maduro’s grip on power was tenuous from the beginning: He was elected in April on razor-thin margins following an unexpectedly tight race. Mr. Maduro’s so-called “economic war” on Venezuelan business interests, which he decries as traitors to the nation, has resulted in looting, general instability, and heightened internal polarization. And recent poll results suggest that Venezuelans are starting to look for other options: Mr. Maduro’s party only narrowly defeated the main opposition coalition in mayoral elections this month, and lost in major cities.
In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner became the face of Peronist populism following the death of her husband, former President Néstor Kirchner, in 2010. While continuing Mr. Kirchner’s efforts to prosecute the crimes of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, her administration moved to restrict press freedom, intensified the military’s role in government, abruptly backed away from longstanding grievances against Iran, and strained relations with neighbors like Uruguay. Public disapproval with her leadership was reflected in congressional elections this October, when Mrs. Kirchner’s administration was defeated in Argentina’s most important districts. This so-called punishment vote essentially voided her supporters’ desire to reform the Constitution to enable her indefinite re-election.
To be sure, Argentina and Venezuela are very different cases. Argentina’s economy is healthier and better-diversified than Venezuela’s; it has a more-empowered citizenry and press, and a relatively nonintrusive military. However, with electoral support for populist administrations dwindling in both countries, each seems to be witnessing the exhaustion of their distinctive populist brands.
Across the Atlantic, however, populism is resurgent. Indeed, many fear that the European Parliament may be at risk of a right-wing populist takeover following elections in May 2014.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front has, for the first time in that country’s history, pulled ahead in polls for the European Union election. Ahead of the elections to the European Parliament, Ms. Le Pen recently announced her intention to form a “Eurosceptic” alliance with the Dutch politician Geert Wilders , whose right-wing Party for Freedom demonizes Islam and attacks immigration.
In Italy, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who controlled politics in that country for decades, peppered his Thatcherite free-market nationalism with spectacular doses of scandal, shady dealings and corruption. In his wake, “populism from above” has given way to a staunchly anti-political populism from below. Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned activist, sent shock waves through the establishment in February when his Five Star Movement won 25 percent of the vote. Mr. Grillo, who in the run-up to the election called for a referendum on whether to keep Italy in the euro zone, stressed the need to wrest power from the oligarchic elite and return it to the people. Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who took office in April, recently warned that populism posed a threat to European Union stability.
While they may seek the breakup of the European Union, most of these new European populist movements don’t aim to eliminate democracy altogether. In Greece, however, the emergence of a strand of populism deeply rooted in the fascist past is particularly troubling. The country’s crippling financial ills, and Brussels’ insistence on austerity measures, have generated populist responses that evoke the worst of interwar European fascism. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which won 7 percent of the vote in Greece’s 2012 parliamentary elections, openly uses a logo resembling a swastika. Its supporters have perpetrated violent physical attacks on immigrants and political opponents (including murder); its party line includes anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Similar sentiments are also on the rise in Hungary, where the nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-Semitic Jobbik party is in line to become the second-largest in Parliament.
With their radical stance against pluralism and minority rights, Greece’s right-wing populists and their Hungarian counterparts — along with dozens of anti-European Union parties poised to win seats in next year’s parliamentary elections — make today’s burgeoning European brands of populism much more frightening than their Latin American counterparts.
Federico Finchelstein, an associate professor of history at the New School, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War.” Fabián Bosoer is an opinion editor at the Argentine newspaper Clarín.