How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian? Venezuela Is a Case in Point. De Max Fisher/Amanda Taub

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas in October to demand a referendum to oust President Nicolás Maduro. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Max Fisher/Amanda Taub, 1 abril 2017 / THE NEW YORK TIMES

When Hugo Chávez took power in Venezuela nearly 20 years ago, the leftist populism he championed was supposed to save democracy. Instead, it has led to democracy’s implosion in the country, marked this past week by an attack on the independence of its Legislature.

Venezuela’s fate stands as a warning: Populism is a path that, at its outset, can look and feel democratic. But, followed to its logical conclusion, it can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism.

Populism does not always end in authoritarianism. Venezuela’s collapse has been aided by other factors, including plummeting oil prices, and democratic institutions can check populism’s darker tendencies.

The country is feeling the fundamental tensions between populism and democracy that are playing out worldwide. Those tensions, if left unchecked, can grow until one of those two systems prevails. But although countries must choose which system to follow, the choice is rarely made consciously, and its consequences may not be clear until it is too late.

Hugo Chávez, then president of Venezuela, at a campaign event in Guarenas in 2012. His first election in 1998 was propelled by populism. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

When Mr. Chávez became president, the judiciary was dysfunctional and corrupt. A report by Human Rights Watch found that Venezuela’s top administrative court “had actually established set fees for resolving different kinds of cases.”

Less than 1 percent of the population had confidence in the judiciary. As a result, there was broad support for Mr. Chávez’s first round of judicial reforms in 1999, which increased judicial independence and integrity, according to a survey that year by the United Nations Development Program.

But when the Supreme Court refused to allow the criminal prosecution of four generals who Mr. Chávez believed had participated in an attempted coup against him, he came to see the judiciary as an obstacle to popular will and an accomplice of the corrupt elites he had promised to oppose.

Tensions grew in 2004 when the Supreme Court ruled that a petition for a referendum to recall Mr. Chávez from office had enough signatures to go forward.

Mr. Chávez gave himself the authority to suspend unfriendly judges and to pack the courts with new ones, destroying the judiciary’s power to act as a check on his presidency.

“Over the next several years,” the 2008 Human Rights Watch report found, “the newly packed Supreme Court would fire hundreds of judges and appoint hundreds more.”

In Mr. Chávez’s telling, this meant a judiciary that was more responsive to the will and needs of the people — a message that may have appealed to supporters who had voted him into office on explicit promises of smashing the corrupt old elite’s hold on power.

Supporters of Mr. Chávez during a campaign rally in Caracas in 2006. His message was that the country’s problems were caused by unresponsive, undemocratic elites. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

That requires handing power to unelected institutions, which are necessary to preserve democracy but at odds with the image of pure popular will. This contradiction leaves an opening for populists to challenge those institutions.

But when populist leaders take authority away from institutions to “return power to the people,” as such leaders often say, in practice they are consolidating this power for themselves.

“The logic of personalism drives populist politicians to widen their powers and discretion,” Professor Weyland wrote.

This is why populists often cultivate cults of personality. Mr. Chávez, in addition to hosting a Sunday talk show, held rallies and appeared almost constantly on television. This practice is typically driven by more than ego; such leaders derive their authority not from the rules-based system that governs consolidated democracies, but from raw popular support.

This works only as long as those leaders can claim to have a unique relationship with the public that enables them to attack internal enemies — say, the judiciary or the free press — on their behalf.

Consolidating Power for the People

Populism’s authoritarian tendencies could be seen in Mr. Chávez’s early battles with labor unions, which he had entered office promising to “democratize.”

Venezuela’s union leaders were corrupt, he argued, and had failed to protect workers’ rights.

His government created a parallel system of new unions, while undermining established unions over which it had less influence. But this set up a dynamic in which pro-Chávez unions were favored and dissenting unions were punished.

Mr. Chávez also began exercising more direct control over the powerful state-run oil company, a further extension of his message that power had to be taken back for the people.

But when workers from that company went on strike in protest in 2002, he fired more than 18,000 of them and prohibited the action.

By 2004, Mr. Chávez’s government had begun to blacklist workers, identifying people who had been disloyal to his government and excluding many of them from government jobs and benefits.

This sent a speech-chilling message: To oppose the president was to oppose his project of “Bolívarian socialism” on behalf of the people. Dissent, by that logic, was a threat to freedom, not evidence of it.

These episodes show how initial populist steps — standing up to unelected institutions, paving the way for seemingly necessary reforms — can take on a momentum of their own, until the list of populist enemies has grown to include pillars of basic democracy.

A shop in Bolivar State was looted in December amid rioting in protest of the retirement of the 100 bolivar bill. The country’s institutions have been so crippled that crime is rampant and corruption is near universal. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Shortcuts to Democracy

In retrospect, these steps pointed squarely toward authoritarianism, culminating in the attempt this past week to muzzle the Legislature, which was among the final remaining checks on President Nicolás Maduro, Mr. Chávez’s successor.

That progression was not inevitable. Strong democratic checks can sometimes resist the pressures of populism and keep leaders in line. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, for example, left office with a mixed record and a storm of corruption charges, but with the country’s democracy intact.

But it is rarely obvious at the time which path a country is taking, and not only because initial steps toward authoritarianism often look or feel democratic.

Tom Pepinsky, a political scientist at Cornell University, has argued that authoritarianism is often an unintended consequence of structural factors that weaken institutions — such as an armed conflict or economic shock — and of incremental steps taken by leaders who may earnestly believe they are serving popular will.

“Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism,” Professor Pepinsky wrote on his blog in February. Decisions that feel like shortcuts to democracy — tossing out judges or vilifying a hostile news media — can, in the long term, have the opposite effect.

Along the way, this process can be difficult to spot, as it plays out mainly in the functioning of bureaucratic institutions that most voters pay little mind to. Elections are often still held, as they have been in Venezuela, the news media retains nominal freedom and most citizens can go about their lives as normal.

Venezuela exhibits the worst-case outcome of populist governance, in which institutions have been so crippled that crime is rampant, corruption is nearly universal and the quality of life has collapsed. But those consequences are obvious only after they have done their damage.

 

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