Populism is often derided and with good reason. The term as applied in numerous cases offers little to praise. One common perception of populism is that it erodes democracy and often devolves into democratic backsliding or even stealth authoritarianism of some form or another. I contend that populism is not always corrosive to democracy and has the potential to bring about positive, liberating forces within a democratic society, such as in the case in Bolivia.
Firstly, it must be established as to which type of populism I am referring to. I refer to populism in specifically its democratic elements and define populism as a political style. Populism is defined as a performance in which the people are “rendered-present,” an appeal to “the people” versus “the elite,” some appearance of “bad manners,” and a “rendering of crisis.”1 Populism as a political style offers the best and clearest distinction between the democratic actors and the populist actors.
Regarding Bolivia, there are fewer countries that could be more ready for a populist backlash. Bolivia’s history in the twenty-first century was tumultuous at best. The election of Hugo Bánzer Suárez, a former military dictator from the 1970s, mobilized privatization efforts of water to foreign firms began under his administration in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city, sparking mass protests and the presidential declaration of martial law in 2000.2 In 2002, the next president, Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, moved forward with the extraction and privatization of the country’s natural gas resources, of which were met with a similar fate of protests and the declaration of martial law.3 In such a short time, Bolivia experienced numerous tribulations from policies that would see natural resources exported without the benefits going its people. Bolivians seemingly desired some form of change from the status quo, despite attempts at democratization by Lozada in the 1990s, and it came in the form of a movement and a populist leader.
Evo Morales’s win in 2006 was an enormous transformation in two ways: the inclusion of indigenous peoples of Bolivia in the political process, and the changes of material benefits from the country’s natural resources. Morales embodied this inclusionary, democratic left populism by “advocating for indigenous peoples of Bolivia who had been largely kept out of the political process.”4 Upon entering the power, Morales and Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) established a new Constitution and government. Far different from the previous governments which exuded exclusionary tactics, it is understandable how Morales rose to power. The Morales government offered a tangible diversion from the status quo, offering material benefits and clear departures from the old orthodoxy that controlled not only Bolivia but also other Latin American Countries. Other populists in Latin America emphasized and generated a growing importance of the ballot box throughout the continent. The establishment of “fair” and “broad” elections does not imply that the populists are inherently democratic themselves, but rather that they are well-positioned to establish new democratic norms and institutions.5 The differences vary on a case-by-case basis, but with the early movements of Morales and MAS, they established a government of social movements.6
This government of social movements and inclusionary promises and policies offered a new method of democracy within Bolivia. These policies and this different structure offer a clear example of the expansion of democratic efforts. The drafted constitution proposed by MAS in 2008 was a combination of majoritarian principles and protection for the rights of indigenous peoples yet did little to alter the previous structures of the old.7 People-oriented slogans from the 2006 elections such as “Gas for the People” and “Resources for the People” became a staple of MAS and eventually became a broader material promise of the movement and incoming administration as well.8 Such populistic campaigning brought in previously existing social movements that burgeoned in the 1990s as a broader response to the neoliberal policies of the time into the political mainstream. With social movements and NGOs becoming such an important aspect of the government’s responses, there was greater opportunity to expand benefits and directly address the concerns of those who sought solutions. In terms of bringing in the indigenous populations into the political process, the new Constitution provided the institutions for increased participation of members of the indigenous-campesino communities and women in state institutions, but these institutions were limited and weak.9 Populists, particularly ones with democratic origins, can act as a liberating force in electoral politics, despite the potential weakness from those institutions.
These acts of democratization are not, however, without drawbacks. Particularly with the threat of democratic backsliding through stealth authoritarian means and the democratic weakness that could facilitate it. Stealth authoritarianism tends to utilize legal mechanisms that exist “in regimes with favorable democratic credentials,” which those laws “may be subject to subtle reconfigurations that deviate in meaningful ways from those laws typically found in democracies.”10 While some authoritarian populists such as Recep Erdoğan and Donald Trump may engage in such tactics like the use of legitimate criminal laws or neutral campaign laws against their opponents, this is not the case with all populist figures. Morales’s more obvious attempts at power grabs came through his referendums, such as extending the presidential term limits, yet he notably accepted results that rejected the referendum. Regardless of the acceptance, the attempt was made possible by the state being in persistent democratic weakness that plagued the Bolivian government. The expansion of executive branch power, the utilization of state resources for clientelist aims, and accusations of Morales employing threats, intimidation, and disqualifications to sow division within the social movements were used to perpetuate this democratic weakness.11 Stealth authoritarian actions and political posturing are constant characteristics that can be found within some populist regimes. Yet despite some political posturing and strongman tendencies, Morales provided seemingly sheepish responses to his more obvious attempts at power grabs when personally challenged or if the actions went against the grain of majoritarian consensus.
It could be argued, however, that while Morales’s populism empowered marginalized social groups into the political hegemony it does not erase his attempted undemocratic power grabs and repression tactics of the opposition. It is correct to assert that there are weaknesses that are exploited by Morales, as noted with his attempts to extend his term limits or repressing opposition forces at the municipal level, limiting democratic representation through his “government of social movements.” In accordance with Dahl’s perception of democracy, Morales has strengthened the right to vote, eligibility for office, and expressions of preference in some forms, but paradoxically have also eroded those same institutions for political minorities.12 While there is an argument to be made that it was not worth populism entering the mainstream of Bolivia politics, it did what previous Bolivian administrations failed to do by establishing a majoritarian consensus in Bolivian democracy. His stealth authoritarian tactics were of a concern, yet he often stopped short of a full-blown authoritarian crackdown. While inexcusable and undemocratic in failing to provide the opposition with the materials to contend against the majority, Morales did reinvent democracy in Bolivia to include a far greater majority of the country’s citizenry than before.
I must emphasize that I am not suggesting that all cases of populism exemplify the use of populism as a corrective force, or even that sustained populist movements provide that corrective force for long after their obtainment of power; rather, I contend that populism can be a tool in which there are liberatory and democratizing effects yielded from a populist leader or movement.
NOTES: Moffitt, B. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford University Press, p. 29.  Webber, J. R. (2016). Evo Morales and the Political Economy of Passive Revolution in Bolivia, 2006-15. Third World Quarterly, 37 (10), p. 1858.  Andreucci, D. (2018). Populism, Hegemony, and the Politics of Natural Resource Extraction in Evo Morales’s Bolivia. Antipode, 50 (4), p. 832.  Müller, J. (2016). What is Populism. University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 48.  Conniff, M. L. (ed.). (2012). Populism in Latin America (2nd ed.). The University of Alabama Pres, p. 20.  Webber, J. R. (2016). Evo Morales and the Political Economy of Passive Revolution in Bolivia, 2006-15. Third World Quarterly, 37 (10), p. 1856.  Lehoucq, F. (2008). Bolivia’s Constitutional Breakdown. Journal of Democracy, 19 (4), p.120.  Andreucci, D. (2018). Populism, Hegemony, and the Politics of Natural Resource Extraction in Evo Morales’s Bolivia. Antipode, 50 (4), p. 831.  Schilling-Vacaflor, A. (2011). Bolivia’s New Constitution: Towards Participatory Democracy and Political Pluralism. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 90, p. 15.  Varol, O. O. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review, 100 (4), p. 1685.  Anria, S. (2016). More Inclusion, Less Liberalism in Bolivia. Journal of Democracy, 27 (3), p. 105.  Dahl, R. A. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. Yale University Press, p. 3.