Chilean populism reached its apex in the middle years of the twentieth century, in the different styles of Arturo Alessandri and Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, both formidable crusaders for the People against the actions of the powerful. Or so they claimed to be. Below, the historian Sofía Correa Sutil writes a short and precise review of populism’s entrenchment within Chilean politics during those years, and the years that followed.
The easy electoral victory of Kirchnerism has raised deep fears in Chile. The alarm has sounded against the uncontrollable advance of populism, given the historic parallels between political developments on either side of the Andes. It’s certain that Peronism, a decidedly populist movement, will never declare a truce in Argentina while that nation’s predominant representative institutions are mediated by political parties with roots in the social base. For now, the light fades, contours blur and the future looks dark.
Chilean politics throughout the 20th century were permeated by the threat and presence of populism. It was not so in the 19th century, which in many ways extended beyond 1900 together with the so-called “Parliamentary Republic”. There was clientelism, but not populism. A few oligarchic gentlemen, well-dressed and moderate in their ways and ideas spoke among themselves at banquets, in salons and the hallways of the National Congress; They did not appeal to the public in their political debates. They were obliged to satisfy local demands through clientalist means, and distributed the saltpeter-derived riches that had filled the state coffers. That money built roads, bridges, railways, post offices and the telegraphs that covered the national territory, it built primary schools, high schools in solid edifices, with professionally trained teachers, pedagogical institutes, city lighting, sewers, etcetera. Thus, by showering benefits everywhere, were the partisan loyalties consolidated of a social base composed of the middle classes in the provinces and the capital. Among them were those who would become very strong critics of the oligarchical order. Others sought to enter politics through the aid of powerful mentors, though these soon learned how difficult it was to pierce the veil of oligarchy, and how restrictive it was to depend on their protectors.
In the early years of the second decade of the 20th century, ambition and a sharp instinct for circumstance led Arturo Alessandri to break with his landowning patrons, and mold himself into the Lion of Tarapacá, tribune of the plebs. He was impelled to seek his support elsewhere: from among the middle classes of the provinces and Santiago (in order to be proclaimed a presidential candidate), the masses, including non-voters (to intimidate the oligarchy and impose his will) and the military, introducing them to political deliberations for the first time since their defeat in the middle of the previous century (1851). In 1920 Alessandri embraced populism as an electoral strategy. In his speeches, he divided the country between good guys and bad guys: on one side, the people, his “beloved rabble”, the masses, who were virtue incarnate. On the other side, the oppressors, “the gilded rogues”, the oligarchs who had been until that time the masters of the political space. He spoke to his electorate in emotive language empty of concrete programs: “with heart in hand” he would make himself “the terror of reactionary spirits”, he promised. Once elevated to the Presidency, Alessandri continued to embrace populism as a governing strategy. To intimidate his opponents, he mobilized the jobless of the state-owned shelters, speaking to them from the balconies of the presidential palace of La Moneda. He accused the Senate of not letting him govern, and demanded greater powers for the President. Considering himself to be the incarnation of the popular will, he sought to impose upon the Congress, disdaining that institution’s pretense of sovereignty. Thus, too, did he deal with the military, planting his political ideal of concentration of power in the Presidency even in the regimental barracks. Populist personalism came to dominate, overshadowing party and representative politics. Alessandri calculated that he could control the masses, subdue the parties and dominate the military. In this last item he was mistaken, launching the country toward the breakdown of solid political institutions and the installation of a dictatorship headed by the officer who had most challenged him, Ibáñez.
“In the early years of the second decade of the 20th century, ambition and a sharp instinct for circumstance led Arturo Alessandri to break with his landowning patrons, and mold himself into the Lion of Tarapacá, tribune of the plebs. He was impelled to seek his support elsewhere: from among the middle classes of the provinces and Santiago (in order to be proclaimed a presidential candidate), the masses, including non-voters (to intimidate the oligarchy and impose his will) and the military, introducing them to political deliberations for the first time since their defeat in the middle of the previous century”.
This first populist experiment, which lasted a little over a decade, was, in part, the consequence of a political crisis that was latent, although about to explode. Middle class professionals, like Alessandri himself, yearned for positions of power in a closed political situation, described as plutocratic by Alberto Edwards. Although inserted within the dominant parties, especially among the liberals and radicals, they did not manage to take leadership of national politics into their own hands, for which they would have needed to displace the old oligarchy. The military, for its part, once called to be arbiters of the situation, were tempted to settle old scores, probably dating all the way back to 1891. Moreover, it was Alessandri’s unleashing of populist personalism that ended up precipitating the crisis across all institutions. A series of coups d’Etat, a dictatorship, bouts of revolution, yet more coups, and a short-lived, populist and repressive socialist republic, that placed the tombstone over the old, parliamentary Chile.
The Ibañista Earthquake
Twenty years later, a second populist experience took over the electorate and delivered the Presidency to the old general. It was 1952 and Ibáñez traveled across the country generating a surprising devotion to his person. For his admirers, he was “the general of hope”, although fiery discourse was left to the stalwart María de la Cruz, compared in those days to Eva Perón for her populist oratory. “The enigmatic caudillo”, as one of his followers, Ernesto Würth Rojas, called Ibañez, was courted by the most diverse sectors, from nationalists to socialists, who saw in his person the only possibility of overcoming the “organic crisis” and the feeling of frustration that had overtaken the country. Holding a broom, the symbol of his presidential campaign, he announced that he would sweep away political parties, together with their business and negotiating practices. He would remove them from public administration, he would beat them in the voting booth. He would even resort to dictatorship if it became necessary, armed with a broom. Once again, the country placed its bet on personalism, the austere and authoritarian character of the general, in order to resolve the many problems that afflicted the country. In doing so, Ibáñez would break up party politics, the representatives of which he characterized as corrupt and inept. His triumph with 47% of the electorate was thought of as a political earthquake. It was the “Ibañista Earthquake” that managed to defeat the political machines of the long-lived and entrenched Chilean political parties. Although, populism had also become characteristic of several of the old and new parties of the era.
“‘The enigmatic caudillo’, as some of his followers called Ibañez, was courted by the most diverse sectors, from nationalists to socialists, who saw in his person the only possibility of overcoming the “organic crisis” and the feeling of frustration that had overtaken the country. Holding a broom, the symbol of his presidential campaign, he announced that he would sweep away political parties, together with their business and negotiating practices”.
A populist wave had swept across Latin America. Perón governed in Argentina, Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador and the MNR in Bolivia. The limits of the model of industrialization adopted by the region were becoming increasingly apparent: while the economy of of Europe grew with the help of the United States, all of Latin America suffered from stagnation of production and inflation, leading to a resurgence of poverty. Employment did not grow, while the urban population did, and its indigence was expressed in favelas, shantytowns and slums. Public spending was deployed in a failed attempt to respond to multiple contradictory demands, and inflation created an unstoppable spiral of strikes. Populist leaders promised a solution to all these various evils, together with the redemption of the people, for the glory of the nation.
In Chile as well, populism dominated the political parties of the mid-twentieth century. The Conservative Party had always seen itself as the true representative of the nation, in that both party and nation identified with Catholicism. This idea, of monolithically representing an essentially homogenous whole, permeated the Catholic parties, and allowed them to accommodate populism within themselves, particularly its Social-Christian strains. Dr. Cruz-Coke, the conservatives’ and falangists’ candidate, was a populist, who in his 1946 presidential campaign positioned himself as a national candidate, above party, and in an anti-capitalist and nationalist discourse presented himself as the head of “a great crusade to retake the country”, an “apostle” of the country’s “moral redemption”. The Social-Christians who split from the Conservative Party were all populists, from their Falangist leaders to the immensely rich businessman Vial Espantoso with his pro-worker, anti-capitalist and statist rhetoric, who incited strikes in support of his program when he was Minister of Finance in the middle of the 20th century.
Not a few Social-Christians accompanied Ibáñez in his presidential campaign during the second populist cycle of Chilean politics. So did the Popular Socialists, a faction that exemplified the populist tendencies present from the very origins of the Socialist Party. Popular Socialists thought they could use the general’s charisma to build a workers movement, they thought they could control him and dominate the various parties and currents that went with him to La Moneda. Frustrated in the attempt, they decided to abandon him within months of having arrived in government, and went over to the opposition. For its part, the recently created Agrarian Labor Party aspired to create a populist movement around Ibáñez, supporting the general throughout his presidency and then dissolving. The party was strongly influenced by Argentine Peronism, the Bolivian MNR and the Peruvian APRA.
Additionally, at the end of Ibáñez’s term, the Christian Democratic Party was created, bringing together various Social-Christian factions and part of the ex-Agrarian Labor Party with the Falangists, who were in overall control. Although from the beginning the new party had a technocratic aspect, it had to live with Social-Christian populism, which was reflected above all in the proposal, and eventual implementation, of a Popular Promotion policy. First devised by Jesuits, particularly Roger Vekemans, Popular Promotion sought to create a network of social organizations that, despite being independent of partisan militancy, would give the party an incontrovertible electoral base, at last making the old idea, the identity of the Catholic party with the Catholic people, a reality. It would also help to separate the working classes from the Marxist parties.
“The various proposals for a Constitutional Assembly that dominated the political debate around 2015 did not lack for those who proposed that said Assembly be constituted on a basis of corporate representation by sector, in an attempt to delegitimize the political representation of the voting public”.
The second populist cycle of Chilean politics would end in revolution — be it democratic as imagined by Christian Democracy, or “with empanadas and red wine” as proposed by the left — and in a bloody coup d’Etat, with the armed forces repealing the power of the constitution in order to end political institutions, close the National Congress and end partisan political life.
Populists and Corporatists
Meanwhile, a third populist cycle is glimpsed from the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, together with the social movements that identity themselves with the most urgent popular demands, and with the indispensable solutions that the country will need to live in peace, with justice and happiness. In a context of exacerbated presidentialism and a broad disaffection of the citizenry with the parties and with the National Congress, the leaders of the social movements confront and question politicians, both in Congress and in the Executive branch, so that they surrender to their demands as a prerequisite for maintaining their legitimacy. In this dynamic representative democracy suffers an immeasurable erosion. The social movements are as successful as the political parties are weak. Checking the polls every day (an entirely new phenomenon in Chilean politics), members of congress and Executive branch functionaries are yielding to the pressures of the social movements, conceding their claims to identification with the people —perceived as a homogenous whole. They cave in to demands and even appropriate them as their own to avoid being overwhelmed. Thus they enter into a spiral of continuous weakening and delegitimization.
The social sciences have categorized the populist phenomenon in different ways. That said, when speaking about Latin America we generally expect to find a charismatic leader who mobilizes the dissatisfied urban masses with emotive, moralizing and anti-oligarchical discourse. The people, who embody every virtue, do not appear as a determined social class but as a national collective, that identifies with the populist leader on emotional terms. In Latin American populism there is no institutional mediation between the leader and the mobilized masses, thus the inherent anti-party discourse. The promised popular liberation has to be the work of the State, conceived not as a limited institution, but as the personification of the people themselves, who in turn identify with the nation; thus Latin American populism is nationalist as well.
Historically, in the Chilean case, we have seen that populism is expressed as a discourse that, by appealing to emotions, divides the country between a minority of corrupt oppressors and their victims, a good and virtuous majority. We have seen that it is possible to view populism when a figure, party or movement appears that asserts its identification with the people as a homogeneous entity, without fissures or diversity of either interests or ways of thinking, and that claims to have the solution to all their problems. These problems would be nothing more than the results of the actions of the handful of corrupt men, who must be displaced or eliminated for the people to achieve happiness. Populism not only ignores the protection of minority rights, but also seeks to delegitimize political representation as mediated by established parties in the National Congress; representation is replaced by identification between the people and the charismatic figure or movement. That is why populism endangers the institutions of representative democracy, and ends in authoritarianism and dictatorship.
In the case of Chilean political history, populism has marched arm in arm with corporatism. In 1925, in the constitutional sub-commission debate presided over and led by Alessandri, he proposed that the Senate have corporate representation, incorporating what were then called “the living forces of the nation”, a never-clearly-defined confluence of sectors. The other members of the commission, leaders of every political party of the time, tenaciously opposed this novelty (inspired by Mussolini’s Italy?). Alessandri abandoned the proposal, though without ceding ground, to concentrate on making sure the new Constitution contained provisions for a strong presidential regime. Later, during the dictatorship of Ibañez, together with the creation of numerous state entities, the participation of business associations in those entities was assured, especially financial agencies with credit-related purposes. An attempt was also made to organize unions to support the general. During the Socialist Republic, a new, “working” Constitution was proposed, of a definite corporatist character, with direct union representation. In this first populist cycle, corporatism was a very strong presence indeed.
On the other hand, during the second populist experience, in the 50s, corporatism had been defeated and delegitimized with the Allied triumph in the Second World War, so it was only present in the proposals of small groups surrounding General Ibañez. Even though business associations had secured their place in the directorates of businesses and state agencies, nevertheless, political representation through a broad range of parties was not challenged by proposals for corporate representation except by those small groups, without support among the citizenry.
However, in the current populist onslaught, there is a corporatist dimension, though not recognized as such. The attempt of specific sectors of society to drive the political agenda, by way of considering themselves the incarnation of the people cannot be other than corporatist. Moreover, in the several calls for a Constitutional Assembly that dominated political debate around 2015, there was no lack of proposals that that said Assembly be constituted on a basis of corporate representation by sector, in an attempt to delegitimize the political representation of the voting public, a reflection of the old liberal idea of one man/woman, one vote.
Thus, despite the solid institutional creation of the 19th century, which allowed the consolidation of a pluralistic representation of society through a wide range of political parties that reflected the country’s social and doctrinal diversity, parties that were able to negotiate their differences in the political arena par excellence that is the National Congress; Despite the roots and strength of these centennial parties, even so, populism managed to permeate Chilean politics in different cycles throughout the twentieth century, as we have seen. Moreover, even as we move forward into the 21st century, it seems that the threat of a populist regrowth is lurking, and with it, a questioning of the legitimacy of representative democracy, of the liberal order, of political parties as channels of citizen representation, and of the National Congress as the decisive space for negotiation between the diverse and contradictory interests and perspectives that coexist in every society. The populist option, together with corporate representation, threatens to put an end to political pluralism, exacerbating personalism, embodied in any leader who presents himself as the incarnation of the people and a far-sighted visionary.