Facundo Santana / Reuters Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner throws flowers to pay homage to the fallen soldiers during the Falklands War in Ushuaia, April 2012.

What Is Killing Latin American Populism?

The Exception to the Global Trend

For the last decade, populism has been the dominant political phenomenon across Latin America. The trend was relatively easy to disdain from afar, but then it crept onto the center stage in the most developed nations. 

When Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, Time derided it as a “marketing ploy” for his eponymous conglomerate; the Huffington Post relegated it to the entertainment pages. By September, his Republican rivals were openly mocking his foreign policy statement. Following the February 2016 New Hampshire primary, however, the joke turned sour. Now, far from contested, the upcoming Republican convention in Cleveland will be his crowning. Many of those who vowed “Never Trump” are bending the knee. And the latest polls in Florida and Ohio remind all that his message resonates with an electorate even more weary of the establishment than when it elected Barack Obama in the wake of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. 

Populism is faring even better in Europe. On that side of the Atlantic, it comes in two flavors. The anti-euro left-wing kind is a byproduct of austerity measures that too often prioritized naked spending cuts that hurt the weakest in society over structural reforms that would have challenged entrenched interest groups aligned with elites. This brand of populism brought the Syriza party into government in Athens last year, followed by a crisis that saw Greece almost accidentally exit the eurozone. It is a similar story with Podemos in Spain, born out of anti-austerity street protests in 2013. 

There is an even more disturbing flavor of European populism: the xenophobic, nationalistic kind. Few doubt that its Joan of Arc, Marine Le Pen, will make it to the second round of next year’s French presidential elections. Indeed, a victory for her National Front, the party founded by Le Pen’s father from the ashes of French fascism, is no longer unthinkable. Her enemy is not the European Union; it is globalization and free trade. She promises to protect French thrives in poor towns that were so used to voting Socialist that center-right politicians barely bothered to visit. Similarly, in May’s Austrian presidential elections, an extreme xenophobe lost by less than 0.6 percent of the vote, and anti-immigration Geert Wilders is polling well ahead of any of his rivals for the next Dutch elections. Not even Germany is immune; the energetic right-wing Alternative for Germany party is encroaching on the center-right’s electorate.

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