Saskia P. Ruth – Do populist presidents always pose a threat to liberal democratic institutions?

This is a guest post by Saskia P. Ruth at the Department of Political Science, University of Zurich. It is based on her recent article recent paper in Political Studies, ‘Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America’. Her webpage is here.

In my article “Populism and the Erosion of Horizontal Accountability in Latin America” I explore which factors enable or hinder populist presidents in Latin America to pursue a radical strategy of institutional change to erode horizontal checks and balances in their respective countries. Prominent examples in Latin America that increased the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislative branch are Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But are populists in power always as consequential to democracy as these prominent cases imply? Looking at other populist presidents in Latin America, we can also find examples where the threat to liberal democracy did not materialize, like Alan Garcia in Peru or Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil.

While comparative research is important to unpack the ambiguous relationship between populism and (liberal) democracy highlighting how populist governments differ from non-populist governments, I focus on the systematic analysis of the conditions under which populists in power pose a threat to democracy or not. Only if we know when and how populists engage in eroding liberal democratic institutions, can we begin to design strategies to countervail their impact. To answer this question, I take an actor-centred approach focusing on specific constellations in the political arena that shape populist presidents’ incentives and their ability to engage in institutional change.

Following the minimalist ideational approach towards populism (see Hawkins and Rovira Kaltwasser forthcoming) – I argue that the antagonistic nature and the moralistic style of a populist discourse are often directed against liberal democracy, which is based on political pluralism and the constitutional protection of minorities. This inherent tension between populism and liberalism is the reason why populists are perceived as a threat to democracy itself (see Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2012). More specifically, especially in presidential systems, like those in Latin America, populist ideas clash with one core principle of liberal constitutionalism, namely horizontal accountability (here defined narrowly as executive-legislative checks and balances).

I argue that the rise of populism to power opens a unique window of opportunity for institutional change, but that the success of populist presidents to increase the power of the executive to their advantage depends on the potential power of other political actors to defend the status quo. I identify three conditions that constitute the political opportunity structure of institutional change, and thereby, either condition the incentive or the capability of populist presidents to erode horizontal accountability. These conditions are: First, the absence of unified government between the executive and the legislature, second, the existence of a ‘power vacuum’ in the political arena, and third, high public support in favour of the president.

These hypotheses are then tested by means of a Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) which is specifically suited for research designs with a low- or medium number of cases (Ragin 1987). Therefore, I compiled an original dataset covering all populist presidents elected under democratic rule in Latin America from 1979 until 2014. To identify presidents deploying a populist discourse in their electoral campaign I proceeded in two steps: First, using the ideational definition of populism as a benchmark I conducted an intensive literature review. Second, to validate this coding the dataset was sent to several experts in the field to benefit from their expertise.[1] This led to the inclusion of the following 16 presidents in the analysis: Carlos Menem and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina; Evo Morales in Bolivia; Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil; Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic; Jaime Roldós, Abdalá Bucaram, Lucio Gutiérrez, as well as Rafael Correa in Ecuador; Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; Mireya Moscoso in Panama; Alan García (both in the 1980s and in the 2000s) and Alberto Fujimori in Peru; as well as Rafael Caldera and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

As to the results – the QCA identified a complex causal path towards the erosion of horizontal accountability, indicating that successful populist presidents had strong incentives to undermine the power of opposing traditional elites if they fell short of a supporting majority in Congress. However, they were only capable to do so if they were able to exploit the bad reputation of traditional elites and at the same time uphold high popular support levels in favour of their agenda of institutional change. Among the five cases that are covered by this causal path are some of the most prominent populist presidents in the region: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Alberto Fujimori, Carlos Menem, and Evo Morales.

Moreover, the analysis also enabled me to investigate factors that might hinder populists to successfully engage in the depletion of liberal democratic institutions. For one, the analysis highlights the importance of party systems with stable social roots as safeguards against radical institutional change. If populists come to power as candidates of traditional parties, their own party organization may keep them from inducing institutional change processes. Moreover, the analysis also highlights a combined impact of non-unified government and low levels of popular support on the absence of institutional depletion by populist presidents. This substantiates Hochstetler’s plea (2006) not to underestimate the power of the public in executive-legislative conflicts. Popular mobilization is a crucial factor with respect to populist presidents’ success in restructuring liberal democracy.

While these results are a first step to uncover different political opportunity structures that may increase or tame the threat of populism to democracy, further research needs to be done. For example, this study only highlights the effect of populism on executive-checks and balances, while other institutions of horizontal accountability, like the role of the judiciary or other independent state agencies have been excluded. Moreover, with populist candidates globally on the rise it is impervious to identify when and how populist engage in illiberal behaviour and how to countervail their intentions to destabilize liberal democracy beyond the Latin American region. The results of this study may travel to other regions in the world, most likely, to other presidential systems like the USA or semi-presidential systems like France.


Hawkins, Kirk, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. forthcoming. “The Ideational Approach to Populism.”  Latin American Research Review.

Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America.”  Comparative Politics 38 (4):401-418.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, eds. 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas. Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ragin, Charles. 1987. The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[1] Experts have been selected based on their publication record as well as their comparative knowledge of populism in Latin America. The survey has been sent to six experts of whom three – Kirk Hawkins, Steven Levitsky and Carlos de la Torre – responded with their evaluations of the case selection.

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