Presidential Elections

‘It is up to liberal democrats to learn the right lessons from the rise of populism’

Competing in the runoff on Sunday, José Antonio Kast and Gabriel Boric offer contrasting government styles. Boric proposes largely social democratic policies, while Kast promises iron-fist governance against crime and poor migrants, among others. To gain context on the situation, Chile Today talked to Cas Mudde, an expert on the far right and populism.

Chile’s runoff election, slated for Dec. 19, is offering two vastly different alternatives. One is represented by José Antonio Kast and the other by Gabriel Boric. While unlikely to dismantle it, former student leader Boric has criticized the neoliberal order, whereas Kast has always been an unapologetic supporter of the dictatorship, including its economic policies and repression.

This support has earned Kast the ‘far right’ label.

Chile Today talked to Cas Mudde, professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, about the meaning of this label, the far right’s track record, populism, and more.

Mudde has published on political extremism, radical right-wing populism, and right-wing youth culture. Together with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, a political scientist at Chile’s Universidad Diego Portales, he published Populism: A Very Short Introduction in 2017.

In 2019, Mudde published The Far Right Today. Critically acclaimed, the book focuses on what he calls the fourth wave of far-right politics.

What is the difference between far-right politics and fascism?

The far right is a combination of the extreme right and the radical right. While the extreme right is fundamentally anti-democratic, i.e., rejecting popular sovereignty and majority rule, the radical right accepts democracy, i.e., that the people elect their representatives, but rejects fundamental aspects of liberal democracy, notably minority rights, rule of law, and separation of power. Fascism is a specific form of the extreme right.

Far from being nationalists, far right leaders like Kast develop international relations with parties like Spain’s Vox or billionaire-funded groups in the US, among others. Are these networks producing results for their members? If so, which ones?

That is not what nationalism is about. Nationalism means that you want a congruence of state and nation, i.e., a mono-cultural state.

Nationalists can and do have international ties and can even fight in each other’s conflicts. That said, the far right is much less connected internationally than mainstream groups on the left and right. Recent initiatives by Vox, for example, are loose and vague – the so-called Charter of Madrid is pretty broad and vague as well as non-binding to the individual signatories – while US funders can and do switch politicians at any time. In other words, there are few tangible results from these international connections – “networks” is too big a term.

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What was Kast doing in the U.S.?

Do authoritarian rulers follow discernible patterns, say, from the eve of their election win throughout their first year in office?

No. Despite the popularity of the so-called authoritarian playbook in the international media, authoritarian leaders follow largely individual trajectories, mostly guided by the domestic economic and political context.

What makes contemporary illiberal leaders different from previous authoritarians, in most cases, is that they tend to mask their illiberal policies by democratic discourses and procedures. For instance, in both Hungary and Venezuela, liberal democracy was destroyed by, strictly speaking, legal measures that had a democratic mandate, in the sense that parliamentary or referendum majorities had supported them.

You also see that many countries use similar laws to repress independent civil society and media, [an approach] which originated in Putin’s Russia and [is] adopted and adapted in a variety of countries – such as Hungary, India, Israel, and Turkey.

Kast’s new government proposal doesn’t mention explicitly political persecution or combatting supposed neo-Marxist subversion anymore. How credible are such turnarounds usually? Does moderation alienate key voters?

Not usually, as the most hardcore voters have no alternative and, because they are strongly driven by hatred of the other option(s), have a strong incentive to come out to vote.

In a runoff system, it makes sense to moderate for the second round, particularly if you are still a relatively unknown entity – i.e., you haven’t governed yet. But it is clear that Kast considers political persecution a legitimate strategy to counter “neo-Marxist subversion,” and there is no reason to assume this has changed.

Moreover, given his very broad interpretation of what constitutes a neo-Marxist and communist, this persecution would potentially target the vast majority of the Chilean Left, including even some centrists.

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Chile’s foreign policy elite makes much of the country’s membership of a supposedly liberal democratic ‘international community,’ governed by law and even facilitating domestic democracy and justice. But how supportive are international institutions and international law of domestic democracy?

Anyone with a little bit of historical knowledge of Chile should know that domestic democracy is not the key concern of “the international community.” Obviously, non-democratic regimes like China and Russia do not care about it, but [even] democratic countries, notably the US, the most important international actor for Chile, always prioritize economic or military-strategic concerns, when push comes to shove.

During the Cold War, the US and NATO supported right-wing dictatorships like Franco’s Spain and Pinochet’s Chile, today NATO includes Hungary and Turkey, while even US President Joe Biden included Modi’s India in his recent “Summit for Democracy.”

Modern-day authoritarians present themselves as ordinary citizens and guardians of democracy and women’s rights, for example. But they also attack unions, press freedom, and feminism. Why do these contradictions not put voters off?

To be fair, all actual politics is full of contradictions. Most parties, and particularly large parties, have to accommodate the interests and priorities of fairly diverse coalitions of voters.

Most authoritarians today are populist and present feminism, the media, and unions as “elite” projects, which don’t represent “the people” but are used by “the elite” to divide or undermine “the people” – or, for nationalists, “the nation.”

Moreover, voters pick the aspects they care about most and ignore other points – again, this is not specific for supporters of authoritarians.

Finally, a lot of support for populists is negative rather than positive, in the sense that these voters do not so much support the populist but really oppose (hate) the other candidate(s).

Major right-wing parties swiftly backed Kast after the first round, and some commentators played down his radical propositions, even though his original program was still in place. In which kind of society is such a sudden abandonment of even pretend democratic principles occurring? What does it mean for the endurance of the democratic regime?

We have seen this in so many countries in the last decade. Obviously, the US is a prime example, where within four or five years the Republican Party transformed from a largely anti-Trump party (at least in terms of the party establishment) into Trump’s party.

Brazil is a similar story, where Bolsonaro was not the first choice for most of the right-wing establishment, but when he became the key challenger of the Workers’ Party, almost everyone embraced him (including the Wall Street Journal!).

In the Austrian presidential elections of 2016, most right-wingers supported far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, even though Alexander van der Bellen was a very centrist “Green” candidate. We could add Hungary and Poland. In other words, there is nothing unique about Chile in this respect.

Also read:

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Radical neoliberal economists like José Piñera are fond of leaders like Kast. Does the economic record of far-right leaders explain these alliances?

We saw a similar alliance in Brazil, with Bolsonaro. Turns out that this alliance was not as productive and strong as initially thought.

Similarly, many neoliberals were not overly happy with Donald Trump in the US – although they appreciated his defunding and deregulation of the state, they did not like his economic nationalism.

For the far right, economics is always secondary, a means to an end. Which means that they often compromise on it, and have relatively mixed policies, combining free trade with state capitalism, whatever serves the so-called national interests – and, given the disproportionate corruption of populist regimes, the kleptocratic interests of the populist establishment.

The UK is about to gut its Human Rights Act, elections in the US are becoming as uncompetitive as those in countries like Russia, corruption even in supposedly clean EU countries is rife. Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera, hailed as a moderate, has blamed left-wing policies for spiraling crime and even the 1973 coup. Why worry about the far right when the center is becoming extreme?

Well, in part because the center is radicalizing because of the (perceived) strength of the radicals. Moreover, when the radicals come to power, they are still (much) worse than the centrists.

But, in today’s world, in what I have called “the fourth wave” of the far right in my book “The Far Right Today,” the boundaries between the far right and the mainstream – mostly, but not exclusively, right, as several mainstream left parties have adopted nativism and culture war rhetoric and policies (see Denmark) – the challenge to liberal democracy comes from many sides. And we should worry as much about the message as about the messenger.

Illiberal policies proposed by a mainstream party are more problematic than liberal policies proposed by a far-right party.

Is the rise of authoritarians triggered by socio-cultural changes, intensifying entropy of the capitalist social order, or something else?

In essence, I believe that the current rise of populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. In the last four decades, a lot of liberal policies have shrunk the democratic space, with socio-cultural policies being legalized (and put into the legal sphere) and socio-cultural policies being privatized (and put into the economic or technocratic sphere).

This has created a sense of powerlessness, particularly during periods of crisis (of which the 21st century has many), and populists claim to give back “power to the people.” In positive terms, they have re-politicized largely depoliticized politics.

They say, “yes we can.” “We can get out of the EU.” “We can re-introduce the death penalty.” “We can introduce tariffs.” And they are actually right. What they do not say, however, is what the actual costs are of these decisions.

Liberal democracy is in crisis, particularly at the intellectual level, but at least democracy remains hegemonic at the discursive level. This is why even clear authoritarians like Erdogan and Putin claim to be “real” democrats.

The various crises of the 21st century have been catalysts rather than causes. The main causes are structural, and their consequences will remain with us for decades to come. Consequently, populists will be with us as well. It is up to liberal democrats to learn the right lessons from the rise of populism and to construct a way forward in which liberal democracy is strengthened, rather than populism is defeated or coopted.

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