From Perón to Sata: An Investigation of Populism in Latin America and Africa

By Elizabeth Steiner

Juan peron con banda de presidente

Image Credit: Juan Perón, 1947. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars of developing African democracies have been widely interested in the recent occurrence of populist movements across the continent. While these movements seem to be a modern phenomenon, many resemble the traditional populist movements that took place in Latin America during the mid to late twentieth century. The populist campaign strategies of the presidential election of Juan Perón in Argentina and Michael Sata in Zambia are a valuable asset in understanding the similarities between the traditional and modern populist movements. These similarities lend important insight into both the salience of a populist campaign strategy and the effect of such a strategy on voter participation in developing democracies. They suggest that the efficacy of a populist campaign strategy is not dependent upon region or time period and that populist campaign strategies have the ability to increase voter participation and belief in the government as a whole, which is a positive indicator for the consolidation of democratic electoral processes.

In order to discuss the populist approach to campaign strategies, it is first important to define populism. However, similar to an objective definition of democracy, a true definition of populism is highly contested. Over the last few decades, numerous political scientists have dedicated much research towards creating a cohesive characterization of populism. Most agree that populism is characterized by an "anti-elitist policy discourse that aims to rectify the exclusion of economically marginalized constituencies,"1 as well as the presence of a charismatic leader who creates a "closeness to common people" and demonstrates "personal concern for the followers"2 of their movement. Within this essay, the regimes of Juan Perón and Michael Sata have been specifically chosen for comparison because of their similar use of labor populism, defined by Kenneth Roberts as a form of populism in which labor unions and non-governmental groups become the "primary vehicle for populist mobilization."3

Within both Argentina and Zambia, there were many conditions that allowed for a populist leader to gain widespread support. By the time Juan Perón rose to power, the Argentinean government had already suffered through around 40 years of governmental instability and fractionalization, causing both military coup d'états and a lack of trust of governmental systems by the general public.4 Furthermore, due to a dependence on the export of Argentinean beef and grain, the economic downturn of the Great Depression in the 1930s caused foreign buyers to reduce imports, causing the Argentinean economy to plummet.5 Similarly, in Zambia widespread migration of rural citizens to urban areas in the early twenty first century, as well as a heavy reliance on the export of copper, led to high rates of poverty.6 By the time Sata was elected into office, the incumbent party, Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), had been in power without interruption for twenty years. As Danielle Resnick argues, despite the macroeconomic improvement under the presidents during the MMD incumbency, the rate of urban poverty still "increased from 49% to 53% between 1991 and 2004."7 Furthermore, the urban poor, threatened regularly with housing demolitions, "faced a high level of harassment" under the rule MMD presidents.1 It is not difficult, therefore, to understand why a populist presidential candidate, who promised national unity, better wages for the working class, and economic salvation through the nationalization of key exports, could captivate the majority of the Argentinean and Zambian people. Both Perón and Sata recognized a common disenfranchisement of the poor in their societies and capitalized on it through populist strategies in their respective campaigns.

The first aspect of a populist approach utilized by both Perón and Sata was the use theatrical campaign strategies to create a palpable enthusiasm for their candidacy. Before his election into the presidency, Perón fostered strong relationships with unions and urban workers through his role as the minister of labor. These unions would eventually constitute much of his support base and play a "prominent role in his electoral campaigns and social programs."2 On the campaign trail, Perón attempted to nourish this close relationship with the people. One of his strategies that proved very useful for cultivating enthusiasm around his campaign was his famous speeches from balconies throughout Argentina. As Paul Taggart writes in his book, Populism, "The iconography of Perón appearing on the balcony to greet the masses who chanted his name and greeted his appearance with an ovation became an integral component in his subsequent rule as the symbol of his direct link to the people and his genuine popular support."3 Similarly, Sata and his party, the Patriotic Front (PF), utilized rhetoric and campaign strategies aimed at securing the support of the urban poor and working class.4 Instead of campaigning throughout the countryside and appealing to rural constituencies, he focused the majority of his speeches and platforms on the expressed concerns of the large populations living in urban poverty. Furthermore, many of his programmatic promises targeted the urban poor by promising to expand public works projects and "lower the 37 percent income tax on government workers, a large portion of the labor force."1 He also utilized theatrical antics during his multiple campaigns to gain more national attention and foster enthusiasm from his supporters. He included broken clocks in his 2006 campaign, as a clock was the symbol of his opponent's party.2 Before the 2008 elections, because the symbol of the Patriotic Front was Noah's Ark, he registered his party at the Zambian High Court by standing in a speedboat being pulled by a truck.3 These campaign strategies were highly effective in aggregating massive widespread support for each candidate because they gained extensive media attention and allowed the people of each country to feel personally involved in and enthused by democratic elections. The alternative style of campaigning helped separate each leader from the people's perception of the political establishment, which appealed to the citizens facing political instability in Argentina and those facing discrimination from the government in Zambia. In this way, the people's election of these leaders represented a sort of contestation of the current political system.

One of the most integral aspects of populism is a presence of a charismatic leader who creates a cult of personality centered on being a champion of issues facing the poor. Perón, as mentioned previously, utilized his past occupation as the minister of labor to gain both widespread support from the working class and the image as a political outsider with an extreme dedication to the plight of the poor. He also gained support based upon the popularity of his wife, Eva, who was born into poverty but eventually became a film star. Similarly, Sata utilized both his history of working as a cleaner for a car plant and as a policeman to illustrate his identity as a common man to the people.4 He often stressed his lack of education "to give the urban poor the impression that he [was] one of them," and utilized his Bemba ethnic identity to secure the support of some rural voters.1 In doing so, he was able to create an identity of a political outsider working within the system. Nicknamed "King Cobra" by his supporters, he gained widespread support by "crafting a charismatic and controversial image that involved theatrical antics."2

However, one of the major differences within the cult of personality created by Sata and Perón was how each figure directed their support. Perón's campaign and presidency was highly characterized by its "verticalismo," or its "extreme dependence upon one man who could not be replaced after his departure or death."3 Perón rooted his policies and the idea of the government's general concern for the plight of the poor in the image of himself and his wife, Eva. Furthermore, in order to increase his authority, Perón avoided "the development of a bureaucratic apparatus that could provide political resources to internal competitors."4 The people's faith in the Argentinian government, therefore, was not based upon the system as a whole, but rather upon Perón's personality. Because of this, as well as other factors such as rising inflation and economic downturn, after Perón's death, the government was unable to guarantee widespread support and faith within its democratic system, and as a result, fell into a period of guerilla warfare and extreme violence. Dissimilarly, while Sata also utilized a strong cult of personality, he largely related his enthusiastic recognition of the problems facing the poor in Zambia with his party, the Patriotic Front. Formed by Sata in 2001, the PF evolved from a minor opposition party in the 2001 elections to the main opposition in the 2006, 2008, and 2011 elections. In her 2012 study, Danielle Resnick found that applying a populist strategy to the urban poor allows political parties "the advantage of issue congruence and differentiation," meaning that urban constituents voted outside of ethnic-linguistic background and retrospective economic voting.5 Sata's cult of personality helped strengthen the party, as he fused his identity to that of the PF. For the PF, the legacy of Sata strengthened the legitimacy of the party as a whole, and helped secure reelection for the party in the 2016 elections. However, despite this difference in the direction of popular support, the result of this cult of personality was the same. Each leader created a source of unity for their supporters by representing a man of the people with specific concerns for the well-being of the impoverished and the national identity of his respective nation.

Another example of Sata and Perón's mutual populist campaign strategy was the use of ostracizing rhetoric towards specific groups in their respective countries. For Perón, this manifested in the tough critique of the landowning elites in Argentina. As a part of his platform, Perón "stressed the importance of national unity and tried to close the gap between the different socioeconomic classes by forging a cross-class alliance of supporters – an entity united by its opposition against the elite."1 His rhetoric against the wealthy political elite resonated strongly with his supporters, who nicknamed themselves the "descamisados" or shirtless ones.2 For Sata, this type of "us vs. them" rhetoric was directed towards Chinese investors and immigrants living in Zambia. During many campaign speeches and rallies throughout his campaign, King Cobra used venomous language when discussing Chinese foreign investment. He claimed within his 2008 bid for the presidency that he would "confiscate foreign companies with less than 25 per cent Black Zambian ownership,"3 and in an interview with Howard French, claimed that innocent Chinese investment does not exist, but rather that "Chinese parastatals and government interests" are "corrupting [Zambian] leaders."4 He also commonly referred to Chinese as "infestors" rather than investors.5 This rhetoric was an appeal to the many Zambians who felt as if Chinese investors were a threat to the good of Zambia. In a survey conducted in 2012, Gérard van Bracht found that around 85% of Zambians who responded to his survey trusted half or less of the Chinese people they had encountered in Zambia. Similarly, 19.4% of respondents said that they trusted none of the Chinese in Zambia.1 Sata, therefore, was able to unify the Zambian people behind a common distrust of the Chinese. This type of rhetoric proved useful in consolidating support behind a single enemy. While the result of this strategy might be harmful and exclusionary, it also represented a new sense of responsiveness from the government. In promising to be hard on the elite and foreign investors, each candidate proved that they were able to recognize the common wishes of the people and respond accordingly. Voters supported these candidates because they were tough on those areas of society in which the common man believed to be corrupt.

Acknowledging these similarities, the campaign strategies and the subsequent successful elections of both Perón and Sata suggest much about the effect of a populist approach on democratic participation. In Argentina, the presidential election of Peron saw the largest voter turnout in voting history up to that point, with over 83% of registered voters showing up to cast their vote.2 In Zambia, 54% of registered voters cast their ballots in the 2011 elections, while only 45.4% voted in 2008.3 However, each leader not only influenced how many citizens voted, but their beliefs about the significance of their vote as well. For the Argentinean people, Perón's election signified the end of a chaotic and ruptured Argentina and a return to a cohesive national state. Because he was elected due to the tremendous support of the urban workers, his election signified the ability of the Argentinean people to truly choose someone who represented their interests. In this way, his election was a reinforcement of accountability within the Argentinean government. Similarly, Sata's election in 2011 and the turnover of power from the twenty-year rule of the MMD party represented a new form of democratic accountability. More than ever, citizens began to view elections as a comprehensible way of ensuring that their government addressed the needs of the common masses. According to an Afrobarometer survey conducted in 2014, 59% of respondents believe that elections enable voters to remove leaders from office, whereas in 2005, only 30% of respondents communicated similar faith in the electoral system. When asked whether or not elections ensure that the voters' views are reflected, 51% of respondents in 2014 answered "well" or "very well," while only 29% of respondents in 2005 answered similarly.1 This belief in the electoral process suggests much about the salience of a populist approach to campaign strategies in terms of voter participation. Because the message and tactics of a populist campaign strategy center on being a voice for the common masses and allow for a common unification under a charismatic leader, voters feel more individually involved in the electoral process, and are, therefore, more likely to participate. This suggests that populism may actually beneficial for democratic electoral systems, as it increases partisan identities and a sense of accountability within the government.

The comparison of Juan Perón and Michael Sata's populist approaches to campaign strategies has larger implications on the understanding of emerging democracies. The fact that both leaders' campaigns had similar attributes and outcomes in terms of voter participation suggests the efficacy of populism, regardless of region and time period. However, the real connection between Argentina and Zambia that allowed for the populist movement was the social, political, and economic atmosphere in each respective country. It was the governmental instability, economic fluctuation, rise of urbanization, and growing amounts of urban poor that caused the majority of the citizens in each country to feel disenfranchised by the government. This disenfranchisement, then fueled the campaign strategies and rhetoric utilized by each leader.

Both leaders' use of populist campaign strategies can be considered examples of responsiveness, as each leader was able to identify the major issues facing the marginalized citizens in their country and tailor their approach accordingly. This suggests how populism may strengthen the consolidation towards democracy in terms of electoral processes. As Robert Dahl discusses in his famous book, Poliarchy, one of the key aspects of democracy is the "continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals."1 He outlines three opportunities that must be guaranteed to citizens in order to create and develop this responsiveness. They include: the opportunity for citizens to "formulate their preferences," the opportunity to voice these preferences to the government and general public through "individual and collective action," and the opportunity to have "their preferences weighted equally in the conduct of the government."2 The electoral processes that took place in Argentina and Zambia are excellent examples of this, as citizens were able to convey their disenfranchisement with the incumbent party through collective action and ultimately succeed in the changing the government accordingly. While the study of these countries suggests a consolidation of democracy in terms of electoral processes, it is too simple to extrapolate, based upon the study of two countries, whether or not populism can lead to the consolidation of democracy in developing nations. More research is needed on the effect of populist campaign strategies on actual policy making and its consequences on partisan identity in order to assess populism's role in the development of democracy.

Ultimately, while the emergence of populist techniques in developing African nations seems to be a modern phenomenon, the populism of Africa today highly resembles traditional populism that was born in Latin America. The comparison of Juan Perón and Michael Sata's respective populist approaches to presidential campaigns lends much to the understanding of the salience of populism as a campaign strategy and its effects on voter participation and confidence in the electoral system. As shown through the analysis of their separate campaign strategies, Perón and Sata utilized almost identical tactics during their respective races for presidency, despite existing in separate regions and centuries. They were similar in that they capitalized on the social and economic instability of the time and ran campaigns specifically targeting the urban poor and laborers. Similarly, they respectively utilized theatrical campaign strategies, created cults of personality, and spoke in ostracizing rhetoric towards one group in their societies in order to aggregate a wide supporter base. As a result of their populist campaigns, voter turnout and confidence within the electoral system rose, as citizens perceived a higher sense of accountability and responsiveness from the government. This higher sense of partisan identity and participation suggests that a populist approach to campaign strategies may help strengthen electoral systems and consolidation towards democracy. However, in order to fully understand populism's effects on democracy, more research is needed.