When in power, was dissimilar that there remains to this day a debate as to the character, purposes, and accomplishments of populist movements that could not accede to power evolved in altogether different fashions from those that ascended to power.
Although populist movements and regimes were witnessed in several Latin American countries, Argentina under Juan Domingo Peron (1946-55), Brazil under Getulio Vargas (1951-54), and Mexico during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40).
Juan Domingo Peron:
Few leaders of 20th Century have dominated their countries’ politics to the extent of Juan Domingo Peron of Argentina and Getulio Vargas of Brazil.
In a nutshell, they both changed the politics of their countries from being conservative and elitist, dominated by the landowners and exporters of primary products-generally described as oligarchy- to the one that became ‘mass-based” under the leadership of the urban middle class elements.
They sought to mobilise the ‘masses’-as against the ‘classes’-under a ‘nationalist’ banner so as to oust from power the so-called ‘antinational’ export-oriented oligarchy. They both considered politics essential to gain access to power.
Their preferred route to power- and the preferred route of most populists-was electoral (only some populist movements have taken recourse to the revolutionary path).
They sought popular participation, and under their regimes, the size of the electorate expanded sizeably, though not enough so as to become universal. More important, they changed the economic development strategy from the primary product export to inward-looking Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI).
Peron governed Argentina between 1946 and 1955 and again briefly form October 1973 until his death in July 1974. Peron’s rise to power is the story of the political rise and organisation of the urban middle and working classes, and their entry into the Argentina politics.
Certainly, there was more to Peronism than Peron. A highly charismatic leader, Peron combined elements of authoritarianism to give rise to what came to be called Peronism. Thought the working class, the urban poor and other supporters, had been organised under the banner of Justicialist party (more commonly essentially personal followers of the charismatic leader.
Peron in power was like a patron who dispensed goods and services in a personalist manner in return of his clientelistic supporters. The personalist authoritarian leadership of Peron would brook no opposition. His style of functioning greatly weakened the existing political institutions and structures of government.
Populism in Argentina was an urban phenomenon. The social change was evident more in the way different social classes aligned with Peron and benefitted from his economic development policies.
The fast expanding urban working and middle classes were also the principal beneficiaries of the economic distributive policies including higher wages and salaries and social welfare schemes.
Politically more important, however, was Peron’s support base among the urban poor- the so-called ‘shirtless’-who were mostly recent migrants suffering alienation and who lived in urban slums.
Peron’s regime is generally considered the prototype of Latin American populism. Yet it combined many diverse forces and conflicting elements; and it is said that his policies so often reflected the specific circumstances of Argentina in the 1940s.
Getulio Vargas had been the president of Brazil for thirteen year (1930-1943) before he began to build a populist coalition that brought him once again to the presidency in 1950. Until 1930, Brazilian politics had followed a pattern-which was affected after the end of monarchy in 1889-reflecting the interests of powerful regions and influential politicians at the national level.
Vargas-a representative of the regional interests of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and influential urban politicians at the national level-had emerged as the dominant figure after he had successfully led an insurrection following his defeat in the fraudulent presidential elections in 1930.
For the next thirteen years, he dominated the national politics by playing according to the rules and norms of Brazilian politics-constant alignment and realignment of various regional and economic interests and powerful urban politicians but all the time strengthening the hold of a centralised federal state with the support of the armed forces.
When Vargas re-entered the electoral arena in 1950, he had turned populist in order to garner and mobilise the working class and other urban elements to become, once again, the president.
The populist coalition, he built, consisted of besides the labour, his traditional supporters comprising of old style politicians bureaucrats and urban salaried middle class, industrialists and landowners, and sections of the armed forces.
Many more sections of the society were enfranchised. Urban working and middle classes became crucial actors in national politics. However, populism had a demobilising effect on these classes as they were incorporated in state policies and structures and thus lost their political autonomy of action.
Thus, populism entrenched corporatism and authoritarianism in the national political processes of the two countries.
On the positive side analysts admit that the main contribution of populism lay more in what it destroyed viz., breaking down the economic and political hold of the conservative oligarchy. Populism was an urban phenomenon. It was a heterogeneous coalition of the urban ‘have-nots’ which had sought to break the monopoly of the oligarchy.
It also initiated a larger and broader role of the state in the economic development of the country and distribution of the resources- aspects which nevertheless remain somewhat controversial, even to this day. Populist regimes expanded the role of the state in the economic development strategy.
Besides, the development strategy fostered the growth of domestic business and industry. Under populist rule, two specific factors viz., the central role of the state in the economic development strategy and its role as provider of social services and distribution saw the expansion of public sector.