World Politics

Research Article

Neoliberalism and the Transformation of Populism in Latin America: The Peruvian Case

Kenneth M. Robertsa1*

a1 University of New Mexico


Latin American populism is generally associated with the developmental stage of import substitution industrialization; it is thus widely presumed to have been eclipsed by the debt crisis of the 1980s and the free market reforms of the neoliberal era. However, the leadership of Alberto Fujimori in Peru suggests that new forms of populism may be emerging despite the fiscal constraints of neoliberal austerity. This new variant of populism thrives in a context where economic crisis and social dislocation undermine traditional representative institutions, enabling personalist leaders to establish unmediated relationships with heterogeneous, atomized masses. Political support can be cultivated through populist attacks on entrenched political elites or institutions, along with targeted but highly visible poverty alleviation programs. This new form of populist autocracy complements the efforts of neoliberal technocrats to circumvent the representative institutions that are integral to democratic accountability. The Peruvian case thus demonstrates that populism has been transformed rather than eclipsed during the neoliberal era and that it should be decoupled theoretically from any particular phase or model of economic development.

Kenneth M. Roberts is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico. He is currently writing a book on democracy and the transformation of the left in Chile and Peru.

* The author would like to thank Kurt Weyland, Karen Remmer, Gilbert Merkx, Robert Kaufman, Philip Oxhorn, and Steve Levitsky for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.