A (Preliminary) Populism Index for Latin America: 1996 – 2016

Populism has seen a comeback in Latin America at the turn of the century. Lately, it has seen a resurgence in Europe (and the U.S.?) as well. Even though populism has been traditionally difficult to define, a number of statements and hypothesis are associated with these political movements. For instance, that the cyclical price of commodities is related to populist policies in Latin America (Ocampo, 2015), or that populism is a kick-back of globalization (Rodrik, 2018).

Some of these arguments and thesis require some kind of measurement, or index, of populism. Sometimes it is not enough to say that Argentina, or Venezuela, or any chosen country, has a populist government. Sometimes a proxy of how much populism is in place is needed. I know of only two attempts to offer a populism index. One is by Ocampo, specifically developed for the case of Argentina (the above linked paper and in his book «Entrampados en la Farsa»). The other one is by Hawkins (2009). The issue with Hawkin’s measure is that looks at the rhetoric of politicians rather than actual policy. Ocampo points to some odd results of Hawkin’s exercise, for instance, Menem’s administration being more populist than Kirchner’s administration. The challenge is to go from populist rhetoric to populist policy actually executed. A president may have a very strong populist rhetoric, but how much of that is actually translated into policy?

My colleague Alexandre Padilla and I develop a populism index for a number of Latin American countries that goes from 1996 to 2016. We can’t go back further in time due to lack of data. We are also constrained in the number of series available for a number of countries. The index goes from 0 (absence of populism) to 10 (presence of populism).

The index has two sub-indices. A sub-index for economic populism and another sub-index for institutional populism. This allows separating these two dimensions of populist governments. The economic sub-index looks at the size of government (EC1), tax pressure (EC2), and tax on exports (EC3). The institutional sub-index captures corruption (INST1), rule of law (INST2), value and accountability (INST3), and freedom of the press (INST4).

From these 28 countries, there is data to get a full index for only 12 countries. All of the 28 countries, however, have data for the institutional sub-index. The following table shows a summary of the index values.

The three figures below show the economic, institutional, and overall populism index.  The table that follows shows the ranking of each country per year (higher ranking means more populism). Then I show the index for some selected countries with some comments.

The next charts depict (1) Argentina, (2) Bolivia, (3) Brazil, (4) Ecuador, (5) Nicaragua and (6) Venezuela.

Argentina shows a jump in «institutional populism» after the 2001 crisis and a fall in the first year of Macri’s administration. This is not to say that Macri’s government has no populist attitudes. But, numbers do show an improvement, even if the index is still showing a higher value than at the beginning of the Kirchner administration and Argentina is still at the top of the ranking.

Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil has been described both ways. As being populist regime and as not being a populist regime (rhetoric but no policy and/or change of attitude once in office). This index does not show a significant change of populism in Brazil. Maybe a slight increase with Rousseff’s administration.

Ecuador allows for several interpretations. One of them is that institutionally, Correa, like da Silva, was only a populist in rhetoric terms, but not so much in policy terms. Another interpretation is that Correa’s populist policy was constrained by Ecuador’s dollarization in the year 2000. But, note that for Ecuador we only have the institutional component of the populist index.