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  • Neo-Populism in Comparative Perspective: Iran and Venezuela
  • Manochehr Dorraj (bio) and Michael Dodson (bio)

As a developing nation on the periphery of global economic and political power structures, Iran must employ strategies of governance and survival that have clear corollaries in other parts of the Third World. In this article, we focus on one such strategy, namely, populism. Although there have been numerous studies of the social character of the Iranian revolution and of the leadership of the Islamic republic, there have been few cross-regional comparative studies on these topics. We seek to discern what Iranian populism has in common with populism elsewhere by comparing Iran’s experience to that of Venezuela. We examine both institutional frameworks and selected public policies that the two regimes employ in order to forge political legitimacy, mobilize support, and govern.

Iran and Venezuela are linked by more than periodic presidential visits with their accompanying declarations of brotherhood and solidarity.1 Iranian and Venezuelan leaders have indeed tried to forge a united front to resist perceived U.S. imperialist aggression. Furthermore, their anti-imperialist rhetoric has been backed up by numerous diplomatic and commercial agreements, which have drawn the two nations closer together. But the most interesting and salient feature that links Iran and Venezuela today is arguably the radical populism ascribed to their respective leaders. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been described as taking his country back to the radical populist policies of the early days of the Islamic revolution, while numerous accounts suggest that Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez has exceeded the populist tendencies of his predecessors in the Punto Fijo era.2 These portrayals remind us that populism is a syndrome reflecting political conditions and aspirations that occur in diverse cultures and settings. It also raises the interesting question of whether the populism we are seeing in the Middle East and Latin America today is essentially the same as the “classical” populism of the twentieth century. If not, how do contemporary instances differ from the classical model?

Populism has been a useful concept for explaining certain kinds of dynamic mass movements that blend charismatic leadership with the mobilization of a society’s marginalized sectors. However, a recent survey of the literature argues that the term populism has been used to capture such diverse examples of charismatic leadership and popular mobilization that [End Page 137] it has become “essentially a fractured concept.”3 Alan Knight points to a twofold problem: first, there is no consensus on how to conceptualize populism; second, the term is often used by journalists, politicians, and even scholars with value laden, strongly negative connotations.4 For example, much of the depiction of President Ahmadinejad’s populist domestic and foreign policies by the popular press, academics, and pundits has been decidedly negative. Many analysts project him as an authoritarian ideologue with a penchant for political grandstanding, confrontation, and adventurism.5 In short, describing Ahmadinejad as a populist is meant to convey that he is a demagogue. In a widely cited essay, Jorge Castañeda has described Latin America’s new populists, like Chávez, as backward-looking figures to whom rhetoric is more important than substance and who care more for power than for democracy.6 Javier Corrales portrays Chávez as having “found a way to make authoritarianism fashionable again” and as a leader whose “populism is grandiose, but selective.” For him, Chávez is a “competitive autocrat” whose modus operandi is to polarize Venezuelan society as a means of remaining in power.7

These characterizations are commonplace and imply that populism is a disingenuous form of authoritarian politics parading as democracy. While we agree that populism may entail demagoguery, we do not think it is reducible to demagoguery. We will attempt to use the concept of populism more neutrally and analytically, as detailed in the following paragraphs, because we think it is a useful tool of comparative analysis. Because we also seek to update it to fit contemporary conditions and experiences, we use the term neo-populism to describe a political phenomenon that transcends geographic boundaries and reflects greater nuance than polemical portrayals suggest. We hope to clarify whether current manifestations of populism in Iran...


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pp. 137-151
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