Lessons for Jeremy Corbyn from the world’s left-wingers and populists

Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected leader of the UK’s Labour Party, with overwhelming grassroots support. Here, four experts look at how movement politics have changed countries around the world – and some of the pitfalls their leaders have faced.

Argentina: the struggles of Kirchnerismo

Pia Riggirozzi, University of Southampton

Once Jeremy Corbyn had easily seen off Owen Smith’s leadership challenge, he heartily reiterated his intention to give more power to “the people”, to “do things differently”, and to “build a more just and decent society”. These promises put a decidedly leftist spin on the Labour Party, staking out a defiantly leftist plot of political turf in the UK. But they also stake out a role in the global resistance to neoliberalism.

When Corbyn first won the Labour leadership in September 2015, he drew effusive praise from the then-president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who described his victory as a “triumph of hope”, and a victory for those “putting politics at the service of people and the economy at the service of the well-being of all citizens”.

The Kirchners in their prime. P. N. Argentina/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Effusive praise indeed from someone of such standing on the global left. For 12 years, Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor led Argentina as a part of a global challenge to neoliberalism, one driven by electorates that refused to accept parties committed to free markets.

The Kirchners’ agenda, known as Kirchnerismo, depended on rising commodity prices and strong commercial and financial links with China to focus efforts on Argentina’s poor. Under their stewardship, Argentina tackled poverty, introduced universal child benefits, and extended civil rights such as same-sex marriage.

But the Kirchner era was highly divisive. To some, it was a real commitment to prosperity and justice, but for others, it was an embrace of quasi-authoritarian state-led interventionism that fostered misconceived exchange rate policies, ruinous energy subsidies and an unsustainable fiscal deficit.

With the economy slowing and inflation worsening, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s successor was defeated in the November 2015 election. The country swung towards political and economic conservatism and elected Mauricio Macri, who has already started mending fences with the neoliberal financial agents – including the IMF the Kirchneristas so despised – while showing worrying signs of authoritarianism in his approach to social and political opposition.

Spain: Podemos on the wane?

Georgina Blakeley, The Open University

A left-wing movement and political party which burst on to the Spanish political scene in 2014, Podemos (“we can”) has fallen on hard times of late. Its leadership is deeply and publicly divided, and the party elite is increasingly seen as centralist and distant by its grassroots activists, who are struggling to maintain momentum within their local assemblies (or “circles”).

These divisions come down to disagreements over strategy. After two general elections that have failed to produce a government, the Spanish electorate is growing increasingly weary of politics and politicians – and the prospect of a third general election won’t help.

Pablo Iglesias does his best to rally Podemos’s troops. EPA/Kiko Huesca

Podemos tried to make inroads by forming an electoral alliance with the United Left party under the name Unidos Podemos, but it failed to boost the left’s performance in the June 2016 general election: Unidos Podemos retained the same number of seats as in the December 2015 general election, but its share of the vote declined by approximately 1m voters.

The dilemma is: does Podemos move to the centre, possibly in alliance with the Socialist Party, to try to seduce those voters who still regard it with distrust, or does Podemos shore up support among those activists and voters who fuelled its initial success but are now increasingly disenchanted by what they see as the continuous dilution of the 15M [anti-autsterity] spirit of Podemos?

Podemos’ results in the Basque and Galician elections did little to clear the fog. Mario Cuomo’s dictum rings true: politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose.

Thailand: the Thaksinites thwarted

Brian Klaas, London School of Economics

In 2001, populist politics came to Thailand when former police officer-turned-billionaire media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister.

In his first term, Thaksin earned major popular support both within Bangkok and in the agricultural centres of north-east Thailand for his signature programmes of reducing poverty and providing universal, low-cost healthcare for Thais. His party, initially founded as the Thai Rak Thai party, became known by the colloquial term “Red Shirts”. That name came from the colour worn by protesters whenever they took to the streets in support of his regime against more conservative elements in Thai society, such as the Democrat Party or the People’s Alliance for Democracy (known as “Yellow Shirts”).

Marking the anniversary of the coup that brought Thaksin down. EPA/Narong Sangnak

Thaksin’s charisma and populist leadership style carried him to re-election in 2005, but he could not escape the cycle of military coups d'état that continually keeps Thailand away from full democracy. Thanks to his populism – which his critics decry as corrupt, crony patronage politics – he and his party are still Thailand’s most popular political tendency, but his populist legacy isn’t one tied to a coherent political project or ideology. Instead, it’s much more about prioritising state spending on his network of supporters rather than the Democrat Party’s rival network.

That rivalry was Thaksin’s downfall. On September 19 2006, the Thai military intervened and toppled Thaksin; he has been in exile since 2008. His sister Yingluck later took up his mantle and served as prime minister from August 2011 until she was also removed in a coup d'état by the Thai military in May 2014.

Ultimately, Thaksin managed to activate dormant political constituencies in the countryside and turn them into a popular movement – but in the end, that movement entrenched a political culture that still tends toward patronage rather than robust and detailed policy.

South Africa: Malema on the march

Daniel Conway, University of Westminster

If you want to provoke a strong reaction about politics from a South African, mention left-wing firebrand Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. Citing Marxism-Leninism and Frantz Fanon while extolling the anti-white policies of the Zimbabwean government and admiring Hugo Chavez, the EFF demands full redistribution of land from the white community to the black majority without compensation and the wholesale nationalisation of mines and banks.

To some, Malema is just what the governing African National Congress (ANC) deserves for failing to improve the prospects of the poor while cosying up to big business and allowing the white minority to dominate the economy. To others, Malema is an irresponsible extremist and a threat to South Africa’s economy and democracy.

Raising hell: the EFF’s MPs walk out of Zuma’s state of the nation speech. EPA/Schalk van Zuydam

Before he was expelled as leader of the ANC Youth League, Malema promised to “take up arms and kill” for President Jacob Zuma – but he’s now become one of Zuma’s loudest critics, heckling his state of the nation address from the floor of parliament and successfully taking him to the Constitutional Court to reclaim money fraudulently spent on the president’s private residence, Nkandla.

Upon winning 6% of the vote in the 2014 general election, the EFF’s 25 MPs announced they wouldn’t wear suits in parliament, describing them as the clothes of European imperialists; instead they sport red jumpsuits and the headgear of either miners or domestic workers. This and other populist stunts have continually kept Malema and his followers in the headlines.

But the EFF isn’t the ANC’s main opposition: in the latest municipal elections, it was the centre-right Democratic Alliance that gained the most ground, forcing the ANC from power in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. Malema has not broken the mould of South African politics, though he has helped loosen the ANC’s near-stranglehold on the black vote. But South Africa’s proportional electoral system, ongoing poverty and still-stark racial inequality may well mean the EFF wields greater political influence for years yet.