Since its inception, populism has appeared to be a more responsive form of governability (Hellinger 2011, 421). With its ability to include those who have been alienated from politics, populist leaders have been particularly resilient in Latin America; a region with a historical record of weak citizenship rights and unequal enforcement of the rule of law (De La Torre 2010, 124). The people thus turn to a leader, and although populism has been able to respond to citizen demands for inclusion, it has been criticized for diminishing the necessary independence of democratic institutions (Conaghan and De La Torre 2008; De La Torre 2010; Weyland 2013). Populism in Ecuador has not been the exception, however it has been unique. From 1996 to 2006, the country welcomed and dismissed eight different presidents. Although the Ecuadorian people have shown a willingness to remove those who no longer represent their interests, they have also shown a continued and present susceptibility to legitimate populist leaders; leaders who paradoxically perpetuate the weakness of rule of law and the institutions the people feel alienated from in the first place, particularly the court.
This study alludes to broader issues regarding political inclusion and the perpetual weak enforcement of rule of law that populism exacerbates in Latin America. Given its history with populism since the 1940’s, Ecuador is an appropriate case to study (De La Torre 2010, 8). Since populism attacks the judiciary, and disables it from independent and ambitiously defending the rule of law (Weyland 2013, 23), this research seeks to understand how court empowerment and independence is possible in the face of the powerful anti-institutional force: populism. This paper argues that the answer may be found in the same mechanisms that enable populism, specifically popularity and legitimacy. In order to provide evidence for the latter claim, it is important to conceptualize both populism and legitimacy, explore the detrimental effect populism has had on Ecuador, and then point to pro-judicial efforts in Brazil and Mexico. Brazil and Mexico have gathered the legitimacy and popularity through reforms for career safety and the strategic use of public relations to increase power and independence. Both of these cases will show how populism can be countered with increased judicial legitimacy.
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