What remains of the good old times for the left?
After a lengthy period of support for left-wing governments and coalitions, the tide in the region has turned back towards conservatives who must also overcome hurdles in order to hold onto power
If the first 15 years of the 21st century were characterised by the rise and rule of leftist governments in Latin America, recent elections have seen the end of some of those elections and the arrival of movements on the right of the political spectrum into office.
And while the electoral problems facing leftist leaders seeking office have not subsided, analysts point out that economic variables and the political uncertainty and volatility that US President Donald Trump and his approach to the region mean that conservative incumbents in the major capitals also have their work cut out for them if they want to hold onto power after the next round of elections.
Presidential elections in Ecuador next weekend, in which President Rafael Correa isn’t running, will provide a hint of what may come next as voters in Chile at the end of 2017 will be deciding on a replacement for President Michelle Bachelet — with many predicting a return for former right-wing president Sebastián Piñera to the Palacio de la Moneda.
While many authors agree on differentiating between the “social democratic” left-leaning governments in the region (such as Chile and Uruguay) with those openly ascribing to the so-called Bolivarian approach (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) — with Argentina and Brazil somewhere in the middle during the Kirchner and the Lula and Rousseff years — there is a consensus that the previously invicible left has been saddled with recessions and poor economic results and either faced stern tests at the polls or suffered defeats outright.
Trouble first manifested itself with the removal in a coup of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from office — a close Hugo Chávez ally — in 2009 by military officers upon orders from the Supreme Court.
Afterwards the impeachment of former Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo in 2012 dealt the left another defeat. The former bishop had been elected in 2008, dealing a blow to decades of rule by the conservative Colorado Party.
Since then, 12 years of Victory Front (FpV) rule in Argentina came to end in 2015 as Daniel Scioli was shaded in a runoff by President Mauricio Macri, with one of the reasons given for Scioli’s defeat as his ambiguous relationship with the core tenets of the FpV. Macri, aided by divisions in the Peronist party and the votes he drew from Sergio Massa, has since emerged as one of the leading right-of-centre regional figures and has built his political capital by distancing himself as much as possible from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
As such, Macri has sought to build a political relationship with Brazilian President Michel Temer. Temer, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) was first elected as vice president on Dilma Rousseff’s ticket in 2011 — joining forces with Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT) for years before ultimately supporting the impeachment process against Rousseff along with the centrist PMDB. While the PT and its supporters have denounced a coup and those in the opposition denied those claims vehemently, it is plain to see that the Temer administration has shifted policy to the right with spending freezes and a more market-friendly approach.
Even if Bolivian President Evo Morales continues to have high approval ratings, support for his MAS movement has been slowly declining in successive elections or referenda and his current and (in theory) final term is set to expire in 2020. The MAS has however floated the possibility of constitutional reform to enable him to stand for re-election — suggesting a lack of an obvious political successor able to carry the MAS flag in his stead. Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno, heading the Alianza PAÍS ticket, also lacks the political nous that has propelled Correa to multiple presidential terms and it remains to be seen if he can win the elections outright next Sunday without heading to a runoff.
As the creator and primary exponent of the Bolivarian “revolution” Venezuela has gone from being at the centre of the leftist surge in the region — with late president Hugo Chávez at the forefront of the political rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), for example — to its current situation of semi-permanent political and economic crisis. The subsequent election of President Nicolás Maduro has been followed up by mass protests, opposition efforts for a recall referendum, ballooning inflation and shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicine. The opposition, split among itself with various members seeking a leadership role, won the most recent legislative election in a landslide at the end of 2015 and is seeking to take advantage of Maduro’s low approval ratings.
Whereas Colombia has remained solidly right of centre and Uruguay’s Broad Front (Frente Amplio) for the moment continues to rule in Montevideo — albeit alternating between the moderate Tabaré Vázquez and the further left-leaning José Mujica — Chile continues to bounce between the left-wing and right-wing coalitions. Michelle Bachelet, elected to a second term starting in 2014, is currently facing extremely low approval ratings and the race for the presidency features none other than her predecessor Piñera. The prospects of a Bachelet - Piñera - Bachelet - Piñera sequence of presidencies cannot be ruled out, signalling perhaps the difficulty of either camp to convincingly address the political demands of their societies.
Finding an explanation
“The impression is that leftist movements in Ecuador and Boliva for example started well and then were captured by a process of personalism surrounding Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, and in that way the sense of progress was reversed. The constitutional reforms that took place in Ecuador and Bolivia had a big impact and that impact continued for five or six years, but the process of personalising politics ensured that there wasn’t a consolidation of institutions, nor of profound change, and in some way the earlier progress was lost,” said Chilean consultant Marta Lagos, executive director of the Latinobarómetro public opinion polling firm in conversation with the Herald.
“In some countries like Venezuela and Ecuador they made the mistake of not having a successor. Who comes next after the terms are up? And that is a problem that Latin American left has got involved in, which is to seek to not leave power. Latin America has a perverse disease, in which politicians seek to perpetuate themselves in power. Look at Chile. There are ex-presidents among the candidates for president. Bachelet, Piñera, (former president Ricardo) Lagos. The names are the same.”
For Lagos, the explanation for the tendency of rulers to confuse their personal ambitions with political office is based on “a state of institutional weakness, in the entire region there hasn’t been any reforms of the state, and there isn’t equality before the law. In almost every country political parties are facing a severe crisis as well.”
And while there are explanations about the decline of the left, such as that they were inefficient at offering their populations public goods due to their policies, for political scientist Andrés Malamud the most convincing argument about the fate of governments in the region is down to two simple and external factors: the global price of commodities and the US interest rates. The exogenous nature of the variables means that “it doesn’t matter what you did in government or if you had good or bad policies, or what ideology you have.” As such, the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 had a relatively minor immediate impact on the region but the subsequent downtick in Chinese economic growth and the more recent increase in US interest rates worsened outlooks for incumbents.
For the senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS) of the University of Lisbon, there are “certainly nuances to this explanation. For example if commodities and rates change in small increments, there is typically enough of a margin for domestic policies to absorb those changes.” Even if commodity prices fall and US interest rates soar — hurting reserves and investment flows — there is still room for governments and politics as usual. Bolivia “managed its situation well, abnormally well given its history of political and economic instability whereas Venezuela managed its situation extraordinarily poorly.”
Even so the change in fortunes in the region was based on a “financial crisis that was essentially Western in scope, and leftist governments in the region were hit by them but they fared well. But then when China stopped growing, and that hit Brazil, and then it spread within the region” said Malamud to the Herald.
That cocktail could be behind some of the electoral results that propelled the conservative parties but the very non-ideological nature of the phenomenon means that it could bite those very governments once again.
“We could very well have a pendulum effect by which parties on different sides of the spectrum enter and exit government based on these variables” Malamud notes.
As such, if Macri, Temer, and even Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) cannot ensure steady economic growth and the reduction of inequality, they may become victims of the very forces that swept them into office.
Headaches for the right and Trump as the unknown quantity
“I am optimistic for the left because there’s nothing new about these right-wing parties. They have the same outlook as the parties of the 1980s and 1990s. Given that success in the previous decade was based on social policies, I think that they are going to run out of support soon. They haven’t learned anything, nothing about what happened, they haven’t understood that austerity deepens inequality and economic recession,” said sociologist and political scientist Emir Sader over the phone from Brazil with the Herald.
Sader, closely associated with the PT, noted that even though Macri and Temer have made a point of building political ties, they had been “banking on a neoliberal restoration with Hillary Clinton and since that didn’t happen they have been orphaned. Macri and Temer met this week and discussed nothing, they had nothing to say to Trump nor to Mexico, nor to their own countries. That shows that the right has lost its way.”
Even if Lagos predicts that the region is in a process of shifting right, there aren’t any guarantees that it will continue to do so if governments do not tackle fundamental problems such as poverty and inequality.
“It is natural when a political force makes it into office by the ballot and it generates a great deal of expectation about the problems that it may be able to solve. If that party is unable to resolve the central problem, voters will try another option. Any government in Latin America needs to work to reduce inequality, privileges, the abuse of powers, improve transparency and tackle corruption. And the incentive for that is changes brought about by elections and there’s the latent threat that a populist be elected from outside the system.”
Omnipresent in the minds of Latin America watchers is the uncertainty that Trump has generated in the region — not only with respect to his sustained rhetoric against Mexico, protectionist measures and the border wall that he has promised — but also with the difficulty that many have in reading what his administration may do in the region.
“It all depends on Trump. If there is radicalisation in rhetoric in the region that becomes anti-US this will benefit the left. For example, now Andrés Manuel López Obrador has a greater political future because of the rise of Trump. If you consider that Mexico ends up loosening its ties with NAFTA or North America it may be interesting to see if Mexico reinserts itself with the rest of Latin America. There is a possible scenario in which there is going to be rhetorical solidarity in the region for Mexico but in practice there could be greater economic competition if Mexico seeks to redirect its exports away from the US and towards Latin America. Mexico could then compete with Brazil, for example, in terms of car exports” said Malamud, who also noted that nationalism does not distinguish between left and right-wing governments. “There have always been right-wing groups that were nationalists and proud of it.” In such a scenario, anti-Trump sentiment may prove beneficial for both sides of the spectrum.
For Sader the rise of Trump unequivocally does signal a fresh breath of air for efforts to politically integrate Latin America, pointing to the prospects of the region coalescing against Washington. “We are going to have a more multipolar world and that allows for greater association with the BRICS and China, it’s still an open process and we need to see what happens in the next two years.”
And in that rejection of both Trump and conservative governments in the region lies Sader’s confidence that the future is bright for the likes of Lula and the incumbents in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. “The variable is Brazil. If Brazil continues on the path of neoliberalism, those governments are going to be isolated, but if Brazil returns to the social justice governments of the past, the balance will shift again.”