The Resilience of the Left in Latin America

4 MINS READFeb 20, 2017 | 21:08 GMT
The Resilience of the Left in Latin America
When Argentine President Mauricio Macri stands for re-election in 2019, his government will almost certainly face some pushback from voters who find themselves paying more for things like water, electricity and natural gas.

Editor's Note: In Ecuador, the incumbent leftist government's hand-picked successor is leading in the polls and could be declared president within days. But depending on vote margins, he could face a runoff against a more conservative opponent. To add context to the election, we're republishing this report from September 2016 on the decline of the left in Latin America. Over the past few years, the left-wing governments that once dominated Latin American politics have receded in favor of more conservative, business-friendly administrations. If Ecuador's ruling Alianza Pais coalition is ultimately defeated, it would represent yet another loss for Latin America's left. 

The political tides have turned in Latin America. Over the past few years, countries that had elected left-wing populists now find themselves led by administrations at the center, and in some cases to the right, of the political spectrum. But the change of fortune may be short lived. The region has a historical predilection to populism, and given the economic inequality that still mars many of its countries, populist rhetoric will always appeal to impoverished voters.

Aspiring populist leaders will nonetheless have some pretty daunting challenges to contend with. Slowed growth in China, which bought en masse the commodities on which so many Latin American countries depend, has reduced the growth that supported the political patronage that characterized many populist governments. And just as important, when leftist leaders do return to power, they will probably have less money — which was once so critical to their dynastic success — at their disposal. 

Recent examples of this political reorientation abound. In November 2015, Argentina elected conservative Mauricio Macri as president, ending 12 years of Peronist rule. In August 2016, Brazil impeached President Dilma Rousseff, ending 13 years of Workers' Party rule. And in December 2014, Cuba began to normalize relations with the United States, transforming, albeit more slowly, the communist policies of the past half-century. Meanwhile, Venezuela, a populist bastion that was once the energy benefactor of several nearby states, is beset by economic crisis and political unrest.

Upcoming elections elsewhere threaten to remove governments that were more tacitly bound by left-wing principles (not to mention reject what they considered U.S. interference in the region). Ecuador will hold its presidential election in 2017, one that the ruling Alianza Pais coalition may find difficult to win without long-serving President Rafael Correa. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales will keep his job until 2020, but voters notably rejected his bid earlier in the year to grant him another term in office.

These governments generally owe their decline in popularity to the global decline in commodities prices. The leaders who came to power in the early 2000s quickly capitalized on commodities exports, profiting from seemingly insatiable Chinese demand and disbursing funds to their patronage networks. States such as Brazil and Venezuela were able to boost public spending and deliver public works that kept their leaders popular. Over the next few years, economic growth kept voters happy and elected officials in office. But once commodities prices fell, economic growth in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela slowed down and eventually they entered a recession. Voters punished incumbent parties at the polls in Argentina in 2015. Rousseff's approval rates fell so far that she could not even resist impeachment.

New Management

None of these developments are particularly new; the forces that felled leftist governments have been in the works for some time now. What is less clear is how long the political reorientation will last. Even as Bolivia and Ecuador show signs of drifting right, Brazil and Argentina may well revert to the left, considering how politically unpopular their governments have become in righting the financial wrongs of the previous governments.

Brazil's new, centrist president, Michel Temer, is up for election in 2018 (he assumed his position after Rousseff was impeached), and he may have a hard time securing his party's spot at the top. Voters are divided among Temer's Democratic Movement Party of Brazil, the centrist Social Democracy Party of Brazil and the Workers' Party. Moreover, recently proposed pension reform that would reduce spending on pensions and raise the age of retirement has not exactly endeared the public to the ruling party. And former President Luiz Inacio da Silva, one of the most popular political figures in the country, may be able to run against Temer — assuming, of course, he is not indicted for alleged criminal activity.

Similar events are taking place in Argentina. After being elected primarily as a rejection of the economic policies of the administration that preceded it, the Macri administration is slated to raise the price of public utilities several times during its tenure. When Macri stands for re-election in 2019, his government will almost certainly face some pushback from voters who find themselves paying more for things such as water, electricity and natural gas.

And so the two largest economies in South America could, by the end of the decade, be under new management — the very management its voters recently rejected. 

Opportunities Deprived

But that is not to say they would be more hostile to the United States or to businesses that operate there, as was the hallmark of previous populist presidents. Even if Brazil and Argentina do emplace familiar leaders, they may do so under familiar economic circumstances. Low commodities prices will deny them much of the growth they had in more prosperous times. In Argentina, Peronist leaders may be unwilling to take populist measures that could roll back any economic gains made during a Macri administration. And in Brazil, a Workers' Party administration facing a fractured political landscape would be more restricted in how it could act, since any policy or piece of legislation would require buy-in from more parties.

Leftist populism will never fully leave Latin America. It simply resonates too strongly with poorer voters. But the current economic environment in the region differs markedly from the one that ushered in the original turn to the left. Governments that rise to power in the next few years, whether from the left or right, will have fewer resources at their disposal to cement their political gains. And these economic circumstances may deprive them of the opportunity to recreate their past political dynasties.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of the map in this analysis was shaded incorrectly. The error has been corrected.

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