Democratically elected leaders in Latin America face formidable obstacles


On January 1, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will join one of the most demanding clubs in the world. As Brazil’s elected president, he is the last opposition politician to be elected from a region whose combination of vibrant democracy, strong civil society and serious economic and social problems make a successful presidency a major challenge.

Latin America’s longstanding problems of poverty, inequality, corruption and economic stagnation have been magnified by the pandemic. Voters were ruthless: Jair Bolsonaro’s loss to Lula last month marked the 15th consecutive victory for an opposition party in Latin American elections.

The only leaders in the region who could be sure of being re-elected now would be those who control a system that could guarantee the outcome in advance: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. For other aspirants to high office, the endorsement of a sitting president is tantamount to a kiss of death (with the exception of Mexico, whose populist president is likely to pick a winning successor).

Lula’s election has been misinterpreted by some as signaling the return of the “pink tide” of leftist Latin American governments that ruled the region at the start of this century. This time it’s different.

While most of the incumbents who lost recent elections were conservatives, “it’s not about voters realizing they’re on the left, because we found they’re not,” said Shannon O’Neil, Latin America Researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. At New York. “They’re just mad at what the last four years have given them. It’s frustration with the system, frustration with the economy, with the lack of opportunity and with Covid.

Unlikely figures have been propelled from the fringes into high office, including Colombian Gustavo Petro © Daniel Munoz/AFP/Getty Images

Eager to oust incumbents and despairing of mainstream politicians, voters across the region have propelled unlikely fringe figures into high office. Rural primary school teacher Pedro Castillo in Peru is a prime example, but former urban guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro in Colombia and tattooed former student leader Gabriel Boric in Chile also fit the pattern.

Their honeymoons were short: after 100 days in power, less than half of Colombians approved of Petro’s performance. Boric’s approval rating after eight months has plunged to 33%, not far from the depths probed by his conservative billionaire predecessor Sebastián Piñera.

Castillo fares even worse, as he struggles with corruption investigations and repeated attempts to impeach him. His approval rating is only 16%.

As populists, marginals and authoritarians lament the challenge to vulnerable Latin American democracies, Brazil offers a hopeful sign of a political cycle that is several years ahead of its neighbors.

Brazil’s street protests against poor public services and inequality took place in 2013, six years before Chile and Colombia, and it elected a populist extremist as president in 2018. But this time around, despite the frustration with growing poverty and high food prices, voters did not repeat the experience.

Instead, Brazilians chose Lula, a former radical who governed as a moderate from 2003 to 2010. This time he led a broad pro-democracy 10-party coalition, including center and center figures -right alarmed by Bolsonaro’s tirades against the Supreme Court and the electoral system and his praise of past dictatorships.

“The threat Bolsonaro posed to institutional stability outweighed any reservations some people might have about Lula,” said Bruna Santos, senior research fellow at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute. “Some of Brazil’s urban elite now seem to accept the moderate Lula we saw in this year’s elections.”

It is unlikely, in today’s much tougher global environment, that Lula will be able to repeat the feat of his first two terms, when a booming economy helped him fund a major spending expansion. social. And bolsonarism remains a powerful political force, with strong representation in Congress. O’Neil said that if Lula did not respond to voters’ demands, “I would expect a further outward turn, towards very anti-establishment radical populism.”


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