What to Make of Trends in Latin American Presidential Elections?

By Eric Hershberg*

No Left Turn road sign/ Frisky007 / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The results of the June 19 presidential election in Colombia will surely fuel claims about a putative shift to the left in Latin American politics, but as with the so-called “pink tide” that reached a crest during the 2000s, that is probably not the most significant takeaway from the triumphs of Gustavo Petro and other left-leaning candidates in Latin America. To be sure, over the course of the past year and a half the pandemic-plagued region has witnessed left victories at the polls in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, and now Colombia. But dig deeper and there’s much more to be said.

Scholars, journalists, and pundits are always inclined to think of political trends in Left-Right terms, reflecting the competing political options in Latin America over the past 30 years as elsewhere. When “neo-liberal” governments promoted market-oriented reforms in the 1990s, and were frequently re-elected after restoring macro-economic stability to economies buffeted by inflation and debt, it was seen as a rejection of the statist development models associated with the Latin American left and of “populism.” When the “pink tide” governments abandoned some neoliberal tenets and opted toward more redistributive policies in the 2000s, the notion was that the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, and when inequality diminished modestly amidst a commodity boom, a number of presidents secured re-election. Then, briefly, one heard that a new phase carrying to office leaders such as Macri, Lacalle, Bolsonaro, Duque, Moreno/Lasso, Bukele, and others signaled the triumph of conservatism in the region.

These conclusions ignore, however, that Latin American public opinion has overall been remarkably stable on citizen self-placement along the left‑right divide, with only a modest, and non-linear, shift toward the left. More significantly, the driving logic of Latin American politics since the advance of democracy in the 1980s has been to punish leaders who have presided over a decline in wellbeing, and to reward presidents who are perceived to have delivered material or symbolic rewards to large segments of the population.

  • That is what drove re-elections of leaders who a) conquered inflation during the 1990s (Cardoso, Menem, Fujimori), or b) increased incomes during the commodity boom of the early 21st century, including the Workers’ Party in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Chávez in Venezuela, the Frente Amplio in Uruguay, Correa in Ecuador, and Morales in Bolivia. The dynamic has undercut both sides. Neoliberals suffered in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but “pink tide” governments lost power a few years ago where economic stagnation combined with growing popular disgust at corruption. Countries such as Chile and Colombia were swept by protests prior to the pandemic, and alienation from those in power intensified with the impacts of the pandemic.
  • Leaders and governments typically categorized as “left” are by no means a monolith. Max Cameron and I argued 15 years ago the “pink tide” was a series of “Left Turns,” plural. Chavismo shared little with Uruguay’s Frente Amplio, and the Bachelet governments in a highly institutionalized political system such as Chile’s were never plausibly going to resemble those of Rafael Correa in institutionally hollowed-out Ecuador. Today, the Castillo administration emerges from a fractured party system that makes Peruvian politics extraordinarily different than those of Argentina or Brazil, with their enduring Peronist and Workers’ Party institutions.

In the era of Trump and Bolsonaro, when many political actors across the ideological spectrum are running roughshod over basic norms of democratic governance, it is hugely important that failed rightwing candidates in Honduras, Chile, and Colombia have promptly recognized the victories of Xiomara Castro, Gabriel Boric, and now Gustavo Petro. It is encouraging to see instances where electoral counts were clean and even the most unlikely democrats behaved in ways consistent with democratic rule. This opens space for guarded optimism regarding prospects for Brazil, which is holding elections in November, and even conceivably could bolster the cause of electoral democracy in the United States two years later.

  • In Honduras, Chile and Colombia, the margins were not as close as anticipated, in part because of high turnout (particularly among increasingly mobilized youth, who do seem often to tilt toward the left) and because of painstaking efforts by social justice advocates to mobilize their constituencies politically. Pressures from Latin America’s left, which borrowing political theorist Benjamin Arditti’s account can be understood to represent those sectors of the polity that aim to advance the ideals of the French Revolution –drove important cycles of political protest before the pandemic hit and were sustained over the course of the electoral campaigns of the past year. That poses both opportunities and a real challenge for governments in places like Honduras, Chile, and Colombia, which though vastly different in all sorts of ways find themselves with newly elected progressive leaders having to govern amidst tough economic times and restive populations.

June 21, 2022

*Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.

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1 Comment

  1. Ricardo Barrientos

     /  June 21, 2022

    I completely subscribe your analysis and conclusions Dr. Hersberg. In my humble opinion, among the consequences in the near future of these political events in Latin America, one is particularly puzzling: what will be their impact on the 2023 general election in Guatemala? Will the dark, authoritarian, corrupt and anti-democratic forces now in power in that Central American country, be rolled up by an emerging progressive movement like those in Honduras or Colombia (perhaps closer to Guatemala than Brazil), or they are now well warned about that risk for them, and will try to do anything, even turning violent, to prevent it? In this era of social networks and fast-moving information, are these political events in the region being read by the common -mainly poor- Guatemalan, especially the young majority, many of them voting for the first time in 2023?

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