WLuis Inacio Lula da Silva The left-wing Workers’ Party won Brazil’s presidential election in October, and many commentators rushed to paint the map of Latin America red. In January, the seven most populous countries will all have centre-left governments for the first time. Some see this as a radical change, likening it to the “pink tide” of the early 2000s, in which Lula (as we all know) and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez were prominent. This shift to the left continued for two or more presidential terms.
Looking more closely, however, there is reason to believe that a swing to the right is about to begin, and possibly more profoundly. First, the dominant trend in recent elections has been anti-incumbent: Some form of opponent has won the past 16 free presidential races in the region. Since the end of the commodities boom that benefited Chávez, Lula and others, the economy has slowed and the government has generally struggled. Political cycles have become shorter.
Argentina’s presidential election next October could start to shift to the right. The ruling left-wing Peronists failed to control inflation and were divided. Next year’s presidential elections in Paraguay and Guatemala could also favor the right.
Despite widespread discontent with the incumbent, some of the left’s victories have been marginal. Lula beat right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, whose record on pandemics has been disastrous, by just 1.8 percentage points. In Colombia this year, leftist Gustavo Petro won by three points over eccentric outsider Rodolfo Hernandez. Both winners are distrusted by many voters. In Lula’s case, it was because of corruption and economic mismanagement when his party was in power the previous term. Meanwhile, Mr Petro has come under suspicion for his past enthusiasm for Chavez, his provocative tendencies and his tumultuous tenure as mayor of the capital, Bogota.
Politicians on the left benefit from concerns about inequality and poverty. However, this is a third factor that could help the right, with a string of victories on the left not reflecting a major shift in the ideological preferences of voters.
lapA regional poll showed about half of respondents identified with the political centre, with 20 percent each on the left and 20 percent on the right. Those numbers haven’t changed much in a decade or more. But there is a caveat: lap found that right-wing identification in Brazil increased from 18% in 2008 to 32% in 2019 (its latest finding), while Argentina saw a smaller increase in right-wing sympathy.
There could be several reasons for this.One is an increase in support for conservative values such as religion, family, and family motherland (motherland). “Religion may not have increased, but it may have become a more important factor in how people vote,” Noam Lupu said. lapAnother reason, says Esther Solano of the University of São Paulo, is the fear of falling into social order. This is evident among members of the vulnerable new lower middle class who see themselves as self-made and in favor of economic freedom. Elsewhere, support for indigenous peoples on the left has prompted some conservative debaters to recently defend the value of “civilization” in the Spanish colonial conquest of the Americas.
Another factor is crime, for which the right tends to have stronger rhetoric and the left has few answers. Finally, as Ms. Solano points out, right-wingers tend to be more “digital” on TikTok and other social media platforms. The left is not very good at communicating digitally with young people.
These trends coincide with a resurgence of the hard right in Latin America, influenced by Trumpism and European populism. It recently held meetups in Brazil and Mexico. Yet its rise may be the biggest problem facing the wider centre-right.
In Argentina, Javier Milei, a libertarian who appeals to the aspiring TikTok generation, has expressed admiration for Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larei. The Tower (Horacio Rodríguez Larreta) posed a serious threat. Otherwise, Mr Rodriguez, of the mainstream centre-right, might expect to win the presidency easily. In Chile’s presidential election a year ago, the leftist Gabriel Borric won in part because his conservative opponent, José Antonio Castor, was too extreme. Trends are not inevitability. But the underlying message is that the left still has work to do if it is to build on its recent success.■
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Great musician and critic of the Cuban regime Pablo Milanés dies (November 24)
The race to become Latin America’s next top development banker (November 10)
Lula’s foreign policy ambitions will be affected by circumstances (November 3)