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The Signal
Targets of Discontent
What went wrong for the wave of leftist leaders elected in Latin America? Javier Corrales on the enduring appeal—and inherent danger—of authoritarian populism.
Frederik Trovatten
Frederik Trovatten
The left-wing populist and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a heavy favorite to return to power in his country’s October presidential elections. If he can hold the lead he currently has in the polls, his victory will put the six largest economies in Latin America—Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and now Brazil—under the control of left-wing populists. But those already in office in these countries are seeing dramatic declines in their approval ratings, with the exception of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose favorability has dropped only modestly this year. Street protests have broken out against Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, and Peru’s legislature has twice tried to impeach President Pedro Castillo. Voters in Chile seem certain to reject a new constitution that was the centerpiece of President Gabriel Boric’s election campaign. What’s happened here?
Javier Corrales is the chair of the Political Science Department at Amherst College and the author of five books on Latin America. As Corrales explains it, the Latin American leftists now in power came to it through widespread voter disappointment with the right-wing leaderships preceding them—and are now the objects of such disappointment themselves. While some external causes are contributing to the pattern, particularly with inflation topping 10 percent across much of the region, Corrales says, the new left-wing leaderships’ loss of support is also from serious mistakes they’ve made themselves—often as the result of a shared tendency toward authoritarian populism. Lula and all five of Latin America’s current left-wing populist presidents regularly use polarizing rhetoric that drives away many citizens, and they frequently use political tactics that undermine their countries’ democratic institutions.
Michael Bluhm: Why have leftists been winning elections throughout Latin America?
Javier Corrales: The region has experienced very strong anti-incumbent sentiment for a couple of decades now. The good news is that most countries here have political systems that allow anti-incumbent sentiment to produce political change. It swings from left to right—the current crop of left-wing ruling parties succeeded right-wingers—but the constant is that ruling parties become unpopular, get defeated, and new parties come in. Which is a victory for democracy.
The bad news, though, is that there’s still so much discontent and anti-incumbent sentiment. I’d highlight two factors. The first is about the state: Latin American states are tremendously underfunded. Their capacity to collect taxes is underdeveloped, and the tax base is not very wealthy. They don’t generate tax large revenues, so the administrative capacity of the state is very weak. As a result, democratically elected governments have state apparatuses that can’t deliver services. They have a chronic inability to meet important goals the public expects them to meet: education, infrastructure, healthcare, and security. This is a big problem that isn’t easy to address. Colombia and Chile, for example, are struggling with it, but there aren’t many opportunities to generate new revenues.
The second factor helps explain why the left is so prevalent now, despite not having a great historical record: The region has very high levels of economic inequality. It’s the first thing that many people think about when they think of Latin America. Leftist, populist politics dominate in societies where there’s a lot of inequality, because there’s a mass of people attracted by political rhetoric that promises redistribution and help for the poor. That kind of rhetoric has appealed across democracies down through time, since ancient Greece.
Bluhm: You mention anti-incumbent sentiment. How much of the success of leftist candidates is just due to citizens wanting to vote out the parties who were in office?
Corrales: There’s some of that dynamic, but every time the left or right returns to power, it comes transformed into something new. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, for example, presented his politics as representing an updated left—a younger left, much more oriented around identity issues. In Colombia, incoming President Gustavo Petro chose a very non-traditional vice-presidential candidate: a woman of African descent who’s an environmentalist. It’s a way to say, We’re a new left—not the old left of Marxist economics.
So it’s not entirely cyclical, but there’s a swing between left and right. Political differences in Latin America remain rooted in ideas of the left and the right, so the menu of parties continues to be arrayed between left and right. But every time one of these two poles returns to power, it comes with an updated discourse and outward appearance.
Bluhm: Authoritarian populism has been on the rise globally for some years now, and Latin America has a history of this kind of anti-democratic style. How much of a tendency toward authoritarian populism do you see in today’s leftist leaders?
Corrales: The essence of liberal democracy is its limits on the executive branch. Many presidents would like to supersede those limits, and this temptation is pervasive in the region. If a system is to stop authoritarian moves, either the presidents will have a personal belief in the value of checks and balances, or the system has to block them directly. To advance authoritarian moves, presidents need the institutional capacity to go forward with them.
But to answer your question, I’d look at a particular country’s set of institutions. Do those institutions convey to the president, Don’t go there, or you’re going to run into trouble? Some countries offer more serious roadblocks than others; there’s a lot of variation.
Instead of focusing on whether some leftist movement has authoritarian characteristics—because there’s always this temptation—we need to focus on whether the system has the ability to contain authoritarianism.
Jeremy Stewards
Jeremy Stewards
More from Javier Corrales at The Signal:
Leftist movements promise high levels of government spending and redistribution, so in Latin America, they all end up promoting the one economic activity that produces significant revenue in the region: extracting and exporting natural resources. Countries need to get revenue from somewhere, but the states of Latin America are underfunded. Even a mild leftist populist like López Obrador in Mexico has turned enormous attention to the idea of re-nationalizing the oil sector and extracting resources. What differentiates these leftist leaders from one another is the extent to which they go after existing institutions—or alternatively, the extent to which they respect the rules of the game and the system of checks and balances.”
Since 2015, the region has been in an economic slowdown—and in some cases, like Argentina, a recession. The pandemic made it even worse. Latin American countries had started to recover, but now they’re being hit by two external shocks: rising interest rates in the United States and rising energy costs around the world, which are acutely affecting countries that don’t export energy resources. All governments in Latin America are dealing with a very adverse economic environment, which seriously complicates their ability to deliver for their constituents. So all these governments are going to be experiencing declining approval ratings.”
There’s something about these presidents that’s very unappealing to groups on the other side. It’s not just their leftism; it’s the way that they conduct politics—it feels very threatening to their opponents. And there’s a big element of incompetence here—either they’re just not good at their job or their administration flounders as a team. There’s a new paper by a great political scientist, Kurt Weyland, who argues that populism tends to lead to terrible mistakes in office. He argues that if you had a system of checks and balances and greater pluralism, many mistakes could be prevented. But with unchecked populism, stupidity doesn’t get stopped, so you end up with a lot of blunders. As an example, President Pedro Castillo in Peru has been repeatedly nominating corrupt and inept people for public office. The press immediately discovers all sorts of scandals, and the officials have to resign.”
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