Latin America’s democratically elected leaders face daunting odds

On January 1, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva will join one of the most sought-after clubs in the world. As Brazil’s president-elect, he is the latest opposition politician to win a government in a region where the combination of vibrant democracy, strong civil society and severe economic and social challenges make a successful presidency a formidable challenge.

Latin America’s long-standing problems of poverty, inequality, corruption and economic stagnation have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Voters were unforgiving: Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat of Lula last month marked the 15th victory for an opposition party in a Latin American election.

The only regional leaders who could now be sure of re-election would be those who control a system that can guarantee the outcome in advance: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. For other high office contenders, an incumbent president’s endorsement is tantamount to the kiss of death (with the exception of Mexico, where a populist president is likely to pick a winning successor).

Lula’s election was misinterpreted by some as a sign of the return of the “pink tide” of leftist Latin American governments that ruled the region in the early years of this century. This time is different.

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Shannon O’Neill, senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations, said while most of the incumbents who lost in recent elections were conservative, “it’s not about voters realizing they’re left-wing because we We found that they are not.” in New York. “They are just angry about what the last four years have brought them. It’s frustration with the system, frustration with the economy, lack of opportunity and Covid. “

Colombian President Gustavo Petro after winning his second term as president, in Bogota, Colombia in June 2022
Some potential figures have been moved from the sidelines to the top flight, including Colombia’s Gustavo Petro © Daniel Munoz/AFP/Getty Images

The region’s electorate, eager to overthrow incumbent presidents and frustrated with traditional politicians, pushed some potential figures from the fringes to high office. Rural elementary school teacher Pedro Castillo in Peru is a prime example, but former urban guerrilla Gustavo Petro in Colombia and tattooed former student leader Gabriel Borich in Chile also fit the bill.

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Their honeymoon was short-lived: after 100 days on the job, less than half of Colombians agreed with Petro’s performance. Borich’s approval rating has plummeted to 33 percent eight months later, not far from the lows of his conservative billionaire predecessor Sebastian Pinera.

Castillo is even worse as he struggles with corruption investigations and repeated impeachment attempts against him. His approval rating is just 16 percent.

While Latin America’s fragile democracies are being wrestled by populists, alienators and authoritarians, Brazil offers a sign of hope from a political era that is 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, despite the disappointment of the increase in poverty and high food prices, the voters did not vote again. experience

Instead, Brazilians elected Lula, a one-time radical who ruled as a moderate from 2003-10. This time, he led a broad pro-democracy coalition of 10 parties, including prominent center and center-right figures concerned by Bolsonaro’s criticism of the supreme court and voting system and his praise of past dictatorships.

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“The threat that Bolsonaro presented to institutional stability was greater than the reservations that some people had about Lula,” said Bruna Santos, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute. “It seems that part of Brazil’s urban elite is now accepting the moderate Lula we saw in this year’s elections.”

It is likely that in today’s global environment it will be much more difficult for Lula to repeat the feats of his first two terms, when a booming economy helped him finance a huge expansion of social spending. And Bolsonarism remains a powerful political force with a strong representation in the Congress. O’Neill said that if Lula doesn’t respond to the demands of the voters, “I expect him to turn outward again, to radical anti-establishment populism.”

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