Is Populism Returning to Latin America?

This is a crucial year for politics in Latin America: the region’s three most populous countries are holding presidential elections. And in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, polarization is the name of the game, with populists of the right and the left the front-runners.
SANTIAGO – Until recently, it seemed that Latin America had eluded the great white shark of populism, just as North America and Europe swam toward it with eyes wide shut. Yes, Nicolás Maduro’s chavista regime continues to imprison citizens and wreck Venezuela’s economy. Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua keep changing the rules of the game so that they can be reelected indefinitely. But the electoral defeat of the kirchnerista variety of Peronism seemed to mark a turning point in Argentina. So did the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the replacement of her failed economic policies with an approach that recognizes that fiscal debts and deficits cannot keep growing forever.
The tone of politics in the region seemed to be changing for the better, too. The shrill accusations that turn all political adversaries into enemies seemed to be giving way to conciliation and negotiation, reflected, for example, in the important though short-lived agreements that permitted economic reforms at the start of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency in Mexico.
Well, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…
This is a crucial year for politics in Latin America: the region’s three most populous countries are holding presidential elections. And in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, polarization is the name of the game, with populists of the right and the left the front-runners.
Start with Colombia, which votes first, in May. Former President Álvaro Uribe, a populist conservative, won support by advocating relentless armed confrontation with the FARC guerrillas, and then by opposing the 2016 peace accord. The candidate he is backing, Iván Duque, leads in the polls, buoyed by an overwhelming victory in a March 11 primary in which an unprecedented 5.9 million voters took part. His likely opponent in the second-round runoff is Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla who also served as Bogotá mayor. Although another candidate could still sneak into the second round, the establishment faces an uphill battle.
The outcome of Brazil’s election, to be held in October, is even more uncertain. At the center of the country’s political soap opera is popular former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who faces 12 years in prison after his conviction for corruption was upheld in January. He remains popular, but the chances that he will run seem to shrink every day. That leaves possible leftist contenders – whether from Lula’s Workers’ Party or from others – struggling to catch up with the unlikely man of the moment: Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman and former paratrooper, whom the New York Times recently described as a “far-right provocateur” with a long history of “incendiary remarks belittling women, blacks and gays.” Several candidates are trying to seize the middle ground, but none has managed to shine in polls.
JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP/Getty Images Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Mexico, which votes in July, does not hold a runoff. Whichever candidate gets one more vote than the others becomes president. And that candidate, polls suggest, could well be Andrés Manuel López Obrador, universally known as AMLO, a populist veteran of two previous presidential races. He has mellowed recently and disavowed some of his past proposals, such as nationalizing banks and industry and pulling Mexico out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
There are at least four lessons to be learned from the possible success of this new generation of Latin American populists.
First: It’s not the economy, stupid! The economies of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are growing, albeit slowly. But compared to the high inflation, wobbly finances, and unstable currencies that have often accompanied elections in these countries (especially in Brazil and Mexico), it is hard to deny that macroeconomic management has improved and local economies have become much more stable.
The improvement is especially pronounced in Brazil, which under Rousseff experienced its deepest recession on record. Since her impeachment, economic recovery has taken hold, with 1% growth in 2017 expected to accelerate to 2-3% in 2018. The unemployment rate, at 12%, is still very high, but it dropped every month throughout last year. Yet these gains have not raised the approval rating of Rousseff’s centrist successor, Michel Temer, who is hugely unpopular. Nor have they fueled support for any of the candidates who are promising to stick to similar economic policies.
The second lesson will be familiar to students of American politics: a tough law-and-order approach, including an expanded right to bear arms, pays off politically. Crime and violence are the most salient issues for Latin American voters today. Complex solutions, such as prison reform and new drug laws, may be technically and morally right, but they do not translate into electoral support; a promise to shoot thieves (or guerrillas) does. That is what Uribe and his followers have been offering Colombians for years. And that is what Bolsonaro – who has said that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” – is offering Brazilians today.
Third, establishment candidates seem doomed (Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s recently elected president, may be the exception that confirms the rule). In Mexico, former finance and foreign minister José Antonio Meade, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, is an able technocrat and administrator. So is Geraldo Alckmin, the São Paulo governor and candidate of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party. And the same could be said of Colombia’s Germán Vargas Lleras, a former vice-president, minister, and senator. All are darlings of the local business community. And all are languishing in the polls.
Last but not least: Latin American centrist candidates, whether liberal or social democratic, have not managed what Justin Trudeau in Canada or Emmanuel Macron in France did so well: to weave a convincing narrative of why they want to govern and for whom. It is a demanding task indeed. Even appealing figures like Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellín, Colombia, known for turning around the drug-infested city, have floundered.
After a string of corruption scandals throughout the region, voters are understandably skeptical. They ask of every candidate: are you on my side? By promising to shoot criminals, keep out immigrants, and punish bankers, populist candidates in Latin America – like their counterparts in the United States or Europe – provide simple, if disingenuous, answers to that question. Until moderates learn to do the same – without misleading voters – they will remain fodder for the populist sharks.