The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
The pink tide in Latin America, which saw a slew of left leaders elected throughout the region during the first decade of the century, has pretty much come to an end.
Right wing presidents have been elected in Chile (2010 and 2017) and Argentina (2015). In Brazil, the political right gained executive power with the impeachment of left president Dilma Rousseff. This development was followed by the election of right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, as president in 2018. While a left president was recently re-elected in Ecuador, policies are becoming increasingly business friendly. The main outlier is Mexico, which recently elected left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). That government is already facing rising business opposition.
When Latin America made the transition to electoral democracy in the mid-1980s, the process was hailed as marking the end to the region’s fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. Recent, events, especially in Brazil, tell a different story. Between 2006 and 2011, it seemed possible that the program of a moderate social democratic program could be reconciled with a neoliberal global orientation: Brazil dramatically reduced poverty, public spending was kept in check, while big businesses expanded both exports and investments abroad. Now we see a sharp turn to the political right in Brazil and the inevitability of policies that will contribute to social deterioration. With 99 percent of the votes in, right populist presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, leads with 46 percent of the vote. He is expected to win the second round of voting on October 28.
Right wing populism, widely seen as a threat to liberal democracy, has been on the rise in the United States and Europe over the last decade. Latin America has a long history of both left and right populist movements, leaders, and governments. It also has had its share of programmatic political parties and leaders committed to social change and substantive democratization. Yet the region’s illiberal democratic features remain stubbornly persistent. There are lessons to be learned from the Latin American experience. Unfortunately, these lessons do not provide much reason for optimism.
Increasingly, right-leaning governments are replacing left regimes in Latin America or, if left governments continue to cling to power, they are adopting policies normally associated with the political right. There has been a shift back to some neoliberal policies that contributed to poverty and inequality in the past. Sympathetic observers placed great hope in the left regimes that came to power between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s—these regimes seemed to be on the right track since they reduced poverty substantially and made inroads into high levels of inequality. What went wrong?
On Sunday, February 4th Ecuador held a popular consultation (consulta popular) on seven questions; five of which were binding while the remaining two are to guide the government in developing future policies. There are strongly opposed opinions on the meaning of this public consultation and on its consequences for Ecuadorian politics and for the political left. The case provides us with insights into the Latin American political dilemma.
Chile’s run-off presidential election, held on December 17, witnessed the victory of billionaire businessman, Sebastían Piñera over the left-wing candidate Alejandro Guillier. This will be Piñera’s second term in office; he served as president between 2010 and 2014. The victory was a substantial one, with Piñera winning 54.6 percent of the vote while Guiller, supported by outgoing left-centre President Michelle Bachelet, garnered 45.4 percent of the vote. Much of the press coverage of the election claims that the Chilean election is part of a general right-ward swing in Latin American politics. However, such an assessment papers over what is really going on—not just for Chile, but for other countries of the region as well.
Only very recently, observers of Latin American politics were proclaiming the decline of the populist left “pink tide, the various regimes that had come to dominate politics in many countries of the region through much of the 2000s. In 2015 and 2016, centre right leaders obtained a string of notable victories. Mauricio Macri was elected president in Argentina, the opposition in Venezuela obtained a landslide victory in congressional elections, Workers Party President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was removed from power through impeachment proceedings, and President Evo Morales of Bolivia lost a referendum to allow him a fourth term as president. However, recent events suggest that the left remains tenaciously resilient.
U.S. politics is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by growing rigidity, extremism and, at times, incidents of violence on the part of pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. What many find most puzzling about the current U.S. administration is how President Trump can continually make what is regarded as outrageous statements without those statements having a substantial detrimental impact on his core base of support. True, his 37% approval rating is one of the lowest so early in a presidential first term. However, even this level of support is difficult to fathom. At the same time, many Democratic supporters have been unwilling to grant the new government even minimal legitimacy, apparently convinced that Trump’s road to the White House was paved with Russian complicity. Europe is now more politically polarized than ever before with the rise in popularity of populist right fringe parties, the result, according to reports, of a general ideological shift.
Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, a new era in the U.S. approach to international trade agreements is about to emerge. Donald Trump has railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the worst trade agreement ever signed by the U.S. and promised to withdraw support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) if elected. Although not as strident, Clinton, in a reversal of her past pro free trade position, now says that she would renegotiate NAFTA and has come out in opposition to the TPP. Of course, rising opposition to economic globalization and trade integration is not confined to the U.S. as Brexit amply illustrates. We now face a critical moment in the history of global capitalism.
After twenty hours of debate, the Brazilian Senate voted this week to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff stepped down from the presidency on Thursday and was replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer. Given the strong sentiment in favor of initiating the impeachment process (55 votes in favour out of 81) Rousseff is not likely to return to power.
There are at least three important questions arising from these events.
With the decline in commodity prices, Latin America faces the possibility of a downward political and economic cycle. During the last fifteen years, as the region has enjoyed economic prosperity with the rise of commodity prices on the international market, left/centre governments spent liberally on the expansion of social policy initiatives. These measures spread the wealth among all socio-economic groups in ways that have not occurred in the past. Poverty declined and there has even been a reduction in the region’s high level of inequality. However, these countries now faces a new critical juncture as left/centre governments face corruption scandals, loss of political power, widespread protests, and the rise of the political right. The commodity boom papered over both institutional inadequacies and hard redistributive decisions. Governments spread the wealth but did not substantially redistribute it, ensuring that middle and upper classes retained an inordinate share of state largesse. Faced with economic downturns and declining state revenues, governments will now have to make hard decisions about the allocation of diminishing state resources. This reality is already giving rise to an increased level of political polarization and contestation, a development that, in combination with the economic downturn itself, may worsen prospects for continued progress toward social inclusion.