To answer the question at the top of this article, we must focus on the electoral results of recent years. The center-left and the left defeated their right-wing rivals in several countries in the region.
Thus, in May 2018, center-left Carlos Alvarado won the presidency of Costa Rica in a close election. In July of the same year, Manuel López Obrador came to power in Mexico. In 2019, the center-left won the presidency of Panama with Laurentino Cortizo. In October 2019, Alberto Fernández ended Mauricio Macri’s government and his attempt to be re-elected in Argentina. More recently, in October 2020, Luis Arce of MAS clearly won the presidential elections in Bolivia, and in February 2021, the candidate backed by Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Andrés Arauz, won the first round in Ecuador.
While in Mexico, López Obrador ended a long period of presidencies that can be placed in the center-right spectrum, in the cases of Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, left-wing forces that won were not new to citizens. These electoral processes seem to indicate that times are not right for the right in Latin America.
However, this thesis should be qualified because, in this same period – from 2018 to 2020 – there were also important triumphs of center-right and right-wing candidates, like those that took place throughout 2018. during the presidential elections in Paraguay, Colombia and Brazil.
Likewise, in 2019, Luis Lacalle Pou’s victory ended 15 years of leftist governments in Uruguay. In 2020, Luis Abinader, candidate for a New Dominican Party (PRM) still difficult to locate ideologically, but with close ties to the island’s business community, ended the three-year period of PLD governments.
So if we look at the region globally and, while waiting for what will happen in the coming months when different presidential elections take place (Peru, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras and second round in Ecuador), it is not possible to say conclusively that “the pink tide” – which fell in the first decade of this century – is back.
The elections scheduled for this year will be held again – as in many previous examples – in a climate of acute economic and social crisis, made worse by the effects of the pandemic. In that sense, it is worth rephrasing the question and trying to reveal whether this scenario is more favorable to the left or to the right.
Carrying out this exercise in transversal terms is risky, due to the heterogeneity and plurality of political forces on the left and on the right in each country. If countries can share a cycle and a context in economic terms, the differences are marked and each case has its inevitable particularity. For this reason, the following paragraphs are a reflection on political trends and sequences and not an exhaustive analysis which must necessarily focus on each country.
The left turn before
Among the various causes of the shift to the left in the first decade of the 2000s were the effects of structural adjustments framed by neoliberalism in previous years, which led to an increase in poverty, inequality and social discontent.
The presidents of the left of the time, but also those of the right, since the latter continued to govern in different countries, were favored in economic terms by the rise in the price of raw materials on the international market. The income generated was fundamental – in many cases – to implementing redistributive policies that reduced poverty and inequality.
However, the economic situation started to deteriorate from 2012, causing an economic slowdown in the region. In the political arena, this economic cycle has been accompanied by the departure from power of some of the supporters of the turn to the left, either by electoral defeats or by questionable political judgments such as what happened in Paraguay in 2012 or in Brazil in 2016.
As a result of these events, the debate began to focus on the exhaustion of left-wing governments and the shift to right-wing leadership. Although, more than a trick, what happened was a vow of punishment for those who had been in power.
Crisis and pandemic: the role of the state
The end of the commodities boom has had visible effects on the Latin American economy since 2014 and dramatic social effects. The percentage of the population in vulnerable situations has increased, increasing the number of people without social protection in the most unequal region of the world.
For its part, in the field of political values, Latin America has not escaped the global trend of discontent with politics and the questioning of political elites plagued by numerous cases of corruption. . The discomfort over representative democracy and the developed policies, as well as the increase in disaffection, resulted in an escalation of the protests which led to 2019 as a year of huge social explosions in different Latin American countries. .
This is the scenario in which COVID-19 emerges, which worsens social inequalities while making visible the negative impact that policies of reducing public spending in the health sector and privatizations defended by neoliberalism and, of generally, by the political actors closest to the right.
In this sense, if citizens associate the levels of state performance in dealing with the pandemic with the structural adjustments of neoliberalism, the law can fall into the preferences of the citizens.
Likewise, the likelihood of social protests recurring when the incidence of the virus falls is high, as the problems have not only disappeared, but have been exacerbated during this very difficult year. Governments will therefore have to adapt to the demands of different social sectors.
On the right, it would be a dangerous strategy to maintain the defense of austerity and the status quo in the face of social demands and needs in these difficult times.
It should be remembered that the emergence of new actors and leaders who challenge liberal democracy, and in Latin America there are examples both on the right and on the left, is linked – among other causes – to the inability to channel the demands of sectors which cannot find representation in the traditional parties. In this sense, the indicators of citizens’ dissatisfaction with representative democracy in the region are extremely alarming and should concern both the left and the right, if they are to survive the onslaught of populism.