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Latin America Policy Journal

Topic / Politics

Shift to the right in Latin America?

This year has been very shocking for most people given the results of popular voting that have taken place in different countries. The first one was the Brexit, which it seems to have taken by surprise not only general population in Great Britain but also political leaders who never thought people would support the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Nearly three months later, Colombians rejected the peace agreement negotiated by the FARC and the Government for more than 4 years, which would have ended up 52 years of conflict. Finally, the most recent presidential election in the US also surprised Americans, after electing a businessman with no political experience and known for his controversial statements about women, immigrants, trade deals, among others.

After witnessing these results, some people have blamed democracy, stating that this type of decisions, at least in the first two cases, should have been taken by political leaders (elected by the people). In the latter case, it has been proposed a reform to the US electoral system to prevent that a president loses the election after winning the popular vote. However, beyond finding an explanation that fits these outcomes, what it is evident about these voting is that there is a desire for change expressed by a segment of the population. In most cases, this request has been underestimated or ignored, though it played a major role in these elections and even defined the results.

In the case of the United Kingdom and the US, there was an unsatisfied middle class, with very conservative views of the economy that has not been benefited by the economic growth in the last decades. In the case of Colombia, there was a more heterogeneous group, composed of Evangelical Christians who thought the peace agreement was changing the “traditional” values of the Colombian society, but mainly, a group of people who was not willing to give some ground on impunity but paradoxically who were not the most affected by the conflict. This should bring the attention of politicians to address the concerns of this population in order to avoid further polarization and obtain better results that benefit the majority of the population.

In the context of Latin America, there is a growing non-conformist group that opposes to the establishment with claims that go from increasing access to public services such as education and health, to stopping the corruption of the government. In Brazil, even though presidential elections in 2014 reelected Dilma Rousseff from the Worker’s Party, a huge scandal of corruption, added to the country’s poor economic performance, ended in an impeachment that removed her from office. This process was completely legitimized by Brazil’s population, who demonstrated their anger against political class in several protests, from 2013 until last Tuesday. In fact, last municipal elections marked a turning point to the right, in which the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDM) won the majority of municipalities.

For some Brazilians who wanted change, the PSDM offered a way out of the policies implemented since 2003 by the former president Lula da Silva. This is consistent with Brazil’s large protests at the beginning of 2016, where mostly white, middle income class complained of the poor economic situation and increased state control over the economy that discourages investors. In the case of Peru, the right turn was already exhibited in the past presidential elections, where Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker and an economist from Oxford University, became president, proposing major changes to economic policies such as strengthening small businesses and reducing bureaucracy. This result was in spite of the fact that Veronica Mendoza, from the Broad Front Party, offered a more drastic change from the current political establishment.

Chile was one of the first countries that rose up against the government with massive protests led by students between 2011 and 2013, demanding a change in the education system, coupled with discontent for the social inequality that the country faces. The most recent protests in October and November this year, against the pension scheme, also prove the high discomfort of the Chilean population. In some way, recent municipal elections in Chile reaffirmed this inconformity with Michelle Bachelet’s administration, since the majority supported the Chile Vamos coalition of centre-right and right parties, even though abstention was 66%.

Latin American countries shared several features in these last elections that could potentially affect upcoming elections in countries like Ecuador (2017), Chile (2017) and Colombia (2018). The first one is the polarization that arises with campaigns, confronting population against each other. This confrontation culminates with one group as the winner and therefore the recipient of the benefits. In some cases, like in Brazil and Colombia, the Evangelical Christians have played a major role since they represent a large proportion of the population, but share some conservative positions about gender ideology (Colombian’s plebiscite), abortion (US campaign) and gay rights, which society had already claimed as a victory given recent legislative reforms. Second, there is a need for change that an increasing group of the population is claiming. All the elections, local and presidential, showed nonconformity with the current political class, a position against the establishment and exasperation with the status quo. Beyond opposition to current policies, people in Latin America want a different approach to the numerous unsolved issues that each country has.

Third, reelections in a broad sense (meaning a reelection of the same political party) are overrated. It started as a good idea for politicians so they could pursue long-term goals and show real changes in the economy. However, more than two periods of grip on state power requires structural changes to change the course from previous administration, and also gives people the feeling that political parties want to perpetuate in power indefinitely. Fourth, as a result of polarization, there is a lack of real proposals in the debate, where main discussions are about personal issues and allegations of fascism, which frustrate the public. And finally, in some recent Latin American elections, there is no candidate that meets the political demands of this growing non-conformist group that presses for a change. In this sense, most people are not voting to support a particular candidate, but against the other one.

These common issues are not prevalent only in Latin America, but also in many countries around the world, which place importance on the fact that addressing the concerns of this population should be a priority on political agenda. We should not be surprised in upcoming elections if a right-wing candidate that challenges the establishment wins, which in some cases will mean a step backward or a progress. Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform, which was also a referendum for the current prime minister, just as the Colombian peace agreement plebiscite was for Santos, showed that Italians do not support current political structure and want to change the status quo.