The Death of Populism?

Mauricio Macri-Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil)

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” American humorist Mark Twain’s response, more than a century ago, to rumors of his passing.

Since Mauricio Macri was elected president of Argentina on November 27, there has been an outpouring of articles proclaiming the death knell of left wing populism in Latin America—or the end of the “pink tide”, which had brought governments of the left to power in most Latin American nations, starting with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 1999. The headline from the Chicago Tribune was typical: “Macri marks end to golden age of Latin America’s populist left.”  

It is hard to believe, however, that one election, won by a little more than two percent of the vote, signals much of anything for the region as whole.  It was an election, after all, that took place in a country with four years of stunted growth, some 30 percent inflation, and new investment at a standstill. Moreover, Macri and his opponent seemed largely to agree on how to repair the deeply troubled economy, differing mainly on the pace and details of needed policy changes. And there is still the outstanding question of whether the new Argentine government, which will face opposition majorities in both houses of Congress and opposition governors in most provinces, will succeed in implementing its reform program and restarting growth—or whether the economy will continue to falter and disappoint, which could well lead to another political turnaround for this unpredictable nation.

The Argentine election results could even be interpreted as a demonstration of the continuing strength of populism in the country.

Indeed, the Argentine election results could even be interpreted as a demonstration of the continuing strength of populism in the country. Despite its dismal economic record and an uninspiring candidate, the government managed to win nearly 50 percent of the vote. Maybe Latin America is, in fact, abandoning the left and shifting rightward. But it requires more evidence than the Argentine vote to show the diminished appeal of populism and socialism. And it is true that many other left and center-left governments across Latin America are also struggling to maintain support.

In Venezuela, the center-right opposition is projected to win a landslide victory in this Sunday’s parliamentary election—although the government will likely retain a monopoly of power for sometime still. But Venezuela’s political left had already suffered its harshest blow two years ago when its strongman, president-for-life Hugo Chavez died. He was Latin America’s most charismatic and intrepid populist, and the consequences of his passing was aggravated by the almost simultaneous plunge in the price of oil, cutting the cash flow needed to sustain Venezuela’s free-spending, deeply anti-American government. No one expected much from Chavez’s bland and clumsy successor Nicolas Maduro. For many, it is surprising that he has been able to hold onto power for this long, especially after his razor thin victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

Although once viewed by everyone—right, left, and center—as Latin America’s success story of the 21st century, particularly during the presidency of Lula da Silva of the left wing Workers’ Party, Brazil is today widely characterized as a populist disaster.

Although once viewed by everyone—right, left, and center—as Latin America’s success story of the 21st century, particularly during the presidency of Lula da Silva of the left wing Workers’ Party, Brazil is today widely characterized as another populist disaster. There is no question that Lula and (particularly) his successor, Dilma Rousseff, made a host of bad economic choices that have resulted in a deep and prolonged recession. Still, it was only a year ago that Dilma won her second term in a close election, with virtually the same margin as Macri in Argentina. Dilma’s grim showing in popular opinion polls this year—with a favorable rating hovering around ten percent—is not an ideological statement from the Brazilian population. It is instead a pragmatic response to the country’s economic stagnation coupled with the monstrous corruption scandals of her party and government, all compounded by her lackluster political skills. But, she may still manage somehow to remain in office for another three years, which may give her and the Workers’ Party the opportunity to regain some measure of support.

In Chile, the approval ratings of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet plummeted sharply after less than a year into her second term, the consequence of both a slumping economy and a conflict-of-interest scandal involving her son. But, even though Bachelet’s center-left coalition has governed Chile for all but four of the past 25 years, the country—whose economy is the best managed in the region—can hardly be considered populist or part of the pink tide. Nor does the government of Peru, where President Ollanta Humala’s support has all but collapsed, fit the populist mold, although he was once an admirer of Chavez. Nor can anyone claim leftist credentials for Guatemalan President and former army General Otto Perez Molina, who was forced from office this year by relentless street protests following the exposure of his leading role in a bribery and kickback scheme. Or for President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico, whose poll numbers have tumbled in the past year because of expanding violence and multiple corruption charges.

And it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that the populist left is still well-entrenched in few countries where it has had some economic success, Bolivia and Nicaragua, for example, and perhaps Ecuador (although President Raphael Cornea’s support has slipped and he says he will not seek re-election).  And just a year ago, Uruguay’s still popular left-wing coalition, the Frente Amplia, easily won its third straight election. Even in those places where leftist governments have been foundering, they have registered some welcome accomplishments surely worth preserving, particularly the substantially increased emphasis across Latin America on programs and policies to reduce the region’s unacceptable rates of poverty and inequality, which in turn, have helped to produce an expanding, if still vulnerable, middle class.

The left has been diminished in Latin America, but it is early to predict its demise.  A strong comeback is almost certain if more conservative parties and politicians cannot do a better job of governing then they have in the past.  

Latin America’s left has every reason to be worried by current trends. Its power and credibility have declined sharply in many countries—and there is little indication yet of any new gains. Left wing governments, however, are not being rejected for their ideas or policy goals. Rather, they are losing elections and falling in opinion polls because voters  are fed up with their performance—dreadful economic results, wasteful and inefficient bureaucracies, and seemingly unrelenting violence and corruption. The left has been diminished in Latin America, but it is early to predict its demise.  A strong comeback is almost certain if more conservative parties and politicians cannot do a better job of governing then they have in the past.