Is Latin America Moving to the Right?

Recent elections and polls show several Latin American countries leaning conservative, but analysts and politicians should look beyond ideology and ask whether the upcoming elections’ winners will serve people’s needs, writes Stephanie Miller.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, left, and Brazilian President Inácio Lula da Silva, right, illustrate the growing right-leaning trend in Latin America. Martinelli, a conservative, defeated his center-left opponent in elections earlier this year, while leftist Lula's approval rating remains high but his recently announced chosen successor trails the opposition in polls. (AP/Eraldo Peres)
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, left, and Brazilian President Inácio Lula da Silva, right, illustrate the growing right-leaning trend in Latin America. Martinelli, a conservative, defeated his center-left opponent in elections earlier this year, while leftist Lula's approval rating remains high but his recently announced chosen successor trails the opposition in polls. (AP/Eraldo Peres)

Nearly half a decade ago the dominant political story in Latin America was the growing strength of leftist movements, often called the “rise of the left,” and a string of electoral victories by left-leaning candidates throughout the region. But now that the region is entering a new wave of presidential and parliamentary elections, the scales may be tipping away from the leftist trend as a significant number of polls show conservative candidates leading in several countries where a leftist president is currently in power. There have also already been conservative electoral victories in several countries where there were formerly either left-leaning presidents or majorities in congress.

These latest developments may suggest a general trend in the region that can be linked to the global economic crisis’ impact on Latin America. But politicians and analysts of the region should also be asking whether the winners of the elections will address the region’s problems, which go beyond ideology and the global downturn.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 has spread to nearly every corner of the globe, and Latin America has not been immune. One of the economic crisis’ main effects on the region is a reduction in remittances sent there from workers in industrialized countries. After receiving nearly $70 billion in remittances in 2008, a recent study projects that the region will receive only $62 billion in 2009.

And even though the region as a whole was much more prepared to handle the effects of the crisis after six consecutive years of positive economic growth, the global economic recession resulted in a sharp decline in demand for the region’s main exports, such as oil, soy, and copper, leading to higher unemployment. After maintaining a regional gross domestic product growth rate of 4.2 percent in 2008, Latin America’s growth rate is expected to fall to -1.9 percent in 2009 with unemployment levels reaching 9 percent.

It’s still not clear whether what looks like an unfolding right-leaning trend in Latin American politics is the region’s response to the global economic crisis, and a survey of recent elections and polls doesn’t give conclusive results.

On the one hand you have the recent presidential election in Panama and parliamentary elections in Argentina, in which opposition conservative candidates defeated their competitors. On May 3 of this year Ricardo Martinelli defeated the former President Martín Torrijos’s chosen successor―former Housing Minister Balbina Herrera―taking nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. Martinelli campaigned on a platform emphasizing the need to battle rising public insecurity and provide business solutions to the challenges posed by the global economic crisis that began in 2008.

In Argentina recent parliamentary elections dealt a blow to left-leaning President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the ruling Peronist Party, which lost seats in both houses of congress. Largely viewed as a referendum on Fernández de Kirchner’s government, the Peronist party was defeated in Argentina’s five largest provinces and Fernández de Kirchner’s husband—former president Néstor Kirchner—lost the battle for a congressional seat in Buenos Aires. The government has lost considerable support for having nationalized the country’s pension system and for tax increases levied on farm exporters during the global economic downturn, which led to four months of protests and road blockades.

Then there are cases like Brazil and Chile, where left-leaning presidents are still very popular, yet current polling for upcoming presidential elections shows that opposition and more conservative-leaning candidates are in the lead. In Chile socialist President Michelle Bachelet enjoys a 73 percent rate of approval. Yet current polling for the upcoming presidential elections in December 2009 shows conservative opposition candidate Sebastián Piñera leading Bachelet’s chosen successor, former President Eduardo Frei, by nearly 10 percentage points.

Leftist Brazilian President Inácio Lula da Silva’s approval rating remains above 75 percent and is among the highest in the region. Yet similar to the situation in Chile, Lula’s recently announced chosen successor, Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff, trails São Paulo State Governor Jose Serra, an opposition candidate, by nearly 20 points. Brazil’s 2010 presidential elections remain a year away―plenty of time for Rousseff to close the gap in voter preference―but the fact that an opposition candidate is currently polling so strongly even as Lula remains widely popular is noteworthy.

And then there is the case of Mexico, where the conservative ruling party, the Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN, lost the midterm parliamentary elections held recently in July 2009 to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI―a more centrist or left-leaning party than the PAN. Mexico has been particularly hard hit by the economic crisis due to its proximity and economic interdependence with the United States. Even though a host of factors are influencing Mexico’s electoral politics—such as high rates of public insecurity and violence due to the presence of powerful drug trafficking organizations—Mexico’s poor economic performance during the last year clearly had an impact on electoral results.

The takeaway for Latin America’s politicians and analysts is that keeping tabs on whether conservative-leaning or left-leaning candidates win this next round of elections is secondary to whether the winners of these electoral contests provide solutions to the region’s problems, which apart from the economic crisis’ effects include corruption, inequality, institutional weakness, and rising public insecurity. If the ruling parties and governments do not or have not sufficiently addressed the full range of issues by the time the next election cycle begins—rather than focusing only on the economic situation today—we may see an electoral response that favors opposition candidates throughout the region, regardless of ideology.

As long as the democratic process unfolds in each country in a clear and transparent manner, hopefully the dominant political story of this next round of elections won’t be another rendition of “the rise of the left” or the “return of the right,” but rather will focus on how the new governments will deliver on their promise for a better future for Latin America’s people.

Stephanie Miller is currently a consultant on U.S.-Latin America relations and was formerly the Research Associate for the Americas Project at the Center.

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