South America

Betrayed voters are hungry for real change

Richard Lapper charts Latin America's disillusion with corruption and economic malaise as elections loom

Residents of the poor Caracas neighbourhood of Catia protest about their lack of food

When she went to vote last month in Chile’s presidential election Maria José Fredes, 47, an event organizer from Santiago, left her ballot paper blank. Fredes, who has in the past backed the ruling centre-left coalition led most recently by Michelle Bachelet, is disappointed about the choices on offer. 

‘I did not want to vote just against the right. It didn’t seem sufficient.’ She described Alejandro Guillier, a former TV presenter and Bachelet’s intended successor, as a ‘figurehead imposed by the media’.

Fredes isn’t alone in her disillusion. Less than half of Chilean voters – 46.7 per cent – cast a ballot in last month’s contest. And elsewhere in Latin America, where four of the region’s six largest economies − Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela − face elections in the next 12 months, there are similar signs of malaise. 

Politics is increasingly distant from voters’ day-to-day concerns. People are despairing at the ability of politicians to control rising unemployment and crime. Corruption scandals have shredded confidence in the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties that led Latin America’s transition from military rule in the 1980s.

The reversal coincided with the economic downturn after the sharp fall in commodity prices as Chinese growth slowed. Between 2004 and 2014, Latin American economies expanded by an average of between 3 and 4 per cent a year. Poverty rates fell and millions of people moved into formal consumer markets for the first time. 

But since then lower prices for Latin America’s key exports, such as oil, iron ore, copper and soya beans, have led to rising deficits, lower growth and in Brazil and Venezuela deep recessions. Polling evidence suggests, however, that the disillusion is not just driven by economics. 

Latin Barometer, a Santiago-based polling organization that charts opinion in 18 Latin American countries, notes a steady decline in support for democracy since the mid-1990s. In its most recent poll published in October only 53 per cent of respondents said they preferred democracy as a system, down from a high of 61 per cent in 2010. Less than a third of respondents were satisified with democracy and 75 per cent believed its rules were skewed in favour of the rich. 

Although many respondents worry about job, wages and − in Venezuela at least − the availability of food and medicines, Latin Barometer’s surveys suggest a much greater range of concerns. Crime is the single biggest preoccupation. That probably explains why there is growing minority support in some countries for a return to authoritarianism that dominated the region in the late 1960s and 1970s and evidence of strong support for the mano dura or iron fist approach to crime. 

‘Traditional parties perhaps face their biggest challenge in Brazil. Nowhere are politicians more discredited’

Increasing numbers of Latin Americans are angry about corruption, nowhere more so than in Brazil, where the lava jato, or ‘Car Wash’ scandal, has led to the imprisonment of dozens of business and political leaders.

Three former Peruvian presidents are being pursued through the courts, while leaders from Colombia, Ecuador and elsewhere have been caught up in the corruption involving contracts awarded to Brazil’s Odebrecht, a private construction company. Corruption, albeit on a smaller scale, is one factor undermining support for Chile’s centre-left governments.

‘Never have citizens demonstrated so much discontent about such a wide range of issues touching on all areas of society, economy and politics,’ says Latin Barometer, suggesting the crisis may be part of what Larry Diamond, the US political scientist, has termed a ‘democratic recession’. 

Ebbing tides

Initially it seemed that the left-wing leaders such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández in Argentina and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who dominated the region in the first decade of this century, were the biggest victims of this trend. 

The collapse of the commodity boom made the economic policies that they pursued unviable. Financial markets celebrated the ‘ebbing’ of Latin America’s ‘pink tide’, as businessmen politicians such as Mauricio Macri, in Argentina, and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in Peru, rode to office in 2015 and 2016. This notion is supported by the victory in the December 2015 legislative elections for opponents of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who took over after Chávez’s death in 2013, and the failure in a 2016 referendum of another hard-left leader, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, to seek approval to run for a fourth successive term. 

In the past few months, however, it has become evident that the political currents are moving in a more complex way. First, Venezuela − now counting on financial backing from China and Russia − has moved sharply to the left, crushing street protests and closing down the opposition-controlled legislature. 

Second, centre-right and right-wing leaders are finding the going as tough as their left-wing enemies. Argentina’s Macri may be an exception − his supporters scored a significant victory in legislative elections held in October − but few of his conservative colleagues are doing so well. 

In Peru, for example, Kuczynski’s government has stumbled badly and the president’s ratings are worse than those of Donald Trump. The standings of two other business-friendly leaders – Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico and Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia – are not much better. Santos is praised internationally for securing a peace deal with the the left-wing FARC guerrillas. But he is not particularly liked at home. Similarly foreign investors have warmed to Brazil’s new centre-right president, Michel Temer, who took over after Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, yet only about 3 per cent of Brazilians think Temer is doing a good job. 

All of this makes the outcome of the 2018 election battles difficult to predict. The one constant is that Latin America’s traditional political parties are weak. Latin Barometer’s most recent survey says only 15 per cent of respondents had confidence in political parties. 

As Walter Molano, a US-based investment adviser, puts it: ‘After decades of endless corruption . . . most of the Latin American electorate has had it with the mainstream parties.’

Just as in Europe and North America, technological change empowers independents and outsiders. Molano says that traditional parties have been ‘disintermediated’ as candidates try to establish direct links with the electorate. 

The front-runners in Colombia’s election in May next year are all independents. Their number includes German Vargas Lleras, deputy president until March this year, who is mounting his campaign through a citizens’ committee rather than his own party, and Sergio Fajardo, a former governor of Antioquia, who has close links with Colombia’s Greens. 

Recent polls have suggested that were the election to be held today spoiled ballots would win. 

Neither of Mexico’s two largest parties are doing well in the polls before next June’s elections, opening up the possibility of a win for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-winger, whose National Regeneration Movement (Morena), formed only five years ago, has ridden a nationalist revival triggered by Trump’s protectionist policies. 

Traditional parties perhaps face their biggest challenge in Brazil. Nowhere are politicians more discredited. Since the return to civilian rule in 1985 three parties have dominated Brazilian politics, providing all but one of the country’s seven presidents. 

All three have been devastated by the lavo jato scandal. Despite maintaining popularity with the poor, Lula da Silva is unlikely to be able to run as a result of legal proceedings against him. Such weakness at the centre could open up the field to Jair Bolsonaro, 62, a legislator and former military officer. He is the nearest thing to a Latin America right-wing populist, comparable with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or even Trump.

Bolsonaro is infamous for his explicit sexism and homophobia, defence of past military governments and for his advocacy of hard-line repression of organized crime. ‘The police officer is going to be able to shoot and if he defeats the enemy he is going to get a medal not a trial,’ he told the Bloomberg news agency. 

Although his party − the right-wing Social Christian Party − is weak, Bolsonaro has been adept at using social media to mobilize support. Touring the country, he has been greeted by big crowds, with half of his supporters under 34. 

His emphasis on family values resonates among Brazil’s growing envangelical Christian community. It is early days. Things can change. But in a society fed up with corruption, Bolsonaro might be pressing the right buttons.