Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been elected as the next President of Brazil. His victory is the latest in the political wave that has led to wins by left leaning politicians in Latin America-Argentina, Colombia Chile, Honduras and Peru. With the pendulum shifting to the ‘centre left parties’, there is the talk of the return of the ‘pink tide’ to the continent. With the ‘left’ ones again gaining more ground in the political landscape of Latin America, this paper examines the reasons for the current resurgence and if it is different from the one that swept the region in the 1990s.
The First Tide
After decades of military dictatorships, authoritarian regimes were replaced by democratically elected governments. In the 1990s, a wave of left-wing governments swept across the region. When Hugo Chavez won a landmark election in Venezuela in 1999, his victory was followed by election victories for the Left in one country after another. This phase in the region’s political landscape has been called the “pink tide”, or Marea Rosa. The period is marked by the rise of Latin America in international politics and a strained relation with the United States. Domestically, a record number of people were able to rise above the poverty line and social spending increased. However, by 2015, due to various reasons such as allegations of corruption, the fall in oil prices leading to loss of currency value and an overall shortage of basic goods, the ‘turn to the left’ was reversed and several ‘centre’ or ‘right of the centre’ parties formed governments in the countries of the region.
The Second Tide- The ‘New Left’
The second tide began with the appointment in 2018 of Manuel López Obrador as the Mexican President. Argentina, Honduras, Peru, Colombia and Chile soon followed Mexico’s example. Nonetheless, the question arises why is there a shift among the electorate? Firstly, the past shows that the Latin American electorate has swung power between the political left and right. Therefore, the current shift is not all that surprising. The second factor has been the performance of the incumbent governments. There has been a simmering discontent among the people, especially the blue collared workers and the youth, which has been expressed through street protests across the countries of the region. Chile witnessed violent protests against the government in 2019, with similar protests in Colombia and Ecuador. These countries do have growing economies, boast of a growing middle class and reduced poverty; nonetheless, prosperity has been uneven and has left a vast majority of the population out of it. Inequality and unemployment gaps remain, education costs have increased and corruption and violence continue to plague the region. And lastly, the pandemic has been devastating for the region. Apart from the loss of lives, it has exposed mismanagement in the healthcare sector and the social inequality that persists. The pandemic has battered the economies of the region, largely dependent on tourism and the informal sector, reducing household incomes and decreasing purchasing power. According to the Annual ECLAC Report 2021, the pandemic has exacerbated the health and social crisis with extreme poverty rising, eroding the progress made by the region in the past two decades. According to the report, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose by around five million between 2020 and 2021. The left parties aware of the public discontent with government mismanagement have promised to find solutions to these challenges. They have spoken about their past record, which saw a vast majority of the population rising above the poverty line and gaining access to social welfare and the economies of the countries experiencing growth. Therefore, it would be safe to say that the current change in government is more pragmatic than ideological in nature.
Nonetheless, the newly formed governments cannot rest on their past achievements. The national and the international political and economic arenas are different from the one that was present during the first tide. The pandemic and the ongoing Ukraine crisis have led to a slowdown in the global economy and inflation has increased fuel and food costs among other things, jeopardising family budgets. The new governments would not have the luxury of a commodities’ boom to help fuel their social welfare schemes. Apart from pandemic-induced economic slowdown, some governments also face rising migration pressures, increasingly dire economic and social consequences of climate change and increasing violence related to drugs.
Within their respective legislative bodies, the new governments face strong oppositions. For example, in Brazil, conservative candidates including the party of President Bolsonaro have increased its representation in the Congress. Most countries in the region are also plagued by a high degree of political polarisation and confrontation. This has meant that the new governments would have to bridge the growing divisions among the population, especially at a time when trust in politicians remains low due to allegations of corruption and links with the drug trade. Thus, the new presidencies would have to work with the opposition parties to ensure governance does not suffer.
It would also be wrong to assume that the people have not expressed their dissatisfaction with the newly elected governments. President Boric of Chile and President Castillo of Peru are facing continued pressure from the people for not being able to deliver on their election promises of redistribution of wealth and better social safety. Unlike in the past, the widespread access to social media allows the discontent to be mobilised into protest movements quickly and be expressed on the streets.
Another notable difference has been in the relations with the United States. The countries of the region are not seeking to move away from the United States and its free market policies. In turn, the United States has also embraced the changes in the region and is looking to work with the new governments here. Given the flux in international politics, the countries of the region would have to relook their relations with the other powers including China and Russia. And while the left leaning parties have come to power in major economies of the region, they have different outlooks towards the region. For example, President Boric has been critical of atrocities in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. While Mexican President Obrador has focused on the expansion of oil production, Colombian President Pedro is spending on a shift to renewable energy. They have differing view on abortions and LGBTQ rights, ways to enhance spending on social programmes and the economic policies for the future.
The current shift in Latin American politics should not be viewed simply as an ideological shift. The people voted out of power governments that they felt had failed to deliver on their agenda and in turn have voted for the alternative parties that they feel would be able to bring positive change. The ‘new left’ assumes power in a different context and with different challenges than in the past. They would have to come up with innovative solutions, best suited to their respective countries, to address. And if the ‘new left’ is unable to deliver on its promises, the next elections would usher in change.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Senior Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal.