Election of Left-wing candidates in Latin America and what it means for the region
Latin America’s elections in 2021 showed us that politics in the region are alive and livelier than ever as people are eager for change. Much of the world has shifted towards the Right of the political spectrum while Latin American countries such as Chile, Peru and Honduras have swung left in 2021 signaling a reinforcement of the shift in political leaning that has taken hold in the region (Londoño, Turkewitz and Flávia Milhorance, 2022). The political reversal began with the election of leftist presidents in Mexico in 2018, Panama and Argentina in 2019, and Bolivia in 2020 [ibid.]. Other elections in 2021, such as those in Venezuela and Nicaragua have secured the status quo for the authoritarian regimes in what many international observers have called shame elections (MEPs condemn “electoral farce” in Nicaragua, 2021). In 2022 there are still important elections to come in Colombia, and the largest Latin American state, Brazil. It is worth looking back at the recent elections to understand the shift taking place in the region and how they may signal what is to come in the upcoming elections.
The 2021 Chilean election was perhaps the most widely reported and most consequential election in the region this past year. Chile, the state associated as “the birthplace of neoliberalism” (Lima, 2021), elected Gabriel Boric, a thirty-five-year-old leftist congressional representative who will become the youngest President in the country’s history. Boric is also the most left-leaning leader since socialist President Salvador Allende, who was toppled in a 1973 coup and replaced with dictator Agusto Pinochet. The Chilean society has been strained due to rising inequality and a lack of political change, which led to mass protests which began in October 2019 and lasted until December 2021. The years-long protests resulted in a referendum to rewrite the country’s constitution that had been written by the former dictatorship in 1980. The current constitution is viewed as a symbol of a dysfunctional and out of touch political system that only serves the elites in the country (Piscopo and Siavelis, 2020). Around 80% of Chileans voted to draft a new constitution that they hope will address the discontent in the country (FLORIDO, 2022). A new Carta Magna that promises to be more inclusive as it is the first in the nation’s history written with considerations such as gender parity, recognizing the rights and existence of Chile’s indigenous people who make up 20% of its population but currently have no representation, and addresses issues like climate change (Carolina Pérez Dattari, 2021). President-to-be Gabriel Boric will begin his time in office overseeing this monumental change. Boric’s campaign was based on promises to tax the rich and increase social spending in order to reverse the highly unequal society that has plagued Chile since its days under dictatorship (Piscopo and Siavelis, 2020). Hopefully, this change in leadership will reflect the change Chile seeks to create for itself.
While the election in Chile may have been the most anticipated election, the Honduran election was the most shocking. Honduras made history by electing leftist Xiomara Castro thus becoming the first woman to govern the second largest country in Central America. Castro is a former first lady and wife of former President Manuel Zelaya who was deposed in a 2009 military coup supported by the political right in the country (Frank, 2022). Her victory breaks 12 years of rule by the right-wing National Party of Honduras. Castro's win comes amid widespread discontent with the conservative party mainly directed towards outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández who has allegedly accepted bribes from drug traffickers and used Honduran armed forces to protect cocaine shipments (Méndez Dardón and Cifuentes, 2022). President-to-be Xiomara Castro faces an uphill battle in a country overwhelmed by many challenges. Issues such as addressing corruption, drug trafficking, high unemployment, poverty, gang wars, the second-highest murder rate globally, and migration out of the country are all on the list of items for the new president to tackle (World Report 2020: Honduras, 2020).
Pedro Castillo, a 51-year-old school teacher and union leader, won Peru’s 2021 general election against the right-wing candidate and daughter of former right-wing dictator Alberto Fujimori: Keiko Fujimori (Londoño, Turkewitz and Milhorance, 2022). Mr Castillo, a socialist political outsider, came onto Peru's national scene four years ago when he led thousands of teachers on a successful strike over payment conditions (Pedro Castillo, Peru’s first poor president-France 24, 2021). During his presidential campaign, Castillo pledged to nationalise Peru’s mining and hydrocarbon sectors, he stated his administration would aim to create a million new jobs and seeks to reintroduce controversial policies like the death penalty to combat crime (Pedro Castillo Peru, 2021). Mr. Castillo ran on the slogan “No more poor people in a rich country” (Pedro Castillo, Peru's first poor president- France 24, 2021). He ran on promises of nationalization of key industries such as the mining and energy sectors that reflect his economic socialist views. Yet he has a socially conservative outlook and is opposed to gay marriage and the right to abortion [ibid.]. Peruvians much like citizens of other Latin American countries are desperate for a change, couple this with the fact that 70% of Peruvians identify as Roman catholic (Romero, 2021) and it is evident that Castillos’s humble beginnings, his promises of economic reform, and his strict faith-based social views helped him gain an edge over the opposition. That he won by a small margin and has since faced an impeachment vote, Castillo has and will probably continue to face formidable impediments in implementing his policies.
Venezuela and Nicaragua
Both the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan elections in 2021 have shown a recentering of the status quo. In Venezuela, which is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis (World Report 2021: Venezuela, 2021), President Nicolas Maduros’ ruling socialist party won the majority of the November 2021 regional elections in which the opposition took part for the first time in four years (Vasquez, 2022). Maduros’s 2018 re-election was viewed as illegitimate by a portion of the international community (Ulmer, 2018). In 2021, amid large unfavorability and mistrust of the President and government, only about 42% of registered voters turned up to vote (Socialist party, sweep regional elections, 2022). The Lima Group, an alliance of Fourteen Latin American countries, along with the U.S. and the European Union has denounced the election of Maduro in 2018 as illegitimate (Phillips, 2018). In November 2021 Maduros’ ruling socialist party retained power, winning 20 of 23 governor posts, as well as the mayorship of the capital, Caracas, in what many saw as skewed elections favoring the ruling party [ibid.]. The ruling socialist party is viewed to be responsible for many of the ills plaguing the nation. Venezuela is experiencing its eighth year of recession, with inflation reaching 3000%, and a migrational crisis since over a million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years [ibid.].
In November 2021, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega along with his Vice President and wife Rosario Murillo, won a fourth consecutive term and his fifth overall, as the leader of Central America’s largest country. Seven opposition presidential candidates have been detained and barred from running thus setting the stage for Ortega to run unchallenged (Ortega election ‘pantomime’, 2022). Ortega first seized control after his Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza family dynasty that held power in Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979 [ibid.]. He served as president for a first term from 1985 to 1990 [ibid.]. He then made his way back to power in 2007 and has cracked down on dissent in order to secure his place as president of Nicaragua (Mines and Speck, 2021). Mass anti-government protests took place in Nicaragua in 2018, since then over 103,000 people have fled the country mostly into neighboring Costa Rica (Nicaragua withdrawal from OAS, 2022). The Nicaraguan government has also begun withdrawing from the Organization of American States (OAS) after the regional organization denounced Nicaragua’s elections as illegitimate [ibid.]. In a show of defiance, the Ortega regime is attempting to distance itself from its critics through actions like withdrawing from the OAS and is attempting to position itself closer to other authoritarian leaders. The Ortega regime has been hit by rounds of condemnation and sanctions and it is likely the situation in Nicaragua will continue to deteriorate.
Analysis and elections still to come in Brazil and Colombia
Latin America is a region that has seen violent dictators from both sides of the political spectrum. Honduras, Peru, and Chile have all shifted away from the political right and have embraced leftist candidates in hopes of change. In each of these cases, the victors were political outsiders, young newcomers, women, or of humble backgrounds. Still, in countries like Colombia and Brazil, the right-wing remains in power but leaders face vehement opposition from the left as both Colombian and Brazilian voters have grown disillusioned with their leaders. In Brazil, former leftist President Luiz Lula da Silva has outpaced far-right populist President Jair Bolsonaro in favorability polls among the Brazilian public (Boadle, 2022). While Colombian President Ivan Duque, who came to power in 2018, has become highly unpopular and faced large-scale anti-government protests in 2021.
Protestors expressed widespread disapproval towards the Duque administration and demanded more action to address a variety of issues such as education, healthcare, poverty, and police violence (Colombia unrest, 2021). The political center seems poised to take the lead in the country running up to the May 2022 election (Jamarillo, 2021). An increase in young voters coming of age and becoming disillusioned with the right-wing and the governing style of the Duque administration, along with the shift in the region may help left-wing candidates continue the trend in Colombia. However, the shift leftward is not the norm in the region as countries such as El Salvador, Uruguay and Ecuador have shifted to the political right in the past three years. It is up to the new leaders to make good and deliver on the promises of development and reduction in inequality that their constituents desire in order to remain in office.
We can look to elections in Latin America such as those of Chile and Honduras as road maps for other troubled democracies looking to solidify their foundations and bring in fresh viewpoints to revitalize at the same time. The region is hungry for change, citizens in multiple countries are looking for a restructuring of their economies and societies, greater inclusivity, stability and development, a quell to the pandemic that has wreaked havoc in their countries, as well as a deep rooted desire to end corruption. Governments should see this as an opportunity to invest in a brighter future for the people.
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