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Failures of conservative Latin American leaders could lead to a return of leftist populism but the bigger concern is a lack of faith in democracy

By Mac Margolis

Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s political fortunes are crumbling. First voters delivered the struggling incumbent an upside-the-head defeat in the August 11 primaries. Then the financial markets piled on, blackening the country’s sovereign credit score and the peso to burnt toast.

Now, with Argentina’s traditionally profligate Peronists poised to return to power, the International Monetary Fund is deciding whether to throw another tranche of its biggest ever rescue loan into the void. Macri’s announcement on Wednesday of plans to postpone payments on billions of dollars in foreign debt will likely only deepened the fund’s doubts.

Macri’s fall is stark. Yet what will his misfortunes mean for like-minded conservative leaders elected to change course in a region staggered by soaring unemployment, voter discontent and slowing economies?

Conservatives Sebastian Pinera in Chile and Colombia’s Ivan Duque have seen their approval ratings fall to below 35%. Only 22% of Ecuadorans favor apostate leftist turned centrist Lenin Moreno. Peru’s business-friendly caretaker President Martin Vizcarra, a reformer, is trying to fight off a populist congress. This week, the share of Brazilians who disapprove of far rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro spiked from less than a third in February to well over half (53.7%).

Are Latin Americans losing their faith in democracy?

In Latin America’s pendular politics, it’s tempting to conclude that such troubles for the ruling right reflect a popular swing back to candidates across the aisle, such as Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez and his Peronist mentor, former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. But hold your beret. There’s little nostalgia for the so-called pink tide that rose to power last decade behind Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution, now in collapse, or the bell jar economy of Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose crony capitalist habits landed him in jail. This isn’t a revival: it’s buyer’s remorse.  

The new rightwing rose on the demands of societies to purge public office of systemic corruption and the political establishment who’d flourished, often on the left’s watch, even as they bent institutions to their appetites. They offered textbook solutions such as good management, transparency and the magic of markets to cleanse the system, restore growth and, in dire cases like Brazil and Argentina, revert economic collapse. Instead, they run the risk of demoralizing reformism, and now cling to office as their economies underperform.

As Latin America’s prosperity flags, it’s important to remember that voters have never had so much clout. They are raising the bar everywhere for candidates regardless of their political stripe. Recall that while last decade’s commodities bonanza lasted, it shrank poverty by nearly half and hoisted millions into the new middle class, which swelled to 36% of the population. Expectations kept pace and voters turned on leaders who spun tales of plenty and came up short.

Whereas 63% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean reported they were satisfied with education in 2006, only 56% did in 2017. Compare that with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where 65% were satisfied. Now 64% in Latin America and the Caribbean say they have no confidence in national governments and fully three quarters regard governing institutions as corrupt. Mistrust is corroding the social pact: 54% said they were justified in not paying taxes. Worryingly, the public funk is underming faith in democracy, not least among the 25% of Latin Americans aged 15 to 29 who know no other form of government and are now frustrated by democracy’s scarce rewards.

The souring mood has confounded pundits. An ascendant, discerning middle class was supposed to have strengthened democratic checks and balances and vaccinated the region against authoritarian illusions. However, the persistence of income inequality and the vast informal sector as well as the specter of slipping back into indigence have shaken that conceit. The danger now is that bottom-feeding candidates and extremists tap such rising insecurity to worsen political polarization and promote the oldest of Latin American afflictions, the populist fix.

Populism is “the perfect salt, sugar, fat combination” of modern Latin American democracies, says Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales: Serve up a sugary concoction of slogans (the 21st Century revolution), bulk it up with endless tweets and regulations to create “policy density” (the fat), and then tweak (salt) the mix with an exciting stream of insults and ad hominem attacks on enemies, all to create a political “bliss point” blended to keep the faithful hooked and populists in power.

But demanding voters don’t have to be bad news for democracy. Even a reversal of fortunes can reduce public tolerance for false promises and hold candidates to account. By aggravating polarization, populism’s excesses create their own “allergic reaction,” as Corrales puts it, so inviting a salutary democratic response. Financial markets can also play a role, punishing profligacy and fiscal incontinence. Argentine presidential frontrunner Alberto Fernandez apparently took note and initially sought to cool market fears by keeping a dialogue with Macri, now suspended, and denying that he would press to restructure foreign debt. Now it seems that Macri has gone and done that himself. Tellingly, perhaps, Fernandez said nothing of the plan.

There’s good reason to wonder whether such campaign temperance will last or withstand the populist temptation should the Peronists return to power in December, as Fernandez’s latest broadsides against the IMF suggest. Latin America’s struggling incumbents, on the right and left, will be keeping close watch.
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Cedit: Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com

12 thoughts on “Failures of conservative Latin American leaders could lead to a return of leftist populism but the bigger concern is a lack of faith in democracy

  1. Financial markets play the leading role in all this. Just follow the trail of money if you want to know who or what is involved in the latest tranche of lies.

  2. Failures of conservative Latin American leaders? Perhaps, but in reality it’s a failure of capitalism, or rather the idea that market forces left to their own devices are capable of improving the wellbeing of society as a whole. It’s never happened anywhere in the world at any time in history, but a shill publication like Bloomberg has to keep the narrative going. Capitalist ideologues are their readership. Admitting that their One True God (TM) isn’t capable of solving all the world’s problems would be akin to the Vatican calling a press conference and admitting god doesn’t exist.

    And for the record, calling something “populist” isn’t a critique, it’s the inevitable cry of the side that couldn’t convince the majority that it was offering a better plan. Anytime I hear that being offered as the central thesis of an article, I know the author is a shill. The term has been used so widely and so flippantly to describe anyone and everyone that it has lost all real meaning. It’s a shame the best analysis Bloomberg could come up with for the failure of Macri’s policies is a silly metaphor comparing society to the human body. It belies a sophomoric understanding of sociology and physiology, failing to teach the reader anything of substance yet arming them with cliches to repeat uncritically in internet discussions.

    The reality is that Macri’s policies failed the same way the same policies have always failed; because trickle-down economics is a lie that will never work no matter how many times they promise that this time will be different. The people who push these repeatedly failed policies already understand this reality, but they also know that certain tiny segments of the economy benefit tremendously from this disaster capitalism so they (and publications like Bloomberg) keep pushing the narrative. Sadly, there are still enough useful idiots out there who are willing to believe this nonsense.

    1. I’m just a casual onlooker… but I need to ask: Where has Socialism worked?… that would include all the countries in Scandinavia that insist they are not “socialist”…. but their economies and governments are all failing anyway, each for different reasons.

      On another note: I recall that some time back, you extolled the virtues of academia, research, peer reviews, science, etc…… I forget the issue and who you were going back and forth with, but I do recall how you sounded so grossly confused. Anyway…. did you know that Half (if not more) of all Science is Wrong (and this would include Climate Change)? Google it, and you will see many such assertions… but to get you moving on the topic, check out https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/ and another and entertaining piece along these lines features an Australian Professor and Researcher, calling out the Australian Academic Mafia https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=996&v=M7j75L38PlI.

      Enjoy!

      1. Instead of being a casual onlooker, maybe try reading a book sometime. If you didn’t bother to get an education after all these decades, I doubt I’d be able to provide you with one in an internet chat forum. Anyone who still parrots the ridiculous trope that the Scandinavian countries are not socialist clearly has no idea what socialism is and is, therefore, not qualified to debate the subject.

        1. What nasty vitriol… and yes, I have read many things on the issue, and actually lived in Sweden for the better part of a year. For you to assume I need to “read a book” is not only out of line, it is arrogant. Ever hear about people holding different opinions than your own?

          Swedes, for sure, but all over the Nordic countries, business people will go to great lengths to explain that each country is not Socialist, in the traditional sense of the word…. and when they do use the “S” word, they also use qualifiers like “Free Market Socialism” or “Democratic with Generous Social Programs and Benefits”. That’s just the way it is, and any mis-information you might have won’t change it.

          Sweden tried to fund their aging population by relaxing the immigration policies….. and what happened was that their system was soon over-burdened by new arrivals that would not assimilate, and would not contribute to the system. Denmark, to a large degree, is a bit different problem: Their expensive cradle-to-grave welfare system is collapsing under the weight of the healthcare costs.

          You need to be a bit more civil, and a little less “self assured”. At best, the Nordic countries are “hybrid” economies that blend capitalist economics with social values and benefits.

          I wonder what makes you so ANGRY??? You should lighten up.

          You are welcome.

          1. I often come off as arrogant to ignorant blowhards. Didn’t you say you don’t have time for this today?

    2. “Useful idiot” is a politically derogatory term, that was held and promulgated by Vladimir Lenin….. someone, I gather, you must admire very much

      1. Actually it was coined by a writer at Time Magazine and falsely attributed to Lenin, a fact that is thick with irony.

        1. I understand that the attribution to Lenin is considered by some to be unsubstantiated…. but then, citing “Time Magazine” and an authoritative source??? PLEEEZZZZZZ!!!!!!

          1. I didn’t say Time Magazine was an authoritative source. I said they were the first ones to use it. You sure you have enough time for this discussion today?

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