Why the resurgence of the electoral Right in Latin America may not be a bad thing.

The election of Sebastian Pinera in Chile is the most dramatic example of the re-emergence of the electoral Right as a political force in Latin America. Although he is the son of one of Agusto Pinochet’s most infamous ministers (Jose “Pepe” Pinera, who crafted the Chilean labor code that became a blueprint for the NZ Employment Contracts Act and who was a personal friend of Roger Douglas and Roger Kerr), and parlayed his father’s ministerial position and influence to create a credit card empire that now sees him as one of Latin America’s richest men, Pinera used voter discontent with the long-running left-centre Concertacion coalition to propel himself as a candidate “for change.” In this he was the Chilean equivalent of John Key, because (besides their private sector wealth), both capitalised more on voter disenchantment with successful long-term Left governments than on offering any real change in policy direction. Instead, Pinera and Key rode a wave of sentiment in favor of change for change’s sake rather than on promises of policy re-direction, appealing to the centrist sentiment that prevails in both constituencies. The vote, in each instance, was more anti-incumbent than pro-alternative, and had little relation to the policy accomplishments of the defeated Left governments.

More importantly, Pinera represents the most recent example of Right party electoral success in Latin America, but his is not the only one. In Panama, a rightist won presidential elections last year. In Brazil and Costa Rica, right-centre candidates lead in the polls for this year’s presidential elections. In Peru, the centrist APRA government looks to be re-elected, and in Colombia and Mexico, rightist governments are in power (with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe looking to capitalise on his success against the FARC guerrillas by constitutionally extending his right to run for a third presidential term). Even in Argentina, the right-centre Union Civica Radical has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence as a result of the policy disasters of the (nominally Left) Peronist government led by the husband and wife team of Cristina Fernandez and Nestor Kirchner. Although it occurred under dubious circumstances due to the ouster of Leftist president Manuel Zelaya in June, the Honduran elections last November also produced a right-centre winner. Guatemala has been ruled by Rightists since open elections were restored in 1990. Thus, whether by hook or by crook, legitimate or not, the Latin American Right appears to be on the political rebound after more than a decade of predominantly Leftist rule.

To be sure, Left candidates won presidential elections in El Salvador and Uruguay last year, and Leftist governments  control Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. The electoral balance may have tilted to the Right, but it is by no means a seismic shift. What makes it noteworthy, therefore, is its implications for democratic consolidation.

Students of regime transitions have noted two important yet distinct elections in the move towards regime consolidation in new democracies. The first is the so-called “foundational” election, which marks the formal end of authoritarianism and the ushering in of a new era of transparent electoral politics. In countries emerging from right-wing authoritarianism, foundational elections tend to be won by right-centre coalitions that do not threaten the core interests of the authoritarian support base, which is the price paid for the transition itself (this is part of the so-called “ethical compromise” by which incoming democratic elites reassure the authoritarian elite by among other things not challenging the market-driven economic model and by granting amnesty to security personnel for any atrocities committed, something that is required for the transition to occur but which has been challenged in court in several post-authoritarian countries, including Chile). In countries emerging from left-wing authoritarianism the reverse is often true, with former communists re-branding themselves in order to be more electorally appealing while continuing many of the policies of their predecessors in core areas of public policy (except, most importantly, macroeconomic policy).

That makes for the importance of the second type of election, known as the “consolidation” election. In this election, which can occur four, six, ten or dozens of years after the foundational election, power is electorally rotated to the opposition. That is to say, a democracy is not considered to be politically (or at least electorally) consolidated until the opposition has been given a chance to compete, win and rule. This gives the opposition a chance to prove its democratic credentials, especially in cases like Chile’s where it has previously been associated with authoritarianism. In Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador, previously Left oppositions have turned out to be exemplary (and moderate) democratic governments. In Ecuador and Bolivia, Left governments of a more militant stripe carried over from days in opposition have nevertheless continued to enjoy considerable popularity and policy success. Nicaragua and Venezuela remain more problematic due to the authoritarian predilections of their respective leaders, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez, but in terms of the totality of Left rule in the region, they are a minority.

It has, until recently, been an open question as to whether the Latin American Right could be truly democratic in the event that it won presidential office. Right wing electoral authoritarians like Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Carlos Menem in Argentina (who ran as a Peronist) demonstrated that, at least in the 1990s, the tug of dictatorship still pulled strongly on those of a “conservative” persuasion. More recently, the behaviour of the Right opposition and Micheletti interim government in fomenting and legitimating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras confirms wide-held trepidations about the Right’s democratic bonafides. Now, with the resurgence of the electoral Right apparently region-wide, the time appears to have arrived for that question to be answered more fully, and in the event that it is in the affirmative, then the chances for the electoral consolidation of democracy in Latin America will have been reaffirmed. Should it be answered in the negative, then it will confirm that the Right is simply incapable of overcoming its authoritarian tendencies regardless of the means by which power is achieved.

5 thoughts on “Why the resurgence of the electoral Right in Latin America may not be a bad thing.

  1. Even in Argentina, the right-centre Union Civica Radical has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence as a result of the policy disasters of the (nominally Left) Peronist government led by the husband and wife team of Cristina Fernandez and Norberto Kirchner

    Huh. I thought the name of the current Argentinian first gentleman and former President was Nestor Kirchner. Do you know something I don’t, Pablo?

  2. Indeed Hugh, you are correct. Not sure why I wrote Norberto, although that is the name of my favorite Argentine soccer player in the early 1970s. I have corrected it in the post.

  3. In some countries where left wing leaders end up moderating their programme over time to govern from the centre by the end of their terms in office, the right responds by implying they would do the same (David Cameron, John Key) – this builds the climate for bi-partisansip. But if a government begins governing from the centre, there is naturally a drift to the right (or left) once in office, which will restore political tensions.

    Of course in the case of Latin America something more has happened, fear of the underclass coming into power has not be born out in the event. Thus while political tensions will return, there may now be broad acceptance (mutual tolerance) of the democratic framework for resolving them.

    I wonder though about whether the USA can take much credit for this. Their political landscape is changing for the worse.

  4. Hi Pablo,

    sorry to only offer such a short comment, but I don’t know how much I can agree with “The vote, in each instance, was more anti-incumbent than pro-alternative.” Didn’t bachelet have fantastically high approval ratings, but due to the sort of arcane constitution details you see in these countries where you had military dictatorships not too long ago, couldn’t run again and voters weren’t particularly enthused by her choice of successor? I would say that the same factor applies in Brazil, where lula’s chief of staff or whoever it is who is meant to be carrying the flag is a bit of a nobody and not particularly popular despite the mass support for the workers party? With that in mind I dunno how well the John Key comparison stands up – were bachelet or lula running again I think it’d be safe to say they’d wipe the floor with their opponents..

  5. Yes Jonathan, I believe your analysis is quite correct. At the end of her term in office Helen Clark did not have the approval ratings of Lula or Bachelette. But I was talking more about the Left record in government (and I should have made that clearer), where Labour was by most accounts pretty successful in achieving its policy objectives, even if not in the measure seen by the PT or Concertacion governments in Brazil and Chile respectively. In each instance voter fatigue with the incumbent government outweighed their respective achievements regardless of the popularity of the outgoing president/PM.

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