Right-wing authoritarian populists have been building power and rolling back democracy around the world for more than a decade. From Donald Trump in the United States to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, they’ve won elections, damaged institutions such as independent courts and free media, and prompted worries that democracy was in global decline. But in Latin America, leftist candidates have defeated right-wingers—some more authoritarian-populist, some less—in a string of presidential votes since 2018, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico. Leftists then won in Panama, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and most recently in Honduras in November and in Chile in December. In Brazil, Bolsonaro is up for re-election this coming October, but he’s trailed the leftist former president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva by more than 20 points in polling for months. What’s driving the victories of all these leftists in Latin America?

Amy Erica Smith is a professor of political science at Iowa State University and the author of two books about Brazilian politics. In Smith’s view, their wins don’t mark a decisive loss of support for right-wing authoritarian populism; they’re more the result of a common tendency among voters to oust any incumbent, especially under difficult conditions such as a pandemic or a worsening economy. Even so, she says, the defeats for authoritarian populism show that voters still have the power to remove these often-feared figures from office—as long as they haven’t sabotaged institutions such that they’re able to stay in power regardless of electoral outcomes. The new leftist leaders, meanwhile, often tap into populist sentiments, which remain a potent force among many in the region. In Smith’s view, populism draws on a combination of economic anxieties, cultural resentments, and anger toward elites—but populists on the left and right attack different elites as targets for voters’ hostility.

Michael Bluhm: Why are leftists winning elections throughout Latin America?

Amy Erica Smith: I’m hesitant to characterize things as waves. There’s this tendency in democratic systems across Latin America to bounce between right and left. We talk about this as thermostatic public opinion: You get a leader in power, and after four or eight years, they really mess things up, and there is a common reaction to reject the people in power. Part of what’s going on is a backlash against the right, which has been in power.

In Brazil, that storyline is very clear. Lula da Silva very likely would have won in 2018 if he had been allowed to run. The fact that Lula was not allowed to run is part of the country’s serious flirtation with democratic demise. Lula’s popularity today is not that much different from 2018. However, there is this thermostatic aspect to it: While Lula probably would have won in 2018, his Workers’ Party as a whole was intensely unpopular. The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) was in power since 2002. Presidents after Lula, who left office in 2010, were involved in massive economic unrest and political turmoil—a serious recession, fiscal mismanagement, and then a corruption scandal. The Workers’ Party became massively unpopular from 2014 to 2018, which helped to pave the way for the rise of the right. Bolsonaro was a populist outsider who rode a wave of massive discontent.

Mauro Mora

Now, there’s a thermostatic rejection of the far-right on pragmatic management grounds. The Workers’ Party had done really badly in economic management during its last four years or so in power. But Bolsonaro has also done pretty badly on economic management, and he’s the one holding power now.

He’s also managed the coronavirus pandemic poorly—and at odds with mainstream and elite public opinion. He was always this disagreeable outsider who’s never inclined to climb on any bandwagon. He didn’t take cues from the public or his fellow elites on what to do in the pandemic. So, through both bad economic times and the pandemic, it’s been poor management.

Across Latin America, we see something of the same plotline. In some cases, it’s being tired of the rightist in power. In Latin America, there’s also long-term support for certain leftist economic ideas. This isn’t a change; there’s no wave or return to any agenda.

Latin America has long had very high levels of inequality. In many countries, voting is compulsory, which reduces disparities in access to the polls, so poor people vote at higher numbers in Latin America than in the United States. In a region where there are a lot of poor people, and where poor people vote, there’s always latent support for leftist ideas, if not leftist candidates.

We talk about this as thermostatic public opinion: You get a leader in power, and after four or eight years, they really mess things up, and there is a common reaction to reject the people in power. Part of what’s going on is a backlash against the right, which has been in power.

There are high levels of long-term support across Latin America for notions such as, The government should implement strong policies to reduce economic inequality. That text is from the Latin American Public Opinion Project, which asks that question every two years. Support for that sentence is consistently high across the region over time. There is always a constituency for leftists if the political moment is right and if they do all the other things needed to win elections.

Bluhm: How much of the support for these leftists is based in economic issues such as inequality, inflation, or unemployment?

Smith: Inequality is a persistent reason for Latin Americans to vote for leftists. Economic inequality has worsened across Latin America since the beginning of the pandemic. There was a wave of protests in 2019 against economic inequality, and then the pandemic made things even worse—at the same time that the pandemic reduced the capacity to organize and mobilize against the changes. The latent demand for reducing inequality is even greater today, though less mobilized than in 2019.

This story is for paying subscribers only

Sign up now and upgrade your account to read the story and get access to the full library of stories for paying subscribers only.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in