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.

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