The left-wing populist and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a heavy favorite to return to power in his country’s October presidential elections. If he can hold the lead he currently has in the polls, his victory will put the six largest economies in Latin America—Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and now Brazil—under the control of left-wing populists. But those already in office in these countries are seeing dramatic declines in their approval ratings, with the exception of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose favorability has dropped only modestly this year. Street protests have broken out against Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, and Peru’s legislature has twice tried to impeach President Pedro Castillo. Voters in Chile seem certain to reject a new constitution that was the centerpiece of President Gabriel Boric’s election campaign. What’s happened here?

Javier Corrales is the chair of the Political Science Department at Amherst College and the author of five books on Latin America. As Corrales explains it, the Latin American leftists now in power came to it through widespread voter disappointment with the right-wing leaderships preceding them—and are now the objects of such disappointment themselves. While some external causes are contributing to the pattern, particularly with inflation topping 10 percent across much of the region, Corrales says, the new left-wing leaderships’ loss of support is also from serious mistakes they’ve made themselves—often as the result of a shared tendency toward authoritarian populism. Lula and all five of Latin America’s current left-wing populist presidents regularly use polarizing rhetoric that drives away many citizens, and they frequently use political tactics that undermine their countries’ democratic institutions.

Michael Bluhm: Why have leftists been winning elections throughout Latin America?

Javier Corrales: The region has experienced very strong anti-incumbent sentiment for a couple of decades now. The good news is that most countries here have political systems that allow anti-incumbent sentiment to produce political change. It swings from left to right—the current crop of left-wing ruling parties succeeded right-wingers—but the constant is that ruling parties become unpopular, get defeated, and new parties come in. Which is a victory for democracy.

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