Running against the incumbents or against their policies?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 21, 2015


Campaigns in recent elections in Latin America have seen opposition candidates run against incumbents while, at the same time, the outgoing governments embrace key electoral promises. Even several upcoming election campaigns are shaping up this way, as a carefully-balanced race against the incumbent runs against the embracing of public policies championed by the outgoing government.


After more than a decade of strong economic growth in Latin America, people in the region are growing worried about the prospects for the future. The end of the commodity boom has slowed down employment creation and weakened national currencies. Inflation is emerging as a threat- though it is not as big of a problem as older Latin Americans remember it. Weaker currencies are making life more difficult for the aspiring middle class to access imported goods and so enjoy the advantages of modernity. People are concerned, but they are not yet feeling a bad economic crisis. Thus, they are not in the mood to vote for radical change in terms of the economic policies that governments have implemented. People now want the good years to last a bit longer, rather than look for a new roadmap for future economic development.


Moreover, Latin American electorates have no credible alternatives in sight. Older people remember the tough years of the lost decade in the 1980s, when the crisis triggered by large foreign-debts caused havoc through the region, and led to economic stagnation, unemployment and rising poverty. Younger Latin Americans do not share memories of those bad years. Instead, they have high expectation that things will always improve. After all, their memories are filled with evidence that life has been getting constantly better since their childhoods’.


Many people in Latin America might be discontent with the high levels of inequality, insufficient opportunities and the unlevel playing fields that exist in their countries. But those are second-generation types of concerns. Some experts would define them as post-materialist concerns. When basic needs are met for most of the people, concerns over post-materialist values begin to emerge. As people leave poverty behind and enter the much-sought after status of the middle class, they being to worry about access to education, health-care, better living conditions, the environment and inequality. Recent elections have shown that the growing numbers and electoral power of the middle class has resulted in candidates campaigning on middle-class issues. Alleviating poverty is no longer the dominant message for elections in several of the more developed Latin American countries. Issues that are now more relevant to voters include improving access to higher education, and improving the quality of education in general. People want opportunities more than they want social programmes aimed at reducing poverty.


If the anticipated economic slowdown materializes and Latin America enters a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth- if not stagnation with higher than normal inflation -the concerns of the population will once again become a bit more materialist. Unemployment will replace upward mobility as a leading concern among voters. People will want governments to get their countries back onto a path of economic development.


Yet, as the clouds loom dark in the horizon, no one quite knows what it will take for countries to weather the crisis and emerge stronger and more developed. Thus, presidential candidates have been careful not to venture into uncharted territories. They do not have a clear roadmap to promote economic growth in a post-boom era. They know what the challenges will be, but lack a good policy prescription. They are certainly not alone. Technocrats who advise governments on long-term strategies point to educational reform, investment in infrastructure and pro-competition policies. But those reforms are difficult to implement, will face strong resistance and offer no guarantee of success. Besides, they will only bear fruit several years down the road, long after politicians now running for election will end their terms.


As a result of an uncertain future, presidential candidates now running for office in the region have chosen to run against incumbents but not against economic policies that, in the eyes of voters, have produced sustained growth in the last decade. Because there is no alternative economic model in sight that can be used as a roadmap to stimulate future growth, candidates have chosen to run on platforms that combine sharp criticism of unpopular incumbents with few specifics on what they would do differently. Moreover, running against policies that people perceive as having worked is a bad electoral strategy. It might be the case that Latin American governments have had little to do with the rapid growth experienced by the region. Demand for commodities from Asia is known to be the main explanation behind recent growth in Latin America. But people still reward the government in charge when things go well even if the good years were the result of good luck and not sound economic policies. Thus, the lesson from recent Latin American elections is that when you don’t have a policy programme to run on, running against the incumbent (but not against her policies) is the safest strategy.