The end of the left turn in Latin America?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 3, 2015


This has not been a good year for the left in Latin America. In addition to the difficulties faced by the presidents of Brazil and Chile, the upcoming presidential election runoff in Argentina on November 22 and the legislative election in Venezuela will be significant setbacks for the Latin American left. Regardless of who wins in Argentina, the next government will be far less identified with the left than the outgoing Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration. In Venezuela, even if it clings to a legislative majority, the Nicolás Maduro administration will suffer a major electoral reversal in the December 6 elections. The weakness of the left does not mean that the right is gaining ground. The end of the left turn made by Latin American countries a decade ago is giving way to the rise of pragmatic moderates.


In a very influential article published in Foreign Affairs in 2006, Mexican intellectual Jorge G. Castañeda coined the concept of a left turn in Latin America. A former foreign minister and professor at New York University, Castañeda argued that Latin American countries had made a decisive leftwing shift. In describing the left in the region, Castañeda distinguished between a market-friendly left and a more radical left. Among the former, Brazil and Chile stood out, while Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia were among those countries with governments identified with a more radical left.


Since that article was published, Latin America has undergone numerous transformations and shifts. The effect of the 2008-2009 world economic crisis helped consolidate in power Latin American leftwing governments. Advocates of unregulated markets lost popular appeal and market-friendly policies were blamed for the crisis. In Latin America, more countries elected centre-left governments. In Mexico, the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) returned to power in 2012 amid high expectations that its skilful politicians would implement much-needed reforms and that Mexico would restore economic growth. In Chile, after one four-year term in the opposition, the centre-left Concertación coalition returned to power under the new label of Nueva Mayoría (with a slightly more leftist tone). In Colombia, the rightwing administration of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) was replaced by the more moderate Juan Manuel Santos, who earned a second term in 2014. The international crisis strengthened leftist governments which actively steered economic policies in Latin America. The right was on the retreat almost everywhere.


In 2015, the region seemed to experience yet another shift. As the commodity boom ended, Latin American economies have seen their growth come to a halt, unemployment has increased and the popular mood has deteriorated. Presidential approval has declined almost everywhere. Even in Bolivia and Ecuador, where Presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa enjoyed high approval since coming into office in 2005 and 2007 respectively, discontent has grown. Recent polls show that a majority of Bolivians are inclined to vote against a constitutional reform which would allow Morales to seek a fourth term as president in 2019.


Nowhere has the shift been more evident than in Argentina and Venezuela. As President Cristina Fernández ended her second term in office, the candidate of her ruling Victory Front leftwing coalition was Daniel Scioli, a veteran Peronist politician with a more centrist record than CFK. The fact that Scioli fell short of securing the presidency in the first round vote was widely seen as a centrist shift in the Argentine electorate. The leading opposition candidate, Mauricio Macri, did better than expected in the first-round vote and, according to recent polls, is leading in voter intentions ahead of the November 22 runoff. Regardless of who wins the runoff, after 2015 Argentina will no longer have a president who so openly identifies with the Latin American left.


In Venezuela, since the death of popular President Hugo Chávez in 2013, President Nicolás Maduro has struggled with approval ratings. The difficult economic conditions, with runaway inflation and a painful recession, has resulted in high discontent with the government among those who historically supported President Chávez. Pre-electoral polls anticipate that the leftwing government of Maduro will be defeated by the united opposition in the upcoming legislative election. The strength of the opposition lies in that it brings together a wide spectrum of parties, from the far right to the moderate centre.


The cases of Argentina and Venezuela make it clear that the weakness of the left does not mean that the old right is making a comeback. If anything, the ability of the right to attract electoral support is directly linked to the moderation of its leaders and their pragmatic policy approach. Latin Americans seem more interested in voting for a moderate shift to a more centrist position than in supporting a radical right turn in their electoral preferences. Still, for the left, the fact that people do not want to return centre-right leaders to office does not offer sufficient consolation. The Latin American electorate is making it clear that the left turn no longer enjoys majority support in the region.