When did the Latin American left lose its electoral mojo?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 24, 2017


The election on February 19 in Ecuador was another severe blow for the left in Latin America. After presidential election defeats in Argentina in 2015 and Peru in 2016, legislative vote setbacks in Venezuela in 2015, a referendum defeat in Bolivia in 2016 and municipal election losses in Brazil and Chile in 2016, Latin America’s left was hoping for a clean sweep in the presidential and legislative elections in Ecuador.

After almost two decades of electoral dominance in Latin America, left-wing coalitions are struggling at the polls. During the years of fat cows, voters preferred left-wing leaders, who implemented redistributive policies. Now that the region has entered the years of skinny cows, voters seem to be turning to right-of-centre, pragmatic leaders who campaign offering ways to restore growth and promote employment.


After 10 years in power, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa resisted the temptation to modify his own Constitution to try to remain in power after the end of his second term. His decision to step down allowed the Alianza País governing coalition to nominate a candidate without the baggage of a decade in power. Sadly, Presidents Correa gave up a precious opportunity to let his supporters choose the coalition’s presidential candidate. He anointed former vice-president Lenin Moreno as his successor, undermining Moreno’s chances by making him an easy target for the opposition, who labelled him as Correa’s puppet. Far less controversial than the president, Moreno nonetheless had an opportunity to reach out to moderate voters. The candidate tried to offer change in an overall context of continuity. Since left-wing coalitions in Latin America have been prone toward concentrating power excessively on an iconic figure, the fact that Correa acquiesced and stepped down turned Moreno into a powerful electoral weapon that made Alianza País more competitive, at least in theory.


With an opposition divided among two competitive candidates, Moreno had a good shot at a first-round victory. Yet the difficult economic times — Ecuador fell into an economic recession in 2016 and social programmes are under pressure as government revenues have declined — made it difficult for Moreno to run on the government’s 10-year old record. Most Ecuadoreans feel the country is heading in the wrong direction and the affable Moreno, who is not a charismatic campaigner, found it difficult to convince Ecuadoreans that he had what it takes, to show he had autonomy from Correa and put the country back on the right track. In the first-round vote, he received less than 40 percent of the votes and the country seems headed toward a runoff election on April 2. Though Alianza País will also likely have majority control in the 137-seat unicameral legislature (though it will fall far short of the 100-seat majority it won in 2013), the runoff will be a cause of despair for the Ecuadorean left. As the opposition is likely to rally behind Guillermo Lasso, Moreno will have an uphill battle keeping Ecuador in the hands of the left-wing coalition.

Trend of defeats


The electoral setback for the Ecuadorean left confirms a trend of defeats for the left elsewhere in Latin America. After having dominated electoral politics for almost two decades, the left seems unable to attract electoral majorities almost anywhere in the region. Earlier in this century, the left won almost everywhere, promising to reduce inequality and to better distribute the benefits of economic growth. As the region grew rapidly, based on a commodity export boom, left-wing leaders came to power and implemented social policies aimed at reducing poverty and promoting inclusion. All over the region, income inequality decreased and millions were lifted out of poverty. With abundant resources to finance social programmes, left-wing leaders successfully delivered on their promises of lowering inequality.


Yet, eventually, the export boom ended and the economic cycle turned against Latin America. Commodity prices began to decline and governments no longer had the leeway to finance ambitious social programmes. When Latin American economies stopped growing, the need for social programmes and subsidies increased, but governments ran out of money to finance their ambitious programmes. The electoral fortunes of the left quickly turned sour. Presidential approval began to decline everywhere. Soon after, elections began to show that the love affair between the Latin American electorate and left-wing parties had come to an end. People abandoned the left in search of leaders who could credibly foster economic growth. Voters seemed to signal that they believed the left was better at redistributing wealth but not fostering growth.


In most elections over the past 18 months, left-wing parties and leaders have been rejected by the electorate in their respective countries. Because they continue to campaign on redistributive promises, rather than on putting their countries back on the track in terms of economic growth, the left has failed to gain the trust of voters who are now more concerned with economic stagnation than with reducing inequality. Unless the left can articulate a credible plan for fostering growth — and not just income redistribution — its electoral fortunes will continue to look gloomy in the coming months.