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Thursday, February 25, 2016

An Overstayed Welcome: The Decline of the Left in South America

South America has long been known for electing populist left-wing governments. With oil prices towering, Venezuelans embraced Chavismo. Bolivians rallied behind Evo Morales who spoke out against the racial prejudices and economic disparity plaguing the country. Brazilians elected their still-beloved Lula to power in landslides in 2002 and 2006, then elected his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff twice after he left office in 2010. Argentina's power couple, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, dominated the political scene from 2003 on.

That has changed considerably since November. On December 6, Venezuelans, seeing their country in deep crisis and rocked by protests, rampant violence, a stubborn government and a worthless currency, sent a Democratic Unity Roundtable to try its chances against the ruling United Socialist Party. It did not disappoint-routing the PSUV 56.2% to 40.9% and shifting the previously divided parliament decisively against Chavismo.

In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff eked out a victory in the October 2014 elections 51.6% to 48.32%, making the fourth consecutive election won by the left-wing Workers' Party. Since then, however, her popularity has fallen off a cliff. A mammoth corruption scandal involving the oil giant Petrobras and her party combined with a tanking economy put her approval rating in the single digits and impeachment proceedings in the hands of the Chamber of Deputies.

In Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's party was beaten narrowly in November by a centre-right coalition under the banner of "Cambiemos" ("Let's Change").

And it's continuing in 2016. Bolivians made their voices heard in a referendum directed at President Morales' ambitions to run for a fourth term, and their answer was no. Peru heads to the polls in April with the two most popular candidates being centre-right and centre. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is facing mounting criticism and seems to be dragging the country towards an authoritarian government.

Yet a continent-wide ideological shift may not be the reason for this substantial changing of the guard. The answer to why this has occurred may be a simple overstaying of welcome by the popular left-wing. Many of the popular leaders that made the left a powerful force in contemporary South America are either out of office or have stayed too long, losing the original fire that they once had.

Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, famous for his social welfare programs Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance) which helps poor Brazilian families and Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) which fought against hunger, remains enormously popular in his home country, even though a similar program was enacted in Brazil before he was elected president. 

The Brazilian economy was also streaking. From 2000 to 2012, Brazil's economy grew at an average of 5% a year and in 2012 it became larger than that of the United Kingdom. The country was also starting to take a greater role in foreign policy.

It's been a different story since then. Lula hasn't been president since 2011, as Brazil, like the United States, limits its presidential candidates to run for two terms. In 2010, Lula's chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency, and things started to go south. Today, Rousseff's approval rating is in the single digits and it is possible she could be impeached. Millions of Brazilians have protested and asked her to leave office in the midst of a reeling economy and corruption scandals hanging heavy over Rousseff's Workers Party. 

Things are even worse in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez was able to mass colossal support by steering the country towards a socialist path, bringing many Venezuelans out of poverty with a strong dose of anti-American sentiment and close relations with Cuba. But the momentum he was able to amass was largely available to him because of sky-high oil prices, and his accomplishments were unable to modernize or diversify the economy. His administration also did substantial damage to Venezuela's democratic system of government. Chavez died in 2013 and not long after he was replaced by Nicolas Maduro, the price of oil fell out of the sky. Venezuela's resource curse almost immediately put the country in dire straits. Protests plagued the country, Maduro cracked down, and lines for basic supplies persisted. Lacking the charisma and high oil prices of his predecessor, Maduro's United Socialist Party was trounced in the December parliamentary elections by a large coalition of opposition parties. 

In Bolivia, Evo Morales is into his third term as president, but the results of a recent referendum bar him from running for a fourth. This is, as The Economist puts it, his "first major defeat" in Bolivia, as before this he was considered quite popular-winning in a landslide in 2014's election. Morales, like Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, was very vocally critical of the United States' influence in his country. His campaigns against racial injustice towards the indigenous population and a long period of economic growth won him considerable popular support. But as corruption scandals pile up and the economy slows down, Morales' popularity is vulnerable. Though with more than three years left in his term, he may be able to right the ship and leave office with Bolivia in a much more stable state than Venezuela or Brazil. 

Argentina's transition is arguably less headline-grabbing than its neighbors, but it reflects much the same general trend. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of former President Nestor Kirchner, recently left office after the end of her second term. Some politicians in her party attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to change this but they were unsuccessful and met strong opposition from rival parties. Though Kirchner's party won the first round of the presidential election, they did so unconvincingly and lost the second round. 

The political left in South America has been largely rejected at the polls, but whether they stay down depends largely on whether the forces on the right can capitalize on their new victories. As these victories are still young, that's hard to tell right now. 

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