Latin America’s resurgent leftism

Chilean voters delivered student activist-turned-politician Gabriel Boric a decisive victory in November’s presidential election, catapulting the young left-wing leader into the international spotlight. Throughout his campaign, the 35-year-old contrasted his new vision for Chile against that of his conservative opponent, Jose Antonio Kast, ultimately securing 56% of the vote in an election that will end years of conservative rule in Santiago. 

Supported by the Apruebo Dignidad left-wing coalition and the Communist Party, Boric promised to address Chile’s growing inequality, reform the aging pension system and implement progressive tax reforms. These campaign pledges drove the highest turnout in a Chilean election since 2012, especially among women and young voters who celebrated the progressive win. 

Looking past the post-election celebrations, Boric has his work cut out for him. Campaign promises will need to pass through the Chilean Congress, where Apruebo Dignidad has only a fraction of the seats. As coalitions begin to coalesce around left and right stalwarts, the kind of legislative possibilities open to Boric will become clear. 

Beyond this, within the first six months of his presidency, Boric’s administration will oversee a referendum on a new constitution for Chile. An independent body of elected officials has been drafting a new constitution after voters in late 2020 chose to scrap the Pinochet-era constitution that governed the country since the 1970s. 

Boric’s meteoric rise to the Chilean presidency from humble origins might appear as a fluke in Latin American politics. But in reality, Chile is only the latest country in the region to see a surge in support for leftist leaders. The leftward shift that swept Central and South America in the 2010s as part of the so-called “Pink Tide” is back — and leaders like Boric are riding the wave. 

The first sign of a shift came when Mexican voters elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018, putting the progressive populist at the head of the second-largest regional economy. A year later, Panamanian and Argentinian elections delivered similar success for leftist leaders and in 2020, Luis Arce reclaimed the Bolivian presidency and vowed to build on the legacy of socialist leader Evo Morales. 

More recently, Honduras elected left-wing candidate Xiomara Castro as its first female president. Castro, who trounced her conservative opponent to end 12 years of right-wing rule, ran on a promise of universal basic income for poor families. For a country that has dealt with extreme poverty and the rise of violent drug trafficking activities, Castro represents a rejection of the status quo. 

In Peru, former schoolteacher Pedro Castillo rocked the political establishment by narrowly beating out right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori. Like other leftist candidates, Castillo railed against inequality in the country and promised to build a Peru that catered to everyone — not just elites. 

This trend shows no signs of slowing down during the next year. For conservative countries like Colombia and Brazil, both of which face elections in 2022, the resurgence of leftist politics is a worrying development. In Colombia, the leftist former mayor of Bogotá who was once part of an urban guerilla group has held a persistent lead in the polls ahead of the May vote. Colombian politics, once dominated by the guerilla war waged by leftist militias on the conservative government, is seeing a revival of left-leaning politicians entering government. 

Meanwhile, a similar wind sweeps through Brazil. Under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, the country has seen record deforestation and devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic. Once popular for his firebrand personal style and anti-elite sentiments, Bolsonaro is experiencing his worst political polling less than a year before votes are cast in October. For the conservative leadership of Latin America’s largest economy, former President and current candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who governed the country from 2003 to 2010, represents an existential threat. His campaign against inequality and corruption has built him a 30-point lead against Bolsonaro. As the Omicron variant spreads rapidly through Brazil and Bolsonaro continues his vaccine-skeptic rhetoric, Lula’s message may continue to resonate with frustrated Brazilians. 

But not all countries across Latin America are seeing the same surge in leftist support. In Ecuador, conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso was voted in despite protests concerning his rhetoric and increases in fuel prices. And in Peru, the newly-elected Castillo narrowly survived an impeachment charge brought by the still powerful right-wing coalition. 

Despite being beaten back in countries across the region, conservative groups should not be written off; the first “Pink Tide” in the 2010s was closely followed by a conservative wave that swung the political pendulum back to the right. 

With the Chilean election in the rearview mirror, all eyes are focused on elections in Colombia and Brazil. Whether or not leftists can capitalize on shifting political tides and capture presidencies and legislatures in these countries remains a final hurdle for the new “Pink Tide” sweeping Latin America. Leaders like Boric, who campaigned on tackling inequality and boosting social welfare systems, now have the difficult task of delivering on campaign promises, something much easier said than done.

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