On January 1, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will join one of the world’s most demanding clubs. As Brazil’s president-elect, he is the latest opposition politician to win office in a region whose combination of vibrant democracy, strong civil society and dire economic and social problems makes a successful presidency a daunting challenge.
Latin America’s longstanding problems of poverty, inequality, corruption and economic stagnation have been magnified by the pandemic. Voters have been unforgiving: Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat last month by Lula marked the 15th victory in a row by an opposition party in a Latin American election.
The only leaders in the region who could be confident of re-election now would be those controlling a system that could guarantee the result in advance: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. For other aspirants to high office, the endorsement of a sitting president amounts to a kiss of death (with the exception of Mexico, whose populist president is likely to pick a successor who will win).
Lula’s election has been wrongly understood by some as signalling a return of the “Pink Tide” of leftwing Latin American governments that ran the region in the early years of this century. This time is different.
While most incumbents who lost recent elections were conservatives, “it’s not about voters realising they’re leftist, because we’ve found that they’re not,” said Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “They’re just angry with what the last four years have brought them. It’s frustration with the system, frustration with the economy, with lack of opportunity and with Covid.”
Eager to turf out incumbents and despairing of traditional politicians, the region’s voters have propelled some unlikely figures from the fringe to high office. Rural primary school teacher Pedro Castillo in Peru is a prime example, but former urban guerrilla Gustavo Petro in Colombia and tattooed ex-student leader Gabriel Boric in Chile fit the pattern too.
Their honeymoons have been short: after 100 days in office, fewer than half of Colombians approved of Petro’s performance. Boric’s approval rating after eight months has plunged to 33 per cent, not far off the depths plumbed by his conservative billionaire predecessor Sebastián Piñera.
Castillo is faring even worse, as he fights corruption investigations and repeated attempts to impeach him. His approval rating is just 16 per cent.
Amid the hand-wringing over the challenge to Latin America’s vulnerable democracies from populists, outsiders and authoritarians, Brazil offers a sign of hope from a political cycle that is running several years ahead of its neighbours.
Brazil’s street protests against poor public services and inequality came in 2013, six years before Chile and Colombia, and it elected a populist extremist as president in 2018. But this time round, despite frustration at growing poverty and high food prices, voters did not repeat the experiment.
Instead, Brazilians picked Lula, a one-time radical who governed as a moderate from 2003-10. This time, he led a broad pro-democracy coalition of 10 parties, including prominent figures from the centre and centre-right alarmed by Bolsonaro’s tirades against the supreme court and the voting system and his praise of past dictatorships.
“The threat which Bolsonaro represented to institutional stability outweighed the reservations which some people may have had about Lula,” said Bruna Santos, senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute. “Part of Brazil’s urban elite seems now to accept the moderate Lula who we saw in this year’s elections”.
It is unlikely in today’s much more difficult global environment that Lula can repeat the feat of his first two terms, when a booming economy helped him fund a big expansion of welfare spending. And Bolsonarismo remains a potent political force, with strong representation in congress. O’Neil said that if Lula fails to address voters’ demands, “I would expect a turn again to the outside, to very anti-establishment radical populism.”