ANALYSIS-Latin America’s democracies shaken ahead of key elections
An assassination attempt in Argentina and election-related violence in Brazil have emerged as the latest signs of growing political discontent in Latin America, creating a treacherous environment for incumbents on all sides.
Latin America’s political arena has intensified with the fallout from the pandemic, war in Ukraine, spiraling inflation and fears of a global recession. These hardships have all hit the pocketbooks of voters in one of the world’s most unequal regions, driving deeper political divides ahead of key elections and, in some countries, threatening democracy itself.
“There’s a lot more extremism,” said Argentine independent pollster Mariel Fornoni, referring to the current state of politics in Latin America. “And I think that reflects the inability of many governments to meet the demands of citizens.” As Argentina’s center-left President Alberto Fernandez struggles to contain runaway inflation that is nearing 100% this year, and Chile’s left-wing President Gabriel Boric licks his wounds after his country’s progressive draft constitution collapsed, right-wing opposition hardened in both countries.
Likewise, in the upcoming elections in Brazil, where left-leaning former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the frontrunner, far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro’s enduring base could sow the seeds of radical opposition to Lula. since the first day. Carlos Alvarado, the center-left former president of Costa Rica, said in an interview that polarization was all the rage across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking region.
“The most simplistic messages, including populist messages, grab our attention and really stir people’s emotions in a context where there is a high level of frustration, uncertainty, inequality and inflation,” did he declare. “Right now, a call for conciliation or negotiation usually doesn’t get as much support.” The stumbles of Argentina’s Peronist government underscored political “grieta”, the Spanish word literally meaning “crack”, often used as shorthand for the country’s increasingly polarized politics.
Recriminations over the apparent assassination attempt earlier this month on Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, an incendiary leftist former president who is currently vice president, have only served to sharpen the divisions. Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, a potential presidential candidate next year, recently lamented in a speech the country’s “infernal pendulum” that swings from one extreme to the other. The centre-right politician presented “building a broad consensus” as the only real solution, but without detailing a plan to do so.
Rodriguez Larreta’s office declined interview requests. The potential conciliator, however, is surrounded by tougher opposition figures who reject any openness to factions within the ruling Peronist coalition, said Fornoni, the pollster.
DEMOCRACIES IN PERIL Voters in a sharply divided Brazil face a choice in the first round of elections on October 2 between Bolsonaro and Lula, although several minor candidates are also in the running.
Lula has made some overtures to the center, including bringing in a former centre-right rival as his running mate who his aides say could direct economic policy if he wins. The home stretch of the campaign was marred by political violence, including two murders. Bolsonoro, like former US President Donald Trump two years ago, suggested he could only lose in the event of massive voter fraud.
In a long dysfunctional Peru, leftist President Pedro Castillo, who took office just over a year ago, is battling a corruption probe amid a plummeting approval rating. And in Colombia, although the outcome of the June presidential run-off was ultimately peaceful, the two main candidates, including the victorious left-wing president Gustavo Petro, said they had been the targets of violent threats during the campaign.
The authoritarian governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are plagued by more fundamental divisions, with critics attacking repression and the lack of basic democratic rights. El Salvador and Guatemala, critics say, are two other Central American countries whose democracies are under threat.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has gone to great lengths to consolidate power while ordering more than 52,000 arrests in an anti-gang campaign since April, but without due process. Last week, Bukele announced he would run for re-election in 2024 despite an explicit constitutional ban on consecutive terms. Still, Bukele remains wildly popular, with an 85% approval rating according to an August CID Gallup poll.
“El Salvador is a dictatorship, a beloved populist dictatorship, but it is a dictatorship,” said Guatemalan novelist Francisco Goldman. Bukele was the winner of an election widely seen as free and fair three years ago. In Guatemala, the government of President Alejandro Giammattei has decided to imprison at least twenty anti-corruption prosecutors and judges or push them into voluntary exile. With presidential elections slated for next June, Giammattei’s approval rating stands at just 19%, according to a July CID Gallup poll.
Goldman argues that the United States, Central America’s overriding foreign influence for more than a century, must take much stronger measures to reign in Giammattei and his enablers, including freezing bank accounts and imposing sanctions. other sanctions. But U.S. officials in Central America have focused primarily on containing soaring migration, another sign of the region’s discontent, while stressing that it will take time to root out endemic corruption, promote development and strengthen weak institutions.
Yet critics like Goldman are callous. “To sit there with folded hands and do nothing as Guatemala slides down the same horrible, viscous slope towards dictatorship itself is disconcerting,” he said.
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