Plenty has been said lately about the turn to the right in Latin America, trying to explain the victory of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, the outcome of Ollanta Humala’s government in Peru and the electoral result between Fujimori and the PPK, among other events that portrait, apparently, that the region is returning to conservative policy-making. Far behind are the golden years of the Latin-American left in which president Chavez, Kirchner, Lula, Lugo, Morales, Correa and Bachelet would meet cheerfully to define cooperation policies or regional dialogue.
Modest attention, however, has generated the programmatic, ideological and ethical crisis of the left. Parties and presidents are accused of being in the midst of corruption schemes or have lacked responsiveness to new demands of societies that took rapidly the road of modernization and change. The Latin American left, in that scenario, apparently has very few answers.
Turn to the right in public opinion ¿truth or myth?
At least, when revising regional opinion polls, the right wing turn is more of a myth than reality.
Fuente: Latinobarómetro 2000-2016
In the traditional scale used in public opinion to measure left-right position, 1 is left and 10 right. Graph 1 shows the average of those located in the scale (bars) and the percentage of responses don’t know/non answered (line). It’s possible to argue that the region is mostly centrist, with the exception in 2001 and 2002, the mean of the region never has surpassed the 5.5. In 2016 it’s 5.42, slightly less than 5.43 from 2015. Although it’s true that both results are higher than 2003, when the mean for the region was 5.4, changes have not been really relevant and significant enough to claim that there have been shifts to the left or the right. At least not from the perspective of public opinion.
What has varied more substantially, duplicating in 16 years, is the number of people that are not positioned in the left-right scale. In 2000, 7.9% were located in this scale, but in 2016 the number rose to 16.6%, although it diminished in 2013 and 2015 in relation to the increase from 2008. In the latest measurement it increased, in accordance to the pattern from 2011.
In practice, in Latin America, we have seen victories from right wing parties and presidents, but that does not seem to signal a shift of public opinion to the right, rather a search for alternatives as the left’s programmatic stance has weakened after several years of government.
The identity crisis of the Latin American left
When the region recovered its democratic governments, the Latin American left was tensioned by, I think, two core facts. First, many left wing parties were carrying a certain degree of guilt, real or imaginative, for the collapse of democracy in their countries, either by bad political management or the radicalization of armed movements or guerrillas that served as fuel for military intervention. This happened particularly in countries such as Chile, with the Unidad Popular; Argentina, with the Montoneros and ERP; Uruguay with the Tupamaros; and Brazil, with guerrillas affiliated to the Communist Party. In other countries, as in Colombia or Bolivia, similar situations occurred; and in Central America, the conflict derived in bloody civil wars between the end of the 70s and mid-80s.
Second, the international left begun to lose its historical trajectory. The True Socialism crumbled in Eastern Europe and the myth of the Soviet Union evaporated. European socialist parties also renovated: the PSOE defended globalization, NATO and market liberalization (Juliá, 2005), in line with the English Labour, French Socialists and German Social-Democrats (Hanckcock, Conradt, Peters, Safran & Zariski, 1998). Nordic socialists had to face in the 1990s an economic crisis of their own, putting limits to the Welfare State through reforms (Hubier & Stephens, 2001).
The Latin American left, hungry for some sort of identity that would renew its doctrinary roots and international support, and given the weakening of the far-left for at least some time, jumped enthusiastically on the chariot of renovation. Ricardo Lagos, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Tabaré Vazquez, Oscar Arias, among others, spoke in the same terms as European Socialists, defenders and promoters of the third way: Felipe Gonzalez, Tony Blair and Gerard Schroder. It seemed like finally some sort of tight bond between the modern left that governed in Europe and the left wing Latin American parties that some time ago had embraced the revolutionary way.
Yet, the triumph of Hugo Chavez in 1998 and the Bolivarian road taken by Venezuela spurred in the region the growth of a new left. Though barely “new” given its resort to old revolutionary and counter-hegemonic spirits, but now aspiring, instead of soviet-style popular democracy, for radical democracy (Cuevas & Paredes, 2012) and a lustre of indigenism (Quijano 2005). This new Latin American radical left opened a rift between the renewed left and attracted movements that had already begun modernization processes (such as the Brazilian PT). That radical left is the one that has weakened in the region, either by defeat, destitution or loss of legitimacy amid more generalized political crises or instead to avoid economic collapse they have had to keep capitalist policies, though camouflaged in a radical and “Bolivarian” rhetoric. The renewed left of the beginning of the transition to democracy is today outdated, accused of revisionist or, plainly, of leaning to the right. It’s a tension between historical legacies of the left and the search for a new agenda that was not completely successful in the 1990s and 2000s.
In this scenario of programmatic deficiency, with no clear references in which to seek refuge, the right has taken political space and is winning but not necessarily through its own merits, rather because the left’s path is quite gloomy. In the region huge masses of middle class have emerged, who want progress to continue, but other sectors of the population have become poorer in relative terms, to them distribution has not arrived and the left has been unable to answer to this dilemma.
The world’s left in chaos and the rise of the nationalist right
The triumph of Donald Trump at the end of 2016 was the culmination of a year where the traditional left in industrialized countries showed their incompetence. In Spain, the PSOE could not stop the rise of Rajoy to the Presidency and fell into an internal crisis that polarized the party (El Pais, 2016), while Podemos incarnated that maximalist and radical left playing all or nothing. Podemos today suffers its own internal crisis between the followers of Iñigo Errejón and Pablo Iglesias. In France, the Socialists ended their government with a President at 4% of popularity, to be later wiped out by Macron’s movement, losing nearly 80% of deputies. In Britain, Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn has struggled to capitalize on Brexit, but has strengthened its position versus an erratic Tory government (The Guardian, 2017).
Other left wing parties, such as the Greek Pasok or the Austrian SPÖ, have lost significant support in recent years (La Gaceta, 2016), surpassed by austerity policies, new issues derived from the current situation of the European Union and the rising of nationalisms against a wave of unending migration.
Even if the Social Democratic Nordic states are ruled or have been ruled recently by conservative parties: in Norway it’s a coalition between conservatives and the progress party, headed by the conservative Erna Solberg; in Sweden a right wing coalition ruled between 2006 and 2014; in Denmark rules Lars Lokke Rasmussen of the center-right Danish Liberals, since 2009; in Finland since 2016 rules a center-right coalition, including the xenophobic-nationalist party of the “Real Finnish”.
The crisis of the left seems more generalized at a global level, at least in the Americas and Europe. The European left is paying the costs of years in power and policies contrary to their main bases of support: trade unions and working classes. Today, the European leaders can hardly offer anything new or different in comparison to the right. Moreover, voters see them as incapable of ruling (Politico, 2016).
Defiant political parties have emerged from the radical left with populist tendencies (as Podemos or Syriza) and nationalist and xenophobic movements such as UKIP, the French Front National, the AfD in Germany or the Real Finnish mentioned before. These parties, at the left or right, not necessarily seek power but to influence the formation of coalitions with their agendas and are increasing their supporters with voters that feel abandoned by the traditional left (Policy Network,2015).
In Latin America, the bloc of left wing governments has disintegrated amid the exhaust of the favorable commodity cycle. In power have remained, not without difficulties, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and in Ecuador, Lenin Moreno barely succeeded Rafael Correa in power. For Morales and Correa support diminished. In Bolivia, the approval of Morales reached 71.2% in 2015 according to Latinobarómetro, but in 2016 it has decreased to 52.2%. Crucially, in February 2015, Morales was defeated in a referendum that sought to allow his reelection. Today, new formulas are being revised to allow him to continue in power after 2019 (El País, 2016).
In Ecuador, something similar happened to Correa, who reached its higher approval rate in 2013 with 73.2%, but in 2016 fell to 39.7%. Moreno, his successor and his former Vice President, succeeded him earning 39.3% of votes in the first round and winning with a tight 51.16% on the runoff. Both countries have a fragmented and dispersed opposition, and relatively successful economic management.
In this context, what has been labeled as “the turn to the right” should instead be labeled as the “collapse of the left”. The left renounced many banners that gave it identity and imitated the programs of conservative parties, leaving behind representing the aspirations of its core voters. Today, the traditional left not only does not capitalize on fundamental debates going on in Europe and Latin America, but it has failed to elaborate responses to new problems, such as the environment, fiscal and economic management, immigration and tensions generated by globalization. This is producing left wing parties being emptied of content and, as a consequence, of voters. The right wing, in the best case, and the nationalist right, in the worst case, have taken advantage of the spaces that the left, unable to find a new programmatic identity, has abandoned. While the right is in ascent the left bleeds out, loses support and begins internal debates to find a road. A road which is looking each time more like a black cat in a dark room.