Sunday, September 28, 2014

Democracy in Latin America: The left marches on?

David Roberts
By David Roberts

Latin America's democratic credentials go on display once again in October, with presidential and other elections taking place in three countries – Brazil on the 5th, Bolivia on the 12th and Uruguay on the 26th.

While no one would seriously question the strength of democracy in Brazil and Uruguay – despite all the institutional and governance issues, particularly in the former – the same cannot be said about Bolivia. The country has enjoyed relative political stability since Evo Morales became president in 2006, and in recent years strong economic growth too, but democratic practices have lagged behind and his socialist party's stranglehold on the state apparatus is expected to give him a clear advantage in the polls. What is more, some question whether Morales should be allowed to stand for a third term at all, as that is forbidden by the constitution. Morales is managing to get round that minor inconvenience by maintaining that his first term didn't count as it was before the current constitution was introduced.

Even so, few would doubt the popularity of the incumbent and the voting process itself is expected to be clean.

Left-leaning candidates will also probably triumph in Brazil and Uruguay, although run-off elections are likely. In the former, the contest between leading candidates President Dilma Rousseff of the workers' party and Marina Silva of the "soft left" socialists is neck and neck, while in Uruguay former president Tabaré Vàsquez, who has the backing of current left-wing head of state José Mujica, is ahead in the polls.

So does this mean the shift to the left in Latin America continues unabated? Maybe, but increasingly less so in the manner of a few years back when the Bolivarian Alba left-wing bloc of countries led by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez on the one hand and liberal pro-market nations on the other were seriously polarizing the continent. In fact, Venezuela's influence in the region has waned, and was doing so even before Chávez's death in March last year. With its own economy in disarray, and oil exports falling (at least according to independent accounts), Venezuela has become an increasingly less attractive model to follow.

At the same time, those governments on the left of the political spectrum that have emerged in recent years, from El Salvador to Uruguay, are a mixed bag where socialist ideology has taken a distinctly back seat role. What path Brazil chooses if Silva does win – she's expected to adopt a more liberal, outward-looking approach on issues such as trade – will perhaps be the key to how things develop in the continent in the years ahead.

In any case, this tendency to move away from polarization is to be welcomed, as is the current strength of democracy in the region, as evidenced by the upcoming elections.

September 23, 2014

BN Americas