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Presidents Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil; Lenin Moreno, Ecuador; Ivan Duque, Colombia and Sebastian Pinera, Chile during the creation of the Prosur alliance in March 2019. (Photo: Chile's government)
Michael E. Shifter,  Inter-American Dialogue and Christopher Sabatini, Chatham House. (Photos: Storfster, Sabatini)
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Perspectives

Latin America: The Political Outlook


After riots in several countries last year, what is Latin America’s political outlook this year?

BY JOACHIM BAMRUD

What is the political outlook in Latin America?  Will Brazil’s Congress continue to govern independent of the erratic, but somewhat business-friendly President Jair Bolsonaro? Will Mexico’s nationalist-leftist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) try to extend his power? Will Argentina’s new president Alberto Fernandez govern independently of his vice president Cristina Kirchner? Will Colombia become a new Chile in terms of riots? What will happen in Chile this year? And will Peru be able to return to political stability?

Latinvex asked two leading experts on Latin American politics.

Michael E. Shifter is the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue, an Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Christopher Sabatini is senior fellow for Latin America at London-based Chatham House, a former lecturer in discipline in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University and a member of the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU and the Inter-American Foundation.

Latinvex: How do you view the overall political outlook in Latin America?

Shifter
: All five countries have experienced major disruptions in their politics and economies in past few years, and are confronting ongoing or potential crises  in the coming period. Uncertainty dominates the landscape and prediction is harder than ever.  If the economies continue to stagnate it is reasonable to suggest that the politics of virtually every country will almost surely become more difficult.

MEXICO

Latinvex: How do you view the political outlook in Mexico? Will AMLO try to 
change the constitution and try to run for re-election?

Sabatini: AMLO will remain popular for the foreseeable future, not because of his successes—which will be few—but because of his ability to control the political narrative, the politicization of key social safety programs and the disarray of the opposition.  He may very well want to run for re-election, but the test will be if “continuismo” remains as much of a third rail in Mexican politics as it has historically.  AMLO’s ability to overturn that will depend to a fair degree on the state of the opposition.

Shifter: AMLO is doing well politically, maintaining high levels of popular support and control of Congress through [his political party] Morena. Objective measures are not, however, encouraging.  The economy is barely growing and levels of violence are on the rise. There has been little institutional progress in dealing with corruption.  The opposition is extremely weak, there are deep crises in the PRI and PAN, with scant prospects for renewal any time soon. If Mexico begins to grow at rates AMLO initially promised, the political outlook could improve, but a series of government decisions early on significantly eroded investor confidence, and the radical shift in energy policy has been especially concerning for the private sector. Lack of growth will make it more difficult for AMLO to achieve the sweeping, structural changes he seeks, the so-called Fourth Transformation.  Although AMLO has concentrated political power in his hands and will do what he can to make sure Morena sustains his ambitious political project, it is doubtful he will try to change the constitution to allow re-election. Legislative elections in July 2021 will offer some indication of where the politics are heading in Mexico.  

ARGENTINA

Latinvex: How do you view the political outlook in Argentina? What role will 
Cristina Kirchner have?

Sabatini: Alberto Fernandez has already set his stamp on this government as being pragmatic and technocratic.  Whether that will remain will depend on the success of his policies.  While Kirchner continues to have a small but strong base, there appears to be a degree of Kirchner fatigue more generally that may hamper her ability to govern or influence from behind the throne.

Shifter: The success or failure of the Fernandez government will be determined by how his administration handles the economy, and particularly the enormous debt burden. Under the Macri government, both inflation and poverty levels increased, and Fernandez will have to seriously address both to satisfy his Peronist constituency. Though the decision has not yet been made and the terms spelled out, Argentina looks like it will once again default on its debt. There will be a power struggle within the government. President Fernandez has shrewdly sought to build a power base among the Peronist governors. Yet, whatever pragmatic policy that emerges on debt or other issues risks being challenged by La Campora, which is quite radical and loyal to vice president, and former president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. It was a good thing and very important for Argentine democracy that a non-Peronist government at least completed its term, the first time that has happened in decades. It will also be important to have an effective opposition to the government, possibly led by former president Macri who, after all, got 40 percent of the vote -- quite remarkable given the terrible state of the economy.    

BRAZIL

Latinvex: How do you view the political outlook in Brazil?  Will Congress 
continue to govern independent of Bolsonaro?

Shifter: Whatever one thinks of Bolsonaro -- and polls show he currently enjoys support of roughly 40 percent of Brazilians -- he has shown in his first year that he can govern the country. Barring some dramatic unforeseen development, there is no reason to believe he can't be reelected. That will depend largely on the state of the economy and the strength of an opposition candidate in 2022.  [Ex-president Luiz Inacio] Lula's release from jail gave the left something to cheer about, though there is a sense that his time has passed and in fact he cannot run again. Bolsonaro has created a new political party and its main constituent groups include the military, the neoliberals (led by economy minister Paolo Guedes), and the ideologues, including the evangelicals and members of his family. The comprehensive pension reform, led by Chamber of Deputies president Rodrigo Maia, was badly needed and passed surprisingly smoothly. The question is whether other critical reforms -- tax and labor policies, infrastructure investment and trade openings -- will now move forward. Commercial ties with both the US and China are solid.  Business leaders tend to be a bit more sanguine than many analysts about economic prospects. Municipal elections in the fall will offer some sense of Bolsonaro's national standing and the extent of Lula's influence.   

Sabatini: Bolsonaro has no political base within the Congress.  What he does have is a very savvy political dealmaker in Paulo Guedes.  On economic matters, Guedes may be able to continue to pass reforms that until recently many thought impossible while Bolsonaro wages in his own political culture wars with little bearing on the day-to-day demands citizens and Congress. 

COLOMBIA

Latinvex: How do you view the political outlook in Colombia? Will it become a 
new Chile with major disruptions or will the protests ebb away?

Shifter: Last year's street protests in Colombia revealed broad discontent with an array of government policies. They were led mainly by young people, whose messages and demands about the failure to implement the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, inadequate pensions, and deficient public services like education and health, were amplified by social media. Although President Duque presided over one of the region's best performing economies in 2019, unemployment has gone up and the disparities between the well off and the poor remain significant  At least as measured by the Gini coefficient, Colombia has the unhappy distinction of being the most unequal country in Latin America. In recent years, Colombia's traditional political parties have lost a great deal of legitimacy and credibility. Perhaps the most interesting recent development in Colombia-- a glimmer of hope -- were the results of the October's mayoral elections, especially in Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena. New parties and leaders are now in the spotlight and will be tested. They could help renovate and transform Colombia's politics if they succeed in channeling demands and addressing the country's main concerns, including corruption, insecurity, unemployment, and bad public services. If they don’t, then street demonstrations will almost certainly continue and could even escalate. President Ivan Duque's critics accuse him of lacking clear priorities and not charting a coherent course for his government. He is, however, in a very difficult position. In dealing with the protests, sectors of his own Democratic Center Party have taken sharp aim at Duque's open and accommodating stance with demonstrators, insisting that the cause of unrest can be traced to Venezuela and Cuba.  At the same time, the protesters have been frustrated with the government's inadequate response to their demands.    

Sabatini: The demands for improved social services and social mobility are real.  The politicization of those demands is dangerous.  The political polarization in Colombian (just witness the last presidential elections) politics and, in particular, partisan politics, will help to fuel these demands and the protests around them.  President Duque’s plans to increase social spending may help alleviate some of the pressure, but as elections approach look for them to continue.   One difference with Chile’s popular upheaval is that the Chilean protests are around specific—though heterogenous—demands: education, pension reform, healthcare, and political reform.  The Colombia demonstrations are more inchoate, making them difficult to address.

PERU

Latinvex: How do you view the political outlook in Peru? Will it ever be 
politically stable?

Sabatini: Dissolving the Congress was a hugely risky move, especially now that it appears that more than 20 parties will be elected to the legislative body.  The problem with Peru’s Congress wasn’t corruption per se.  Corruption is a symptom of deeper issues—lack of transparency, lack of checks and balances and, in Peru’s case too, the complete absence of a party system.  A “do-over” of a Congress won’t solve those and in fact will further weaken institutions and the rule of law.

Shifter: Peru's politics have long been shaky and uncertain, with no political parties to speak of, and lacking effective leadership, as evidenced by the fact that all former living presidents are facing serious corruption charges.  There is no reason to believe that will change in 2020. Peruvians have long been disgusted by politics as usual, yet little has fundamentally changed. The paradox has always been that despite the dismal politics, Peru's economy has grown significantly over the past three decades. Still, while president Martin Vizcarra has been able to focus considerable attention on the corruption issue, in 2020 he will probably also have to deal more than he has so far with economic policy, given below average growth and still vast inequities in the society.  Although the kinds of street protests that dominated both Chile and Colombia at the end of 2019 were not on display in Peru, the country has many of the same conditions so massive unrest should not be ruled out in 2020. Peru's new congress (replacing the one Vizcarra dissolved on September 30)  that will be elected on January 26 offers an opportunity to work more constructively with the executive, for 16 months, but attention will soon turn to the 2021 presidential election.  The fight against corruption is expected to be the dominant issue in that campaign, though economic policy will also be front and center.   .    

 


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