Coronavirus has devastated Latin America’s population and economies, with one in four global deaths from Covid-19 suffered in the region. As the backlash over the pandemic intensifies, politicians are in the line of fire, with a wave of elections this year offering populist outsiders the chance to unseat faltering incumbents.
“Any crazy guy in these countries who promises great things is going to get elected,” said a senior banker in the region. “People have been through a very hard time and they are susceptible to big promises.”
The long lockdowns imposed by most presidents across Latin America failed to curb the Covid-19 death toll but pummelled the region’s economies, which shrank an estimated 7.4 per cent last year and are expected to recover by only 4.1 per cent this year, according to a consensus compiled by Citibank.
Hoping to capitalise on the unprecedented distrust of a political class seen as out of touch and corrupt, a series of maverick and fringe candidates are running in presidential elections in Ecuador, Peru and Chile this year.
“They [political leaders] are only slightly more popular than used-car salesmen,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House. “Anyone with any taint of association with the traditional political class will be rejected.”
Even before the pandemic, the region had been shaken by a wave of social protest that began in Chile in October 2019. The riots and street demonstrations there exposed deep dissatisfaction with a system praised abroad as an example of good government but perceived at home as favouring a privileged elite.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Argentina and Colombia a majority of citizens have lost trust in and would not vote for their president, according to a poll by global philanthropic organisation Luminate. In Ecuador, President Lenín Moreno’s popularity rating has crashed to single digits and in Chile, President Sebastián Piñera is polling in the low teens.
The exception is Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, where hard-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has boosted his popularity with generous cash handouts to the poor and strong opposition to lockdowns.
“In a region in which Covid-19 will have long-lasting repercussions, these findings reveal troubling signs for the future of Latin American democracy,” Luminate said. “The tangible decline in the favourability of democracy, particularly among youth, combined with support for protests and growing dissatisfaction with the current political class, suggests a period of high political volatility.”
Arturo Valenzuela, a Chilean-born former US assistant secretary of state for the region, said the volatility favoured fresh faces. “There is a new generation of leaders coming out of civil society organisations saying they have had enough of the status quo,” he told the Financial Times. “They want to change politics.”
After months of unrest in Chile, Mr Piñera, a billionaire accused by opponents of being out of touch with the population, bowed to popular demands for an elected assembly to draft a new constitution. The work will start later this year, overlapping with November’s presidential election.
Mr Piñera is not running again and the contest is likely to be fought between populists from the left and right. Daniel Jadue, the communist mayor of a Santiago suburb, and Pamela Jiles, a former celebrity TV presenter who boosted her popularity by sponsoring a law allowing Chileans to tap their pension savings, are among the frontrunners in opinion polls.
Peru, which holds presidential elections in April, experienced a period of political turbulence last November that saw three different presidents hold office in little more than a week. A series of populist candidates are contesting the election.
“None of the candidates looks credible as someone who could step in and sort the country’s problems out,” said Nicholas Watson, Latin America director for the consultancy Teneo. “I can’t see any of them being able to stop the process of dismantling the institutional walls put around the finance ministry and the central bank.”
In Ecuador, one of the countries worst affected by coronavirus, February’s presidential election pits radical leftist economist Andrés Arauz against Guillermo Lasso, a conservative banking millionaire.
Mr Arauz, who leads in some polls and is running a close second in others, is the protégé of Rafael Correa, a leftwing populist who governed Ecuador from 2007-17. If victorious, he plans to bring back his mentor as an adviser, a prospect that alarms some foreign investors who remember Mr Correa’s heavy borrowing and spending and close ties with China.
By planning the return of an influential former leftist president to government under a new leader, Ecuador’s opposition is following Argentina and Bolivia. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a fiery populist, was elected Argentina’s vice-president in 2019 and Evo Morales, a leftwing firebrand, has returned to Bolivia from exile after his protégé Luis Arce defeated a conservative interim administration in October 2020.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, the region’s second-biggest economy, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has overturned the pro-market policies of the past 36 years, curtailing liberal energy reforms and restoring state oil company Pemex’s leading role in national economic development.
The prospect of other countries in the region abandoning economic orthodoxy and fiscal prudence and returning to the big-spending years of the global commodity boom alarms investors, not least because commodity prices are now much lower and national finances shakier.
“Trump being so populist has legitimised populism in Latin America,” said one US business leader who travels extensively in the region. “The elections in 2021 are going to be a turning point for a lot of these countries. We are going to find just how many of them turn.”