Latin America: Uncertain Political Outlook

Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula has the best chance of winning Brazil's presidency in 2022, enjoying a lead of some 20 points over current president Jair Bolsonaro (Photo: Twitter/LulaOficial)

Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru all face political uncertainty.




During the next 11 months, three major economies in Latin America – Brazil, Chile, and Colombia – will hold presidential elections. Meanwhile, Peru is facing a post-election crisis and Ecuador potential escalation of protests.


Can a third candidate in Brazil win against the top candidates, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and current president Jair Bolsonaro? Will Colombia become more radicalized if the leftist frontrunner Gustavo Petro wins? How will Chile change after the elections? What is the political outlook in Peru and Ecuador?

Latinvex asked Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. 




Latinvex: What is the political outlook in Brazil? Can a third candidate win against Lula and Bolsonaro?


Michael Shifter: In highly polarized Brazil, where Bolsonaro’s support has dropped significantly, Lula has the best chance of winning the presidency in 2022. He enjoys a lead of some 20 points over Bolsonaro. While Bolsonaro’s reelection is highly unlikely, it is not impossible. The economy, which has not been performing well, is the major variable, together with the possibility that COVID will recede as an issue when the election takes place next October. Incumbency and significant public spending employed for clientelistic politics are advantages that could give Bolsonaro a bounce.    So far, the more centrist options in Brazil, from Ciro Gomes to João Doria and Sergio Moro, have been unable to get any traction in such a polarized political environment. They barely register in the polls. To be sure, if Bolsonaro’s numbers crater and he loses his core support over the next ten months, it is conceivable that one of the more centrist options could emerge, surpass Bolsonaro, and end up competing with Lula in the second round. That scenario, though highly improbable, cannot be entirely ruled out.   



Latinvex: What is the political outlook in Colombia? Will Gustavo Petro 
actually win or will an anti-Petro candidate win in a second round?


Shifter: The political outlook in Colombia is highly uncertain. To date, Gustavo Petro is leading in the polls and, barring some unforeseen, dramatic development, will make it to the second round vote next June.  Petro’s strong support among a sizeable sector of the Colombian population is not surprising. Colombia, which has seen considerable social unrest in recent years, offers fertile ground for a candidate who rails against the establishment and takes advantage of discredited traditional political parties and widespread corruption. But Petro has many liabilities: he is a polarizing figure who has very high negatives among Colombians. As Bogota’s mayor, he faced allegations of mismanagement and illegal decrees that ultimately resulted in his removal from office.  As a measure of how wide open the campaign (which has not yet legally commenced) is, there are roughly 50 precandidates for the presidency. It remains to be seen who will end up competing with Petro and whether that candidate will be able to unite the country’s wide spectrum of political forces. Although Petro could win and be Colombia’s first leftist president, there will be significant pressure to elect a more centrist, moderate option in the second round.

Latinvex: What will happen if Petro wins? Will he try to follow Hugo Chavez in 
terms of radical economic policies and nationalizations?


Shifter: Even if he wanted to, Petro would not be able to pursue the radical economic policies carried out in Venezuela over the past two decades. Colombia is not Venezuela, and the Petro/Chavez comparison is far-fetched. Unlike Venezuela in 1998, Colombia has not lost 40 percent of its national income over the previous 20 years. Despite facing many tough problems, the country is in far better shape than Venezuela was, and while there is a broad appetite for social and political reforms, there is little interest in a revolution that would seek to destroy Colombia’s institutions. It is hard to imagine that the unmitigated disaster and tragedy that Venezuela is today would open up the possibility for Petro to even attempt to follow the same course in Colombia. 




Latinvex: What is the political outlook in Chile after the upcoming elections? 
Will Chile become more radicalized? Will Congress be more splintered?


Shifter: Chile is at a crossroads. Its political outlook has rarely been more uncertain. The country displays high levels of social discontent and political polarization.  Rhetoric and policy ideas critical of traditional elites and are anti-establishment – whether coming from the right or left – are gaining traction. There does not appear to be much enthusiasm for the two candidates who are likely to compete in next month’s second round vote. As in Peruvian elections, Chileans will choose the “mal menor” (lesser evil), motivated by fear of what the other candidate would do. The Constitutional Assembly – a direct response to Chile’s social explosion over three years ago – is additional factor of uncertainty.  How the country’s new Magna Carta will be reconciled with the next presidential administration is another major concern. Although Chile is going through a tumultuous period and uncharted waters, it has great strengths, a capacity to build consensus, and has made significant reforms and gains in recent decades. To be sure, Chile confronts very profound problems, but seen through a wider, regional lens the country does not seem so dire. 



Latinvex: What is the political outlook in Peru after the ruling party Peru Libre withdrew support for Castillo?


Shifter: After a nasty and bruising presidential campaign, Peru remains highly polarized and faces monumental governance problems. As an outsider unlike any other in Latin America, with no governing experience or links to economic or political power centers, Pedro Castillo has been struggling in his first few months in office. The problem is less ideological than one of competence and capacity, which has meant many cabinet changes and contradictory messages and policies in his nascent administration. While Castillo’s break with Peru Libre showed a desire to govern in a more pragmatic way, it also eliminated his only base of political support. Peru’s Congress is highly fragmented, with many parties determined to obstruct Castillo’s agenda and indeed even to remove him from office. The political outlook is very cloudy and complicated. The Castillo-led administration will need to show greater clarity and coherence about where it is headed and what it wants to accomplish during its five-year term.       




Latinvex: What is the political outlook in Ecuador? Will Lasso be able to avoid  stalemate and massive protests or will he be able to deliver promised  reforms?


Shifter: After a very impressive and promising start, the Guillermo Lasso administration is confronting mounting problems that have resulted in sharply declining public support and a far more complicated governance outlook. The massive indigenous-led protests set off by Lasso’s policy on fuel subsidies seem unlikely to abate any time soon.  The president lacks sufficient strength and support in a fragmented Congress to get through his main policy priorities and package of reforms. In addition, information contained in the Pandora Papers related to Lasso’s offshore investments are under investigation and have created further difficulties. A crime wave, concentrated in Guayaquil and reflected in several deadly prison riots, has made matters worse and led Lasso to call for militarizing prisons. The coming months will pose a severe test of Lasso’s political skills and his administration’s capacity to control the damage, calm an agitated situation, and get its agenda back on track.   


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