Chile’s Election Consolidates Latin America’s Rightward Shift

Sebastián Piñera and his wife, Cecilia Morel, celebrating his victory in the Chilean presidential election outside a hotel in Santiago.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Latin America’s political right is on a decisive winning streak.

In Brazil, the leftist Workers’ Party was ousted from power last year when President Dilma Rousseff was impeached.

Last month, President Mauricio Macri of Argentina led his center-right coalition to a sweeping victory in legislative elections that left the once-formidable Peronist party divided and adrift.

And then in Chile on Sunday night, the left’s last hope of hanging on to power in one of the region’s economic and diplomatic heavyweights slipped away as the billionaire Sebastián Piñera, running on a conservative platform, cruised to victory in the presidential election.

“Chile is saved!” Mr. Piñera supporters chanted on the streets of Santiago, the capital, on Sunday night, where one man savored the moment by holding up a bust of the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The region’s political shift began as the end of a commodities boom a decade ago forced governments to slash spending and as corruption scandals tarred the images of leaders who rose to power by vowing to spread the wealth in a region of stark inequality.

“The population of Latin America is sending a message after the successive failures and crimes of the left in all the countries where it prevailed,” Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right Brazilian lawmaker polling in second place ahead of Brazil’s presidential election, wrote in a post on Twitter, after congratulating Mr. Piñera. Referring to a regional conference of leftist leaders that dates to the 1990s, he added, “The São Paulo forum’s days are numbered.”

Among the leftists who remain in power, the two most prominent leaders are accused of resorting to undemocratic means to stay in office.

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela became a regional pariah after the democratically elected National Assembly was supplanted by a new body loyal to Mr. Maduro in August, the most aggressive of a series of steps his socialist party has taken to consolidate power amid a worsening economic and humanitarian crisis.

President Evo Morales of Bolivia, meanwhile, has been criticized for pursuing a fourth term in office in 2019, ignoring the will of voters who decided in a 2016 referendum that he should not be allowed to run again.

As the region shifts to the right, its leaders face daunting challenges in an era of slow economic growth and deeply polarized societies.

To a significant extent, those difficulties are the product of policies and expectations leftist leaders set in motion. Austerity measures intended to reduce inflation and balance budgets in countries like Brazil and Argentina stand to anger large segments of the population that came to see such things as free education and generous pensions as basic rights.

In Chile on Monday, leftists were feeling deflated as they began to contemplate an era of lower spending on social programs and education.

“Students still remember vividly when Piñera said that education was a consumer good,” Javiera López, the secretary general of the student federation at the University of Chile, said in an interview, making a reference to a remark Mr. Piñera made in 2011 when he was grappling with student demonstrations as president. “The student movement will continue demanding free education as a basic right on the streets and in Congress.”

Senator Gleisi Hoffmann, the president of Brazil’s Workers’ Party, which governed from 2003 to 2016, said the left in the region began to buckle as the 2008 financial crisis in the United States set off a period of global economic uncertainty and retrenchment. Right-wing leaders, she said, seized the opportunity to portray leftist governments as fiscally irresponsible.

“People had reached a level of well-being in which they had food, access to public services, and they began making other demands,” Ms. Hoffmann said in a recent interview. Leftist leaders, the senator said, were not in a position to deliver and did a poor job at convincing voters that their improved lot in life was the result of leftist policies.

“The social programs, the gains people saw during that period, were seen as the result of their individual effort,” she said.

Yet, voters also soured on leftist leaders because several became embroiled in corruption scandals. Ms. Hoffmann and the two party figures who rose to the presidency, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Ms. Rousseff, were charged in September in a broad kickback scheme involving state contracts. They call the case against them a political witch hunt begun to keep the left from returning to power in Brazil during elections next year.

Center-right governments have had difficulty carrying out some of the reforms they promised would usher a new era of prosperity in the region.

In Brazil, President Michel Temer, having spent the bulk of his political capital this year fending off a corruption trial, is struggling to build support for a pension overhaul bill.

In Argentina, Mr. Macri’s government’s proposed pension plan, which is before Congress, has set off intense clashes in downtown in recent days. On Monday, tens of thousands of people gathered to protest the changes — a gradual tightening of pension benefits — and unions called for a 24-hour strike in an effort to sink the measure.

Juan Cruz Díaz, a political analyst who runs the Cefeidas consultancy group in Buenos Aires, said voters had gravitated toward the right largely to reject the leadership style of politicians who fell out of favor.

“Voters are rejecting governments that were in power for a long time and became associated with corruption and certain authoritarian attitudes that became their way of exercising power,” he said.

Chile’s incumbent president, Michelle Bachelet, a physician, left office as a widely popular politician when her first term ended in 2010. Her popularity sank toward the end of her current term as a result of slow economic growth and a ballooning public debt.

Those factors saddled Alejandro Guillier, a center-left former journalist who ran a campaign pledging to build on Bachelet-era reforms.

In a race in which many Chileans found both candidates unappealing, Mr. Piñera’s campaign sought advantage by warning that a Guillier victory would put Chile on track to become a “Chilezuela,” a reference to Venezuela’s crisis.

Luis Tonelli, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Buenos Aires, said that characterization was unfair because Ms. Bachelet was a more fiscally responsible leader than many of her leftist counterparts.

“In much of Latin America, what we’re living through is the hangover of something that was not economically sustainable,” he said. “But in Chile that doesn’t really apply. It’s a country that is finally creating a middle class, and that segment of society suddenly has more demands that are harder to fulfill.”

The power of leftist leaders may have diminished, but it is by no means exhausted. Despite the criminal case against him, which may keep him off the ballot next year, Mr. da Silva remains the most popular presidential contender in Brazil. In Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, a socialist, beat a center-right rival in April.

Although as a candidate Mr. Piñera made striking overtures to the right-wing fringe, he also vowed to broadly preserve some of Ms. Bachelet’s initiatives, including expanding access to education and health care. If he is to govern effectively, analysts said, he will need partners on the left. The conciliatory tone he struck during his victory speech makes it clear Mr. Piñera intends to try.

“My friends, we may think differently, differences are great, a plurality of ideas is great,” he said. “But those differences must never turn us into enemies. Each time Chileans turned on each other, and viewed each other as enemies, we harvested our biggest defeats.”

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