Will Uruguay election be one more 'win' for Latin America's Pink Tide?

Analysts had expected that the wave of leftist leaders that took office across Latin America since the late 1990s would recede. But elections across the region - including Tabaré Vázquez's likely victory in Uruguay this weekend - show otherwise.

AP/Matilde Campodonico
Presidential candidate for the ruling Broad Front party Tabare Vazquez talks to supporters at a rally in Montevideo, Uruguay, Oct. 26, 2014. The left-leaning former president won the most votes in Uruguay’s presidential election, but he fell short of the outright majority needed to avoid a Nov. 30 runoff. If he wins, he will be one of many leftist leaders in power in Latin America, despite speculation that the 'Pink Tide' of left-leaning politics was on the wane.

Sixteen years have passed since socialist Hugo Chávez was voted into power in Venezuela, marking the start of a political turn to the left across South America. In recent years, some analysts predicted that the subsequent “Pink Tide” of leftist governments in the region would soon recede. But current voting trends tell a different story.

In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party fended off a strong challenge to secure reelection last month. Just days before, in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, who was perhaps Mr. Chávez’s closest ally, easily won a third term in office. In neighboring Chile, voters discontented with four years of a center-right government elected leftist President Michelle Bachelet for her second, non-consecutive term.

And in Uruguay this weekend, Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate of the Broad Front, a center-left coalition that has ruled for a decade, is expected to comfortably win a run-off vote.

The left’s formula for ongoing success has been a combination of economic growth, driven by exports of commodities like soy beans and oil, and a focus on improving the lives of the poor, through wealth redistribution and social programs. But it has also suffered recent blows, like the election of a business tycoon in Paraguay last year, after leftist President Fernando Lugo, who had promised land reform for peasants, was ousted in a parliamentary coup.

When former President Chávez died last year, leftist governments across the America also lost their most charismatic and radical leader.
But the staying power of leftist governments points to their huge progress in alleviating poverty while generally preferring moderation to upheaval, and resisting serious confrontation with the US. Leftist leaders have enjoyed so much success that even conservative candidates are finding they need to move the center to compete.

“The Pink Tide has endured because the conservative parties are not trusted to maintain the social progress,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington, referring to wide-ranging poverty-reduction campaigns by the leftist governments. “That has been the story of the last decade."

No more conservative governments?

After Chávez’s 1998 election, the region transformed. The poverty rate in Latin America and the Caribbean dropped from 42 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2012, according to the World Bank. And today, for the first time, the middle class outnumbers the poor.

Because of these successes, many opposition parties on the right are reluctant to dilute anti-poverty policies. Brazilian conservative 2014 presidential candidate Aécio Neves, for instance, said during his campaign that he would not scale back President Rousseff’s spending on social benefits. In Venezuela, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in 2012 and to his successor, Nicolás Maduro, last year, also promised not to dismantle social programs for the poor. Here in Argentina, presidential candidates positioning themselves for next year’s election say they will keep social security programs – like a flagship child benefit – which have been a cornerstone of government policy for a decade.

In Uruguay, too, Mr. Vázquez’s opponent on Nov. 30, Luis Lacalle Pou, has made a similar promise. He is the candidate for one of the country’s two traditional parties, which are both center-right. Because of the progress made under the Broad Front – it has reduced poverty from around 40 percent to less than 12 percent – the only way they can wrest back power is by “reconfiguring their [old] doctrines,” says Agustín Canzani, a political analyst in Montevideo.

“I think it’s very unlikely that there will be right-wing governments [ever again], in the classic sense, in Latin America,” says President José Mujica of Uruguay in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. President Mujica was constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive term. “We’re all permanently concerned about inequality,” he says about the region’s leading politicians.

Not 'left' enough?

But some of the leftist governments, like those in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, have been accused of authoritarianism – either because they have sought constitutional amendments to extend or eliminate presidential term limits, or because they have retaliated against critical news media.
Others accuse these administrations of not going far enough to the left. Despite his fiery rhetoric, nationalizations, and spending on anti-poverty programs, for instance, President Morales has been criticized for favoring a market economy. Mr. Mujica, who says he fueled capitalism so he could then redistribute its riches, has also enraged Uruguayans who expected more radical reforms because he had been a left-wing guerrilla.

“They call themselves leftist, but all they do is show their teeth,” says Gonzalo Acosta, 57, who sells used books from his stand in a downtown plaza in Buenos Aires. “There’ve been no real revolutions.”

But following the dramatic failures in the 1990s of the Washington Consensus policies – which included trade liberalization, privatizations, and deregulation of the economy – for many people the gradual improvements suffice.

“If you compare the region today with 15 years ago, it’s just better on every economic and social indicator,” says Mark Weisbrot, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington who writes regularly on Latin America. “I think [leftist governments] will last much longer.”

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