Dolores Ochoa/AP
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, left, and presidential candidate Lenin Moreno of ruling party Alianza Pais, wave to supporters from the government palace balcony in Quito, April 3, 2017. Moreno appeared to have won Ecuador's presidential election but his conservative rival refused to recognize the results on Monday, calling on his supporters to take to the streets to guard against fraud.

Even as South America tilts right, a leftist legacy stands strong

Ecuador just marked a rare leftist presidential win in the region. But more significant is how the so-called leftist 'Pink Tide' of the first 15 years of this century has fundamentally changed voters' expectations of even conservative candidates.

Ecuador’s leftist candidate Lenín Moreno squeaked into office this weekend in what was a noteworthy win in a region tipping increasingly to the right.

But even amid the recent political shifts, one thing has become clear: whether a leader is left or right, the so-called “Pink Tide” of leftist leaders that defined the first decade and a half of this century has fundamentally changed the region.

Latin America remains one of the most unequal places in the world, but the gains in education, health care, and the upward mobility of the poor are improvements voters are not willing to let disappear. Conservatives today have to convince the electorate that despite whatever changes they promise to usher in, they won’t dismantle the social gains brought to shore by the Pink Tide.

“There are higher demands and expectations of the government,” in Latin America today, says Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in DC. “The people who benefited [under leftist leadership] don’t want to slip back into poverty and won’t tolerate or accept governments that plan to completely roll back those programs.”

Voters may be looking for a leadership change as the commodity boom that funded widespread investment in social policies and attention to the poor has faded into stagnation or recession across the region, and as corruption scandals are increasingly coming to light.

But “even though these governments are strapped fiscally, they can’t afford to go back to the recipe of the 1990s. These societies have fundamentally transformed,” Shifter says.

A decade of social gains

Unlike Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, where right-leaning leaders have taken over; or Venezuela, where the conservative opposition gained control of the National Assembly; or Bolivia, where the leftist leader was barred from running for reelection in 2019, outgoing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s handpicked successor landed 51 percent of Sunday’s vote.

The results are contested by former banker Guillermo Lasso, who was ahead in some exit polls, and who has called on his supporters to protest the results. 

Latin America has long been defined by its inequality. For decades it was governed in an “us vs. them manner, where ‘them’ was all of the population outside of the political elite,” says Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas.

But as commodity prices shot up in the early 2000s and leftist governments rose to power and implemented broader social spending, social indicators improved dramatically. Between 2003 and 2012, the region halved the number of people in extreme poverty (living on less than $2.50 per day), according to the World Bank. Public education and healthcare spending made up the bulk of social investment, and social spending as a whole increased from roughly 11 percent of GDP to 15 percent on average across the region.

There have also been concrete gains for the region’s indigenous population, long pushed to the margins, even in countries like Bolivia, where they make up the majority of the population. According to the United Nations, between 2004 and 2014 this population saw improvements in health, education, and political participation across Latin America.

Many Latin American countries developed a middle class for the first time during this period, which largely kicked off with the election of Venezuela’s former firebrand president, Hugo Chávez, in 1999. The increases in social programming – from public health clinics in low-income neighborhoods in Venezuela, to cash transfer programs incentivizing parents to keep their kids in school in Brazil, to building more hospitals in Ecuador – led to rising expectations about what people’s lives could – and should – look like.

“I don’t think any of these countries are going to go back to the years of ‘us vs. them,’” Mr. Farnsworth says. “It’s not a politically viable strategy anymore. In every election starting with Venezuela [the National Assembly election in 2015], the opposition candidate has clearly said ‘We aren’t going back on social gains, we’re going to try to implement policies to make these social gains more sustainable.’”

That may have been Mr. Lasso’s downfall in Ecuador. Although the razor-thin margin of the vote clearly indicates a desire for change, Lasso was painted as a candidate ready to cut social spending in order to pay off the country’s debt.

A study on Ecuador’s first-round vote by the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar (UASB) found that voters that made up the new middle class, which emerged over the past 10 years, pushed Moreno to victory.

“This part of the population [that saw gains in social investment and infrastructure] benefitted from social mobility and the possibility of consumption for the first time” under Mr. Correa, says Pablo Ospina, a professor of global and social studies at UASB in Quito. “They feared a new government would change this. People here don’t wait for miracles when it comes to politicians, so the fact that Correa gave them something over the past 10 years, even if just a little, led to this vote” for his former vice president, Moreno.

Getting the message

Outside of Ecuador, South America’s more conservative opposition candidates seem to be catching on. In Venezuela, democratic institutions are increasingly crumbling as Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, tries to hang on to power, despite the loss of one of Chavismo’s most powerful tools: oil revenues. But the opposition was able to take over the National Assembly in 2015 in part by assuring voters that they had no plans to roll back social benefits. Instead, they would focus on trying to restructure how benefits are funded. Argentina’s new President Mauricio Macri took similar steps.

“Macri understood that it was not politically possible to roll back social programs and govern the country. He has lifted some subsidies and made economic policy changes, but he has preserved some social welfare measures.… Without that things would get too turbulent,” says Mr. Shifter.

But there are incentives to vote for change in South America, analysts say. Despite the popularity of social welfare among the poor and middle class, the emergence of high-profile corruption scandals and slowing economies are putting regional voters on edge.

“With the economic insecurity now, there is fear that people will fall back economically. Today, the vote isn’t just [based on] promises about the future, but the fact that life has the potential of getting worse,” says Farnsworth.

Money from South America’s economic windfall of the early 2000s wasn’t generally invested – it was spent. After years of 5 percent to 6.5 percent growth, regional economies are suffering. It’s affecting how governments can spend, and it’s also making the revelations of high-profile corruption schemes bite even more.

“People are starting to ask, ‘Where did all that money go?’” says Farnsworth. “The money was used on current consumption, payments to political supporters, and poverty alleviation programs. Nothing was invested in a way that would add economic returns in the long term. Nothing was saved for a rainy day.”

Today’s conservative opposition is largely focusing on ways to preserve social programs while changing how they fund them, analysts say. And for the rare cases where the left maintains power, like Ecuador, observers expect the leader’s behavior may have to change as well. 

“We aren’t just seeing a shift within the right, but the left, too,” says Mr. Ospina. “It’s a reflection of a society that wants more sustainable change, and candidates who are realizing social investment can’t continue the way it was under the commodity boom.”

One result is that new leftist leaders like Moreno “will be held more accountable than” their predecessors, says Larry Birns, the director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “The population will keep him on a shorter leash.”

Whether the Pink Tide will be remembered for the social gains it brought across the region or the corruption coming to light today, “the electorate is forever changed,” says Shifter. “Beyond just the economic expectations, there is also a new sense of pride and political participation. That’s going to continue” no matter where the political pendulum swings. 

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