from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

South America's Turn to Deadlock

Deputies of right-wing party gesture in a sign of rejection during a session at the congress for a draft law of the government, which seeks to ease the country's strict abortion ban, in Valparaiso, Chile March 17, 2016. Rodrigo Garrido

June 27, 2017

Deputies of right-wing party gesture in a sign of rejection during a session at the congress for a draft law of the government, which seeks to ease the country's strict abortion ban, in Valparaiso, Chile March 17, 2016. Rodrigo Garrido
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Scholars of Latin America spent much of the first decade of this century discussing the causes and consequences of the region's turn to the left, under Venezuela's Chávez, Argentina's Kirchners, Brazil's Workers' Party, and other variants of leftist parties. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that as the left began to lose power in the second decade of this century, journalists and academics began to talk of the region's tilt to the right.

But looking across South America's political landscape, it becomes apparent that the region hasn't really turned toward right-leaning politics as much as it has chosen deadlock. In country after country, the president is governing with either minority support in Congress, or will be perilously close to doing so after upcoming elections.

In Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) narrowly won the presidency over Keiko Fujimori, but her Fuerza Popular party gained 56% of Congress. This majority, combined with the divided Left, has empowered the Fuerza Popular to block PPK at every turn, including by removing PPK's ministers or forcing them to resign.

Argentina's President Maurício Macri was able to move forward on a variety of reforms in his first year, but now faces a rockier outlook. Four months away from midterm elections that will be crucial to the fate of his market reforms, the ever-surprising former president, Cristina Kirchner last week announced that she was founding her own Unidad Ciudadana party, and declared herself a candidate for an open Buenos Aires Senate seat that she will contest against a close Macri ally. As one local pundit summarized the situation, Macri needs to defeat Kirchner to finally become president and convince investors fearful of a return to populism; Kirchner needs to destroy the Macri presidency if she is to have a political future. The midterm elections are widely thought to be a bellwether for the 2019 presidential election, but although some Macri gains are anticipated, it is not clear such gains would lead to a change in the balance of power in Congress that would enable Macri to move as quickly and surely on reform as he might wish.

Brazil's stand-in president, Michel Temer, has lost all capacity to govern the fragmented Congress, whose members are running scared of losing their heads either from the sword of justice or the scimitar of popular disgust.  After some initial success on fiscal reform, social security reform is back on the back burner, labor reform has been narrowly blocked in committee, and tax reform, political reform, and other significant changes are a distant mirage.

In Chile, Michelle Bachelet's approval ratings have been improving of late, and she hopes to move forward on same-sex marriage and infrastructure investment plans in her remaining months in office. She may yet do so, but her successor will likely have a harder time of it. Polling in the presidential election continues to tip between Chile Vamos' Sebastián Piñera and the Nueva Mayoria's presumptive nominee, Alejandro Guillier, who have each polled in the 20 to 25 percent range in recent months. The 155-seat lower house, and 23 of 50 Senate seats, are also pending in the November elections. Concomitant elections for the executive branch and much of the legislature may ensure the presidential winner has some legislative coattails. But the extreme fragmentation of this year's primaries, the breakup of the old anti-authoritarian coalition, declining voter turnout, and simmering protests raise questions about the political system's ability to manufacture a convincing legislative majority. This may matter less in Chile than in some parts of Latin America, given the broad Chilean consensus around economic policies, but it does suggest that governance under the next president will not be an easy matter.

In Colombia, former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana are doing everything they can to make certain that the election campaign is polarized around the peace deal, thus continuing the back-and-forth between those critical of the deal and supporters of President Juan Manuel Santos' effort. The initial candidate of Uribe's Centro Democrático party, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, has had to withdraw due to allegations in the Odebrecht case, but that does not seem to have weakened the "no" side's resolve. The more that fissures around the peace deal dominate the 2018 election cycle, the less likely that other issues will become a matter of debate. In a political landscape in which former vice president Germán Vargas Lleras leads, but no other candidate is yet a clear second-place contender, emphasizing the shortcomings of the peace deal makes strategic sense. But the longer-term upshot may be a deepening of the polarization that emerged around the October plebiscite on the peace deal.

The path toward deadlock is by no means certain. But in a context of sluggish regional growth, a massive regional corruption scandal, declining trust in democratic institutions, and the fracturing of traditional political parties, the possibility of gridlock does raise red flags. Influential social scientists have long warned of the perils of presidentialism, with its tendency toward zero-sum politics and regime breakdown. Over the past twenty years, Latin America has largely managed to avoid these perils through coalition-making and consensus-building. But the region's susceptibility to stalemate suggests these may yet become tense times for the region's democracies.

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