The recent murder of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has shone a light on the looming sense of chaos and instability afflicting Latin American politics. From economic dislocation to rising crime rates to the lingering consequences of pandemic-era policies, citizens throughout the region have responded to the situation by overwhelmingly blaming incumbent politicians. The upcoming elections in Argentina, Ecuador, and Guatemala will illustrate the continued strength of this anti-incumbent moment and test their political systems.
Holding public office during the trying days of the COVID-19 pandemic generally hurt anyone who held office in Latin America, and particularly conservative parties, many of which offered up candidates that failed to respond to the moment. Jeanine Anez in Bolivia, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Pinera in Chile, and Duque in Colombia all opened the door to progressive successors by mismanaging the pandemic and failing to respond to the concerns of their citizens. With the exception of Paraguay, this anti-incumbent moment brought change in 16 of the last 17 free presidential elections.
By all accounts, this anti-incumbent moment persists. Continued fallout from the pandemic and the global effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are fueling continued dissatisfaction with incumbent political leaders—even those that have only been elected recently. Inflation remains high in much of Latin America and high food and fuel prices are straining patience with democratic systems. Rampant crime is creating a deep sense of insecurity and eroding confidence in the rule of law.
Argentine president Alberto Fernandez, elected just months before the pandemic, struggles with over 100 percent inflation and an unfavourability rating of 87 percent, presaging a difficult election for his Peronists later this year (he has announced he will not run). In Colombia, after only one year Gustavo Petro’s congressional coalition has fractured under the weight of an ambitious reform agenda and scandals have beset his innermost circle. And despite taking office post-pandemic and with a mandate to heal democracy in Brazil, Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva has struggled to advance his agenda, facing increased polarization stemming from the January 8 attack on Brasilia and an entrenched conservative forces in Congress.
On the right, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso has been unable to curb a stunning rise in violence driven by expanding regional cartels and mafias and called for a “muerte cruzada” in May to avoid certain impeachment. Despite the assassination of presidential candidate Villavicencio, Ecuadorians will go to the polls to elect Lasso’s replacement on August 20.
Given the continued free-floating anti-incumbent sentiment, it’s very possible that the pendulum will not just swing to the opposite side of the political spectrum but could benefit outsider—and even radical—candidates. Argentina’s primary election this week was an important test case for this hypothesis. Congressman and libertarian economist Javier Milei has seized upon frustration with chronic high inflation in a surprise primary win,positioning himself and his Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances) movement as a contender for the presidency.
In the upcoming general elections in Ecuador and Guatemala, outsider candidates seek to push out two of the last right-leaning presidencies in the region. In Ecuador, several radical anti-establishment candidates have garnered massive support in recent years: Indigenous outsider Yaku Pérez narrowly missed the second round in 2021 and more recently, Jan Topic—with his Top-Gun inspired, mano dura swagger—seeks to position himself as best-equipped to counter the countries rising insecurity. And in Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo surprised many observers with his second-place finish in the first round of the presidential elections, raising hopes galvanizing support for his anti-corruption campaign and capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the country’s center-right elite.
What about the counterfactuals? In Colombia, Gustavo Petro benefitted from anti-incumbent sentiment but found himself as the more establishment candidate in the second round, only narrowly beating former Bucaramanga mayor and construction magnate Rodolfo Hernandez, who rose to prominence on his TikTok-driven anti-corruption message. The roughly three-point margin of victory was a notable result for a politician who lacked any significant party structure or national political experience; a more polished candidate with a semblance of party machinery may have delivered a different result.
Paraguay represents another apparent exception to the trend. The Colorado party’s Santiago Peña romped to victory with a nearly 16 percent difference over the nearest challenges. But Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, a right-wing candidate for Cruzada Nacional, took a surprising 23 percent of the vote, leveraging widespread frustration with corruption and nearly uninterrupted one-party rule since the late 1940s.
Even when electorally unsuccessful, outsider political figures and movements are still exercising significant influence. Figures like Paraguay’s Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas and Argentina’s Milei have an effect by mainstreaming their policy ideas—ideas that in some cases were inconceivable prior to their or their movements’ political rise. In proportional electoral systems like Argentina or Paraguay’s, even losing campaigns generally win enough congressional representatives to influence the policy agenda. Consider the case of Antonio Kast, who lost Chile’s 2021 presidential election to Gabriel Boric: Just two years later, Kast’s unapologetically right-wing coalition led by Partido Republicano (Republican Party) dominated recent elections for the same council that will write the next constitution.
Anti-establishment populism can have a healthy effect on politics. Populist movements can be regenerative, bringing in new policy ideas and scrambling rigid ideological positions. They can lift up previously marginalized populations and break political monopolies. Yet as history has repeatedly shown, populism can easily morph into demagoguery when it is unmoored from strong democratic institutions. For example, populists and demagogues are also more likely to militarize politics and the economy, as happened in Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico. They are also more likely to undermine democratic institutions that serve as a check on their power.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele were early beneficiaries of this dangerous trend. Both built their movements around frustration with established parties and both disrupted politics in their respective countries. AMLO’s new party, the Movement for National Renovation, broke the duopoly rule of the National Action Party and the Institutional Revolution Party. Bukele is the first president in decades not representing the traditional Nationalist Republican Alliance or the Farabundo Marti Liberation Movement, having left the latter and formed his own party, New Ideas. AMLO came to power as a leftist but espouses socially conservative views towards women and minorities and has militarized parts of Mexico’s economy, confounding the traditional left-right analysis. Similarly, Bukele introduced Bitcoin as legal currency in El Salvador and has made himself the darling of Latin America’s right for his ultra-hardline approach to crime and insecurity.
AMLO and Bukele are easily the most popular leaders in the hemisphere, while at the same time systematically weakening democratic institutions in their countries. Both leaders have been criticized for actions—such as weakening Mexico’s electoral organ or jailing more than one percent of El Salvador’s population and running for a constitutionally prohibited second presidential term—perceived to have undermined democracy in their countries, adopting the same autocratic habits as their mainstream predecessors. Polling shows that as crime and violence increasingly worry voters, their tolerance for authoritarianism increases. As a result, the shocking murder of Ecuador’s Villavicencio may further upend the political landscape as the country approaches next week’s election.
This is by no means the first populist wave Latin America has experienced. And, as in previous waves such as the 1990s and early 2000s that yielded leaders such as Hugo Chávez, Alberto Fujimori, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa, the wave is striking countries that lack the democratic safeguards that could make it more difficult to curb authoritarian impulses. The secret ingredient to prevent populism from morphing into illiberalism in Latin America turns out to be the same thing that, very lacking these days, is enabling their rise in the first place: strong democratic institutions, including political parties. If parties in the region were more inclusive, adaptable, and responsive, they would not find themselves losing elections to popular outsiders. Judging from the primary drubbing of Argentina’s mainstream parties, the upcoming elections in Argentina, Ecuador, and Guatemala will test the anti-incumbency trend, and indicate where the region may be headed.
The opinions expressed in this piece reflect only the author’s views.