Too early to tell if conservative’s victory in Ecuador is a defeat for populism in Latin America

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Guillermo Lasso’s upset victory in Ecuador’s April 11 presidential election may not mark the start of an ideological shift to the right in Latin America, but it’s surely a setback for populist and leftist governments in the region.

Few believed that the conservative banker would win. He was 20 percentage points behind in the polls six weeks before his victory. Worse, he was running on a pro-business, anti-populist platform in a country devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet Lasso re-packaged his campaign in the second round — shedding his conservative image by appealing to younger voters, gays and minorities — and won a comfortable 52 percent of the vote. His rival, leftist economist Andres Arauz, a 36-year-old protegé of former populist president Rafael Correa, got 47 percent.

After his win, Lasso vowed to become a “big ally” of the United States. He said he will honor Ecuador’s agreements with the International Monetary Fund,and will not invite Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro to his inauguration.

Some analysts have rushed to conclude that Lasso’s victory may the beginning of a string of victories by pro-business candidates that could shift Latin America’s political map to the right. Over the past three years, leftist and populist candidates have won in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico.

Those who forecast a regional shift to the right say that Lasso’s victory likely will be followed by the election of right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori in Peru’s June 6 runoff.

According to unofficial results, Fujimori came in second in Peru’s first-round vote — also on April 11 — and will run against Pedro Castillo, a radical leftist who wants to nationalize mining companies and regulate the media. In the first-round vote, most Peruvians voted for pro-market candidates.

In addition, a pro-business candidate could win in Chile’s elections later this year if leftist parties remain as divided as they are now, and Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro could be re-elected next year if he manages to control the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift-to-the-right theory goes.

But I’m not sure that Lasso’s victory in Ecuador will be replicated across the region.

He benefitted from a divided left and widespread abstention among indigenous people in Ecuador’s second runoff election. Yaku Perez, the leftist indigenous leader who came in third in the first-round vote, did not endorse any candidate for the runoff, prompting many of his followers to stay at home.

Also, Lasso started climbing in the polls in the closing weeks of the campaign when, at the advice of his image maker Jaime Durán Barba, he started deemphasizing his conservative rhetoric.

Duran Barba told me in a post-election interview that what happened in Ecuador should not be seen through a left-versus-right ideological lens, because the election was decided by young people, who don’t care much about ideologies. Lasso won largely because of his campaign’s successful “meme drops” and sound bites in social media, he told me.

Lasso’s statement to his rival in a debate, “Andrés, no mientas otra vez” — “Andrés, don’t lie again,” which rhymes in Spanish — immediately went viral in Ecuador’s social media and became the country’s most repeated phrase in the last days of the campaign. It captured a perception among Ecuadoreans that Andres Araúz was a candidate who constantly changed positions and lied, Duran Barba said.

But when I asked whether a pro-business candidate will win in Perú, Duran Barba said he’s not sure. Much like in Ecuador, most young Peruvians don’t care about ideological labels, and not even the specter of the radical leftist candidate’s sympathy for Venezuela or Cuba will be much of a factor, he said.

“Peru is chaotic, and anything can happen,” Duran Barba said. “Whoever gets a good advisory team that helps him or her connect with the people can win.”

Summing up, Lasso’s victory in Ecuador is good news for those of us who have seen the disastrous consequences of populism in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and other countries, and who believe that there can be no long-term poverty reduction without investments.

But the election season in Latin America is just starting. It’s too soon to forecast a regional trend. For now, let’s just say that Latin America’s 2021 political season started with a resounding defeat of populism, at least in Ecuador.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera



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