Is a far-right populist wave breaking in South America?

Elections loom for Chile and Colombia in 2025 and 2026. Carlos José Cruz Infante explores voters' growing disillusionment with leftist governments and the increasing attraction of figures like José Antonio Kast and María Fernanda Cabal. These politicians' hard-right populist messages echo Donald Trump’s empty call to ‘Make America Great Again’

Is the political tide turning in South America? Last month, the self-described 'anarchist-capitalist' Javier Milei defeated Argentina's longstanding leftist Peronist incumbents. Analyst Patricio Navia commented that people voted against the status quo 'because they want the country to get back on the right track'. South Americans welcoming Milei's far-right populist rhetoric could get more like him elected. In the medium term, this would curb current progressive leaders' second pink tide.

Chile and Colombia hold elections in 2025 and 2026 respectively. Early indications suggest that a Milei-like phenomenon could occur in these countries, too.

The South American crisis

In the 2010s, the commodity boom of the previous decade drew to a halt. This had a significant effect on South American economies, and lowered living conditions. Some regional malaises, such as excessive income inequality, institutional mistrust and the so-called Dutch Disease, became more apparent and socially insufferable. At the end of the decade there followed a spate of strikes across the continent, affecting Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The 2020 pandemic was particularly pernicious in South America. Labour market informality and unemployment increased; poverty ballooned. Exceptionally long lockdowns incited increased domestic violence against women and children. The healthcare systems of most South American countries were unprepared to face a pandemic. To survive the crisis, governments spiralled into historic levels of debt.

By the end of the pandemic, South America was facing its biggest economic challenge since the inflationary crisis of the 1980s

The injection of public spending initially provided relief to those most in need. However, it also led to a surge in inflation, accompanied by economic stagnation. Unemployment, financial precarity and poverty ran rife. The pandemic also exacerbated the region’s existing education deficit, further diminishing its already low labour productivity. By 2021, South America was facing its biggest economic challenge since the inflationary crisis of the 1980s.

The left takes charge

During this crisis period, the voices for progressive change became unusually attractive to voters. Rather than demanding fiscal austerity, they proposed instead an expansion of the public sector. To end the region’s endemic inequalities and injustices, progressive lawmakers advised emulating the European welfare state.

Chile’s leftist President Gabriel Boric was elected in 2021. He promised universal healthcare, the improvement of pensions by suppressing private Pension Administration Funds, and 'a public, free and quality education system'. He also vowed to form Chile's first 'ecological government'.

In Colombia, President Gustavo Petro, elected in 2022, echoed his Chilean counterpart. Petro pledged to establish a National Care Service and a Ministry of Equality to integrate historically marginalised groups. He advocated free, high-quality higher education, universal access to healthcare, and life pensions for all, covering the basic needs of water, energy, internet, public services, and housing for families.

In both Chile and Colombia, soon after taking office, progressive leaders elected on a promise of improved public services faced crushing political failures, coupled with corruption scandals

Petro and Boric defeated conservative incumbents in their countries. Both sensed the country's mood well. However, not long after taking office, things began to change, and both faced crushing political failures. In his first year in charge, Boric backed a constitutional draft that was categorically rejected by Chileans. Aiming to end the conflict between the Colombian State and the FARC Guerrillas, Petro designed a Total Peace Plan. But the Plan lost credibility after Petro announced a ceasefire which the Paramilitary National Liberation Army (ENL) subsequently denied agreeing.

Petro and Boric have also faced corruption scandals. Both claim to defend the most vulnerable from the rich and powerful, yet the supporters and sympathisers of both leaders have exploited the advantages of high office. Petro’s son and brother requested bribes for 'presidential favours'. Similarly, without following due process, the Boric administration assigned significant sums of money to NGOs headed by the President’s political appointees and friends. This controversial case involved pro-government legislators and some of Boric’s ministers.  

Rising social discontent

Chilean and Colombian economies have stalled. While emergent economies are expected to grow by 4% in 2023, Colombia will reach only 1.6%. Chile may even experience a contraction of -0.5%. Rising organised crime means that both countries are grappling with serious security problems. Colombia ranks second worldwide for criminality. Chile, which until recently had been relatively exempt from drug trafficking, has become a more attractive prospect thanks to its relatively developed infrastructure, notably its ports.

Of course, Boric and Petro are not to blame for all their countries’ woes. Voters, however, are judging them harshly. Over half of Chileans disapprove of President Boric’s performance, while only 33% support it. Likewise, 64% of Colombians think President Petro is making a bad job of governing, and only 29% support him.

Make South America Great Again?

Against this backdrop, hard-right political figures in Chile and Colombia have enjoyed a surge in popularity. They depict themselves as ‘outsiders’ ready to repair the moral and other damage mainstream politicians have inflicted on their countries. And, like Donald Trump, they call for the revival of old national identities.

Hard-right figures in Chile and Colombia cast themselves as ‘outsiders’ primed to repair the damage mainstream politicians have inflicted on their countries

Moreover, the most popular President of Latin America, El Salvador's Nayib Bukele, has set a path that other extreme-right authoritarians could feel attracted to follow. Bukele has put organised crime and public security at the centre of his government agenda. He has deployed a draconian, highly effective domestic security policy, even if it has involved ignoring due legal procedures and violating the rights of those arrested.

José Antonio Kast founded Chile's Republican Party in 2019 but lost the presidential election against Boric in 2021. Kast, who represents the legacy of the Pinochet regime, is socially conservative and in favour of a laissez-faire market. In Colombia, Senator María Fernanda Cabal advocates for similar policies to former President Álvaro Uribe. She claims to champion public security, helping the impoverished and prosecuting the corrupt. Both politicians prey on people’s insecurities.

It may be some time before elections take place in these countries, but the Make South America Great Again rhetoric is already gaining momentum.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Carlos José Cruz Infante
Carlos José Cruz Infante
PhD Candidate, University of Rome La Sapienza

A Chilean national, Carlos is an independent consultant and researcher with over ten years' experience.

His main research interests include Latin American geopolitics, Chilean politics, and political economy.

He is the holder of an MBA, and his PhD thesis deals with government communication for unpopular policies.

Carlos is the former Chief of Strategic Content of the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Chilean Government.

He has advised the Chilean Mission to the OECD and the Vice-Ministry of Housing and Urbanism of Chile.

He tweets @ccruzinfante1

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