All six of the region’s biggest economies may soon be run by leftist presidents with all eyes on Brazil’s upcoming run-off elections that could see the comeback of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a fresh ‘pink tide’.
Brazil's presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is currently leading incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in polls ahead of an October 30 runoff vote, leading many to speculate the country will be next to join Latin America's political shift to the left.
Lula is leading with 51 percent voter support against Bolsonaro's 43 percent, according to a survey by pollster IPEC published on Wednesday.
The poll echoes what many experts anticipate: that Lula will win by a small margin, such as 51 to 49 percent or 52 to 48 percent.
“I think this is a correct prediction. Of course, it is harder to know whether Bolsonaro will accept the result and what can happen if he does not,” Diego Sanchez-Ancochea, the head of Oxford University’s Department of International Development, tells TRT World.
However, Director of the Brazilian Studies Programme at Oxford University, Andreza De Souza Santos, warns that the election is not predictable as polls showed Lula ahead but the numbers in the first round were much closer than what was anticipated.
Bolsonaro voters could be underrepresented in the polls as some hide their vote on purpose or discredit research institutions and refuse to respond, De Souza Santos told TRT World.
“There was also an intense last minute campaign with many votes shifting for Bolsonaro, particularly in churches,” said De Souza Santos.
But if the polls are correct and Lula is elected president he joins a list of growing left-leaning presidential candidates elected in the region including Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first ever left-wing president-elect.
Leftist calls for change
Many experts including Sanchez-Ancochea are not surprised by this shift from one ideology to another as electors look for politicians that respond to their growing discontent.
“I think the Latin American electorate is generally upset with the lack of development and high levels of inequality and is looking for candidates who can offer some responses to those challenges,” Sanchez-Ancochea said.
Over the last few years each country’s spiralling economic situation, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has caused widespread poverty and inequality that many blame on their incumbent right-leaning governments.
Fellow expert and Michigan State University’s Associate Professor, Edward Murphy tells TRT World that “in most countries, there is a profound disgust with living conditions and the political environment so in this context, leftist calls for change resonate for many.”
A similar shift to the left, dubbed “the pink tide” occurred in 1998 when many governments witnessed the victory of politicians from left wing parties, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Brazil’s Lula and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
The pink tide referred to a move away from the neoliberal economic model toward more progressive economic and social policies.
“The pro-free market neoliberal model, so powerful in the 1990s and 2000s, never developed sufficient levels of popular support. The model produced crises and inequities that were unsustainable,” Murphy explained.
“The so-called pink tide governments did not necessarily overcome these problems, yet they were in power when Latin American exports were highly valued. In general, they were able to use the taxes from these exports to support redistributive policies, as Lula did in Brazil,” he added.
While the 2000’s wave was “heavily sponsored by the commodity boom cycle and China’s growth,” De Souza Santos warns “this time, a new tax policy may be needed and taxing the super rich (and politically strong) won’t be easy.”
Reemergence of the ‘Pink Tide’
This recent resurgence of the pink tide was kicked off by Mexico in 2018 with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. A year later, Argentinans voted member of the centre-left, Peronist faction within the Justicialist Party, Alberto Fernandez to power.
In 2020, Bolivia’s Luis Arce and the leftist Movement Toward Socialism party won the presidential and legislative elections in a landslide. Then in 2021, elementary school teacher Pedro Castillo became president of Peru, Xiomara Castro of Honduras and Gabriel Boric of Chile.
Many experts agree that overall this new left tilt is not as consistent as it was in the early 2000s as the current group of presidents differ on various fronts from economic policy to democratic values.
Latin America expert and Professor of International Relations at Webster University, Daniel C. Hellinger told TRT World that while the pink tide of the past was heterogeneous as well, most left leaders of that era were united in their search for “novel projects.”
The past trend was “especially shaped by the concepts of ‘twenty-first century socialism,’ by the indigenous idea of ‘buen vivir’ (good living), and by experimentation with alternative schemes of economic integration and hemispheric security organisations,” Hellinger said.
Today’s candidates don’t seem committed to those initiatives and are instead united around “their concern about inequality and their attempt to introduce some social and fiscal policies to fight against it,” Sanchez-Ancochea said.
Experts also question if some of the leaders even qualify as leftists such as Mexico’s Lopez Obrador, whose “presidency seems more like a pale rose wine than a pink tide,” Hellinger said.
“Also in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, leftist governments have quickly retreated from initial promises but perhaps Petro and Boric can reinvigorate the hemispheric left,” he added.
If Lula wins Brazil’s presidency, Hellinger doesn’t expect him “to forge the kind of cooperation with these young leaders to the level he did with Chavez and Evo Morales. And if Bolsonaro wins? Well that's half the continent lost in twenty-first century fascism.”
While experts are divided on what a turn to the left will signal for the region and world as a whole, they agree that Brazil’s election is important as the country is a significant player in Latin America.
“One lesson that we can already take from Brazil is that the far-right in power shifted the entire political prospect, the left today is much more central and the parliament is very inclined to the far-right. It’s not a return to the left, but a very different political balance,” said De Souza Santos.
The pink tide of the 2000s was characterised as anti-American and even authoritarian, such as in Nicaragua and Venezuela. It "rejected some of the Washington Consensus norms, such as that of diminished state expenditure," said Murphy.
So experts predict a Lula win in 2022 could further deteriorate ties between the North and South Americans.
"After the way the US left most of Latin America adrift to cope on its own with the pandemic and with the disasters being unleashed by the climate crisis means that Latin American centrist and left governments in the region no longer feel tied to Washington's global agendas," said Hellinger.
“That's evident in their ambivalence about the war between Ukraine and Russia.”
However, Sanchez-Ancochea warns there has been very little discussion of policy in this election, “so we are not totally clear what any of the two candidates will do in the future,” but he believes Lula will want to play a more active role in the regional and global stage.
“He will try to promote more collaboration within the region and within countries of the global South and the environmental agenda may also benefit,” Sanchez-Ancochea said.
Just as Latin America’s shift to left policies is not surprising to experts, nor would be a return back to the right as the pink wave too was followed by “the conservative wave” in the early 2010s.
“I don't think this shift is surprising, nor would it be surprising to see the right make a comeback eventually. In fact, despite recent victories by left candidates, the right still commands a big block of votes—as Bolsonaro's unexpected showing demonstrates,” Hellinger said.
Murphy echoed this sentiment, calling the shift to the left “currently quite fragile.”
“Much depends on what the left can accomplish. If their policies of social redistribution can create more inclusive societies that are more democratic, they may have staying power,” said Murphy.
“At the same time, the left's push for economic changes and greater forms of racial, and indigenous equity often lead to reactions on the right. In the current moment, this has fuelled nationalist movements,” he added.