Latin America’s Covid-driven populism: Democracy at risk or resilient?



Populist leaders often use moments of crisis to advance authoritarian agendas, according to Arminio Fraga and Guillermo Ortiz, respectively former president of Brazil’s central bank and former governor of Mexico’s central bank and Mexico’s finance secretary. The “perfect storm” currently engulfing Latin America — a lethal combination of political instability combined with health and economic crises — is just such a moment, they write for The Financial Times:

There may be a silver lining to this disheartening narrative: the proven resilience of some democratic institutions. In Brazil, the judiciary, state governments and Congress have been an effective counterweight to Mr Bolsonaro. In Mexico, the judiciary has also blocked several of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obradors’ initiatives, including his attempts to suppress clean energies and impose restrictions on autonomous state institutions. This is relevant since it was widely feared that the Supreme Court, which includes several of his appointees, would simply rubber stamp presidential initiatives. Instead, its independence has set an example to federal judges. The press and civil society have also helped rein in authoritarian actions by both governments.

Democracy, accountability and the rule of law may seem out of fashion in much of the world. But, while too early to celebrate, Brazil and Mexico have at least experienced some of the fruits of having resilient institutions, they conclude.

LAPOP/Getty Images

The Covid pandemic will cause Latin America’s GDP to shrink by a staggering 9.1 % in 2020, swelling the ranks of the unemployed by 18 million over 2019 levels, pushing an additional 45.4 million Latin Americans into poverty, bringing the total population in poverty to 230.9 million (37.3 % of the population), the Wilson Center’s

As for its impact on politics and democracy, given the heterogeneity of countries of the region, there is no single answer. There are consistently high performers—Uruguay and Costa Rica—and others with chronically miserable rankings—Venezuela and Nicaragua. But there is every reason for deep concern that the erosion of livelihoods will batter the region’s still-fragile democracies in negative and potentially irreversible ways. Indeed, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that that process had already begun before the ravages of COVID-19…..In a number of countries, policies implemented by political leaders have served to boost presidential popularity ratings, but in other countries the pandemic has crushed the legitimacy of political leaders.

Survey evidence from Latinobarómetro and Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) confirms widespread disillusion with democracy, notes Aronson.

Patience with the official response will wear thin as the recession continues to bite and people’s situation fails to improve or deteriorates further. The pandemic has laid bare the fragility and inadequacy of social safety nets and institutional capacity across a range of government functions, she adds. RTWT

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