The populist wave strikes Latin America

Latin America has always been a haven for populist politics. In 2018, corruption and economic stagnation might see two elected as president in the region's largest economies, Mexico and Brazil.

HAVING ALREADY LOST two consecutive presidential elections, you would probably expect Andrés Manuel López Obrador to call it a day. But the charismatic, veteran left-wing populist is trying again as Mexico prepares to head to the polls this June. This time, the conditions couldn’t be better for AMLO, with spiralling crime, political corruption, and the continuing war against drug cartels threatening the peace and prosperity of ordinary Mexicans. Better yet, AMLO can buoy his campaign by uniting voters against the bogeyman to the north: Donald Trump.

The US President has been a theme in AMLO’s campaign. Casting himself as something of an alpha male, he will seek a much more robust response to Donald Trump’s tub-thumping north of the border, particularly in the wake of incumbent president Enrique Peña Nieto’s rather limp defence of the country’s dignity. It’s all set out in Oye, Trump (Listen, Trump), a remarkably conciliatory book published by AMLO last year. Most importantly, the book stresses the importance of cross-border migration and trade between the two nations. Unlike Trump, AMLO is in no mood for wholesale renegotiation of NAFTA.

Populist though he is, AMLO is no Trump. A career politician, he’s been a member of three political parties – the latest, MORENA, he founded in 2014 – and served as mayor of Mexico City, surely one of the most challenging jobs in world politics, for 5 years. His platform is markedly different, too. There’s no anti-immigrant or anti-free trade flavour to his policies, which are more in line with those of a traditional Latin American left-winger like Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.

Neverthless, AMLO represents a threat to Mexico’s corrupt political establishment; every six years, he’s cast by the media as a Chavez-esque revolutionary danger to the Mexican economy and to democracy. It’s a tired old story, and, with he and his MORENA party riding high in the polls, one that clearly no longer resonates with ordinary Mexicans.

But the establishment needn’t be too worried. AMLO, even if elected, may find it difficult to forge a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Neither is his victory assured: AMLO has a record of frittering away his electoral appeal, an inability to take criticism, and is a sore loser of some vintage. He’s even dismissed his detractors as ‘sold to the political mafia that rules Mexico.’ There’s still plenty of time for AMLO’s campaign to fall apart, particularly if his main opposition can get their act together. In any case, AMLO is nowhere near the threat that his opponents have cast him as: he deserves a fair crack at the presidency, at the very least.

With 800 thousand Twitter followers, Bolsonaro is streets ahead of any other Brazilian politician.

Brazil, meanwhile, has swung to the right. Although former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has a commanding lead in opinion polls for this year’s presidential election, it is the radical right-winger Jair Bolsonaro who has been making headlines.

Bolsonaro is an anti-gay, pro-gun religious nationalist. His platform, which seems to resonate with an increasingly jaded, socially-conservative population, centres around rooting out political corruption and restoring law and order. It’s tempting to draw comparisons with Donald Trump, but his rhetoric is nastier and cleverer. For instance, during the impeachment proceedings of then-president Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the brutal torturer-in-chief of Brazil’s military dictatorship who had a hand in Rousseff’s own detainment during her time as an anti-government guerrilla.

Where they are similar is in their approach to social media: like Trump, Bolsonaro has leveraged Twitter to cultivate a strong online following. His straight-talking, aggressive posts have given him an air of honesty that has connected with a population exhausted and alienated by widespread political corruption among his more mainstream counterparts. With 800 thousand Twitter followers and 4.9 million on Facebook, he is streets ahead of any other Brazilian politician.

But his own background as an army captain and his apologia for the military dictatorship conjures up some nasty memories for the electorate. Despite his gathering momentum, Bolsonaro still only commands around an eighth of the voting population; this is hardly enough to secure a victory, and certainly not enough to defeat Lula. As the economy continues its slow recovery, fewer Brazilians may risk a gamble on Bolsonaro.

The trouble stems from corruption. Latin America has a reputation – a well-earned one – for greasy palms and graft, and people all over the region are demanding political renewal. Brazil has it bad: former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached after a slew of allegations, and the incumbent Michel Temer – whose approval rating is at a dire 3% – has barely escaped facing charges himself. Even the ever-popular Lula, Bolsonaro’s likely opponent, has a number of court cases ahead of him. No wonder a third of Brazilians would support another military coup.

In Mexico, incumbent president Enrique Peña Nieto has been widely accused of being too soft on backhanders. AMLO’s solution seems to be to rely on pure political force of will, rather than on strong, robust institutions. If he can succeed, he can prevent Mexico going the way of Brazil. But there is still enough faith among Mexicans in political certainties; AMLO may be a maverick, but he’s a familiar one.

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