By Azam Ahmed and Ernesto Londoño (*) – The New York Times
MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s presidential election, which has brought the party that governed the country for more than 70 years to the point of ruin, was the latest in a string of blistering defeats for incumbent parties across Latin America.
Recent elections in the region have delivered decisive losses to governing parties of all political stripes.
But while corruption, violence and inequality have been major issues in each country, no single ideology or issue explains the rejection of establishment politics. Voters, analysts said, are simply looking for new options, or at least different ones.
Some countries, like Mexico, have tacked left; others, like Colombia and Chile, right. Often the move is in the opposite direction of the governing party, but not always, as was the case in Costa Rica and Ecuador.
What the voters appear to have in common are higher expectations and more pressing demands for good government. Latin American nations, whose middle class has grown over the past two decades, are demanding more from their leaders.
“I just think there’s this tendency to view Latin America in terms of a left-right divide,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, the director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I think the sharper cleavage is over good governance.”
A widespread sense of frustration with governing parties was evident in recent elections in Chile and Colombia, where voters picked more conservative candidates to replace Presidents Michelle Bachelet and Juan Manuel Santos.
A similar rejection of the status quo is making Brazil’s coming presidential contest the most unpredictable and splintered in recent history.
In Mexico, the election on Sunday of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a frugal leftist firebrand, bucked a rightward political shift in Latin America that has taken root over the past four years. The move came as a leftist movement that emerged in the past decade, known as the pink tide, receded.
Mr. López Obrador claimed a resounding victory on Sunday night with more than 50 percent of the vote, and his party, Morena, made a remarkably strong showing in congressional and state elections. The defeat was especially acute for the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, which finished a distant third in the presidential vote and in congressional races.
Mr. López Obrador was able to capitalize on voter anger over corruption and inequality, which some attributed to market policies that failed to lift the incomes of the vast majority of people.
“They have tried to keep the left out for 30 years to apply a technocratic model and they didn’t respond to social demands,” said Daniel Zovatto, the director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “Yesterday was a real earthquake to release that pressure.”
The election elated the old-guard leftist leaders in the region.
President Evo Morales of Bolivia said in a statement that he was certain that Mr. López Obrador’s “decisive victory will write a new page in the history of dignity and sovereignty in Latin America.”
Venezuela’s autocratic leader, Nicolás Maduro, called the election a “triumph of truth over lies” that would bring Mexico and Venezuela closer.
But viewing Mr. López Obrador as a standard Latin American leftist in the mold of Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, may be a misreading of Mr. López Obrador. As mayor of Mexico City in the early 2000s, he worked closely with the private sector and left office with an 80 percent approval rating. And while his policies are focused on social welfare, he has promised to respect the market economy.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said Mr. López Obrador’s victory represented a rejection of bad government and a repudiation of the status quo.
“This was an outrage election,” Mr. Lansberg-Rodríguez said. “It was the rejection of a government model, and López Obrador was able to harness that outrage in a way that he hadn’t managed to successfully do before by making that pitch: that you’ve had five or six administrations of U.S.-educated technocrats that have utterly failed to curb corruption and make your life better, and I’m here not just to reform that status quo but to shatter it outright.”
For some in the region, Mr. López Obrador represents a new, pragmatic left, one that remains grounded in social programs but sees a role for private enterprise in his broader bid to end poverty.
“In some of these electoral processes across the region we are witnessing the redefinition of left-leaning projects,” said Rafael Rojas, a Cuban historian and professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City.
Indeed, Marta Lagos, the director of the polling organization Latinobarómetro, said it would be a mistake to see Mr. López Obrador’s victory as an endorsement of leftist policies.
Rather, she said, it is a stark illustration of the tumbling faith Latin Americans have in democracy, establishment parties and institutions.
“In Latin America, democracy hasn’t been consolidated,” said Ms. Lagos, who is based in Santiago, Chile. “There is a desperate search for someone who vows to do the right thing, and people are electing leaders who show up waving a magic wand.”
Latinobarómetro’s most recent yearly survey, published in October, found that faith in democracy across Latin America had dropped to 53 percent in 2017 from 61 percent in 2010. The report called the gradual decline of support for democracy akin to “diabetes that does not generate alarm, and advances slowly and gradually across multiple indicators in various countries.”
The number fell dramatically in Mexico. In 2017, only 18 percent of Mexicans interviewed by Latinobarómetro said they were satisfied with democracy, putting Mexico behind Venezuela, where 22 percent expressed satisfaction.
This loss of faith in democracy can be most easily viewed through the prism of corruption, exemplified by the widespread bribery scandal involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
The company admitted to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to officials up and down Latin America to secure lucrative infrastructure contracts. As prosecutors unraveled the scheme, presidents were forced to resign, and even placed in jail.
Mexico and Venezuela were notable exceptions. Neither country has prosecuted a single person related to the Odebrecht bribery scandal — despite evidence suggesting millions of dollars were paid to a close aide of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
“Odebrecht gave corruption fantastic visibility, it’s the pornography of corruption,” Mr. Zovatto said. “Impunity combined with mediocre growth and unsatisfied demands generates anti-establishment sentiment.”
A similar rejection of the status quo is making Brazil’s presidential contest the most unpredictable and splintered in decades.
The incumbent, President Michel Temer, whose popularity has oscillated in the single digits for much of his tenure, has decided not to run. At the same time, the parties that have competed for the presidency in previous years find themselves without viable standard bearers ahead of the October election.
This has made the far-right lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, who just months ago was regarded as a fringe provocateur, a highly competitive candidate.
While on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Mr. López Obrador, Mr. Bolsonaro has also surged in the polls by vowing to take decisive action to curb corruption and violence. Like Mexico’s president-elect, Mr. Bolsonaro has offered little in the way of specific policy proposals. (Azam Ahmed reported from Mexico City, and Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro. Elisabeth Malkin and Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Mexico City).
*Azam Ahmed is the bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, where he took over in the summer of 2015. Ernesto Londoño has been The Times’s Brazil bureau chief since July 2017.