Governance Must Trump Ideology in Latin America’s Elections

Forget all the talk about the region’s “pink tide” and focus on which candidate is most likely to lift the greatest number of boats

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo.
By Shannon O'Neil
February 17, 2022 | 09:40 AM

Bloomberg Opinion — Outsiders are besting incumbents at the ballot box across Latin America. In a region where the establishment has long held a strong electoral advantage, those running against the political status quo have won more than half of the last 15 presidential elections, including in Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Chile. With voters justifiably frustrated by a lack of jobs, ongoing violence and corruption and the inept handling of Covid-19, many observers now expect that the region will veer down a new leftist political and economic path.

Yet whether expressed in hope or in fear, such expectations miss the point. More important than the ideological direction of these new leaders is whether they have the ability to govern: forging political coalitions, enacting legislation and making the most of the administrative levers and bureaucratic tools they have at their disposal. The future direction and stability of Latin America’s market-based democracies depend on it.

Democracy and governance have long been in tension: Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu all made their names conjuring up ways to have both. Democracy depends on ensuring universal suffrage, access to information and free and fair elections. Governance is more complicated, requiring a way to channel participation into ongoing representation and policy actions.


Few democracies have found a way to govern without political parties. While parties based on programmatic platforms are better than those that rely on pure patronage, both types help corral individual legislators to pass laws.

Governing also requires functioning bureaucracies and administrative agencies. Laws or executive decrees are just words on paper until departments of education, health, agriculture, economy, defense and others put them into practice.

Latin America’s nations have largely succeeded in the first instance: With a few prominent exceptions, free and fair elections faithfully channel the will of voters. Yet once in office, these leaders often have few tools to address voters’ demands — in a word, to govern.

Ephemeral political parties and fragmented party systems make it hard if not impossible to pass substantive legislation. Weak bureaucracies mean that even with policy reforms, the availability and quality of public services often don’t change on the ground. And the lack of independent agencies or watchdogs to hold public servants accountable means that patronage, nepotism and corruption metastasize. Without real tools to wield, new presidents will flounder and voter frustration will boil over. The inability to govern leaves these leaders and, ultimately, Latin America’s political systems and economies vulnerable to upheaval.


South America’s two most recent elections reflect the importance of governance for success. In both Peru and Chile, democracy prevailed at the ballot box. Yet the two new presidents face very different paths when it comes to fulfilling their electoral mandates.

Peru’s Pedro Castillo looks to have the hardest road. Peru’s traditional political parties faded in the 1990s after Alberto Fujimori closed down congress, and he and other candidates created “lightbulb” parties they turned on and off before and after elections. Where once a handful of stable traditional parties routinely captured 9 out of 10 votes, now none garner anywhere near such support.

This political fragmentation and transiency have led to policy paralysis. Instead of passing laws and implementing plans, the executive and legislative branch have devoted their time and political capital to bringing each other down: President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned to avoid impeachment in 2018; the subsequent president, Martín Vizcarra, dissolved the congress in 2019 only to be impeached by the next legislature in 2020. Peru’s current congress tried to bring down Castillo last December, after just four months in office. Such political brinkmanship has left little room to govern.

Peru’s bureaucracies, too, are weak. Revelations of bribe-taking by hundreds of judges and prosecutors have undermined the justice system. Police forces and school systems are handicapped by a lack of training and funds, especially outside of the capital Lima. And all kinds of social programs and public works languish with the frequent cabinet changes. Even the most talented politician would struggle against this paralysis; over the last six months, Castillo has shown he is anything but.

In contrast, Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric has a much better chance to meet at least some of voters’ demands and maintain the economic and political stability for which Chile has been known. Even though the traditional political coalitions that dominated Chilean politics from the late 1980s have now fallen apart, stable political parties from both the left and the right have filled their place. For all the political divisions that exist in Chile, congress routinely passes substantive legislation.

Government agencies and bureaucracies are effective. Few doubt the independence or capacity of Chile’s central bank, the courts, or watchdog organizations set up to oversee government finances, report on human rights abuses or check government statistics. And while its public education system favors the well-off over the less advantaged, the nation scores high on international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment compared with other Latin American nations. Chile has been able to get most of its school-age children back into the classroom, a feat many of its neighbors have yet to achieve.


While Boric recently mused about how hard it will be for him to govern, Chile’s institutions give him a much stronger chance.

In 2022, Brazil and Colombia will elect new presidents. The democratic process looks to prevail again, despite anti-incumbents currently having an electoral edge and President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic musings in Brazil. The question of governance is less clear, though both nations have an institutional advantage over some of their neighbors.

In Brazil, odds are that voters will bring back former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. His growing acceptance and even embrace by international and domestic investors have a lot to do with Lula’s perceived ability to govern. The former president knows how to work the nation’s complicated political system, having already rallied many of the centrist patronage-based political leaders and parties to his cause, including former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin and “centrao” congressional heavyweight Renan Calheiros. He also knows how to wield its bureaucracies, having set up during his tenure Bolsa Familia, Fome Zero and other social programs that efficiently reached millions of Brazilian families and lowered poverty and inequality.

Colombia too has its governance strengths, including a number of long-standing political parties, a court system that has weathered narcotraffickers and a constitution that protects private property. Many worry about the direction left-leaning Gustavo Petro would take the nation if he wins. Yet in addition to helping presidents get things done, working governing institutions also help modulate sharp breaks from the past. With a functioning congress and independent courts, Colombia has the space to strike a balance between voter demands and democratic checks and balances.


To be sure, effective governing tools in the hands of autocrats can threaten both democracy and markets. In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has used his position and his political party’s majority in both houses of congress to undermine democratic guardrails, including congressional oversight, the independence of the electoral watchdog and the autonomy of the Supreme Court. Venezuela’s and Nicaragua’s leaders have used the tools of government to destroy their democracies and economies.


Yet in a region as troubled as Latin America is today, free and fair elections are not enough. Its new leaders need to show they can deliver. Their biggest challenge is their capacity to make policy changes. In that respect, those who oppose their so-called leftist projects shouldn’t rejoice if they prove unable to govern effectively. The survival of the overall democratic system matters more than the ideological stripe of those running it. Given Latin America’s recent travails and the complex challenges that lie ahead, if these freely elected governments fail, they may take the region’s market-based democracies with them. That’s an outcome that only autocrats could want.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shannon O’Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.