Most of the takes about Gabriel Boric’s historic election victory yesterday in Chile identify him as a “leftist,” and the opponent he defeated, José Antonio Kast, as a “rightist.” Expect a lot of pixels to be spilled over the next weeks, again, about a “rising leftist tide” in Latin America.
I’m not sure how helpful this analysis is. These days, regardless of their views on abortion or taxing the wealthy, the more interesting label is whether a leader intends to work within established democratic norms or to dismantle them. Some leftists have stayed within the system, and left power when they lost elections (Lula, Cristina Fernández). Others have dismantled the system and undermined elections (Ortega, Chávez/Maduro). (Still others—Zelaya, Rousseff, Lugo—weren’t allowed to finish their terms.)
Right-wingers come in both flavors too. Bolsonaro is weakening Brazil’s institutions, and may be setting up his own January 6-style plan to remain in power past the 2022 elections. But nobody credibly believes that Iván Duque is hatching a plan to keep the right in power regardless of next year’s vote outcome in Colombia. And Kast, along with Chile’s current rightist president, Sebastián Piñera, was quick to congratulate Boric on his victory.
Centrists, too, exist on both axes. El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is following the populist-authoritarian playbook step by step—but he adheres to no ideological extreme.
What I don’t have a clear idea of from the current Chile coverage is where Gabriel Boric may fit on the democratic-authoritarian axis. So far, especially since he made the runoff, his rhetoric has been institutional and norms-respecting. There’s a sense that he was the less authoritarian-minded candidate, compared to Kast. Analysts who’ve followed his career find him thoughtful and consensus-seeking, and willing to criticize the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. That doesn’t apply to everyone in his coalition, though.
The jury is still out on other new leaders, like Honduras’s Xiomara Castro (who hasn’t been sworn in yet) and Peru’s Pedro Castillo (who has had trouble enough forming a viable government). They both go on the left side of this graphic, but it’s hard to know yet whether they go into the top left or bottom left. Neither, though, seems bent on building a cult of personality.
As with them and all of the other leaders in the above graphic, their up-down movement is more interesting to monitor than their right-left movement. It will have the greater implications for regional stability and the survival of democracy.
The up-down movement should also have the greater bearing on how the U.S. government chooses to relate to each leader. It should—but I don’t know if it will. My fear is that Washington’s old “right-left” reflex may kick in. “Right” for many here, is synonymous with pro-business, more likely to buy our weapons and let us invest in their commodity production, and less likely to flirt with China. “Left,” for many, is the opposite of that, denying access to our military and our investors.
If the left-right axis continues to predominate in U.S. policymakers’ minds over the up-down axis, the Biden administration and other D.C opinionmakers may end up embracing rightists who damage democracy and shunning leftists who respect it. May that fear not be realized in 2022.