Opinion | The Lesson From Bolivia for Latin American Politics

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It’s not easy to convince popular leaders who have had a taste of power, and who often seek a return to office as relief from the legal problems they face, to move on. In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, besieged by numerous corruption charges, was expected to pursue a third presidential term in 2019 but reversed course after polls suggested she’d lose. Instead, she promoted Alberto Fernández, a law professor and former chief of staff seen as less ideological, as her party’s candidate, and instead ran as vice president. He won by a large majority.

In Ecuador, the former President Rafael Correa is following the same playbook. His political movement nominated Andrés Arauz, a 35-year-old economist and former government minister, as its candidate for February’s presidential election. Mr. Arauz’s chances may depend on how much distance he can put between himself and the polarizing Mr. Correa, who in April was sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges.

Other leaders may see themselves as the only ones who can defeat their opposition. In Brazil, there is talk that the former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva may run for president in 2022. But while Mr. da Silva remains a larger-than-life figure in Brazilian politics, he would be 76 by the time he runs, and his support has its limits — enough only to get him to a second round in an election, where polls say he’d lose to President Jair Bolsonaro. Passing the baton to the new leaders emerging under Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency may be a better bet for his Workers’ Party.

The lesson does not just apply to left-wing parties. In Argentina, the former President Mauricio Macri’s center-right coalition will likely try to stage an electoral comeback in the 2023 presidential election. But, given his deeply unfavorable view among voters, his party may be more likely to find success by championing someone else.

Polls suggest that person may be Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta of Buenos Aires. Though some critics say he lacks charisma, Mr. Rodríguez Larreta’s reputation as an efficient manager has made him one of the most popular political figures in the country. It would be another example of a less polarizing figure offering a fresh start for Mr. Macri’s political project.

While Mr. Arce’s victory in Bolivia is cause for optimism, over time his effort to turn the page on Mr. Morales may become a cautionary tale. As Mr. Corrales wrote, successors who take over from outgoing leaders walk a tightrope.

“When a president betrays a campaign promise — in this case, the promise to carry the torch from a predecessor — they disappoint two groups: those who wanted continuismo, and those who wanted real change, with the latter never becoming convinced that you are a true convert,” Mr. Corrales wrote.



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