Region - Good news hasn’t been good politics for most leaders

Presidents remain in the doldrums of public approval even as the region’s economy booms.

Covid cases and deaths have rapidly declined and nearly every country in the region is experiencing a post-recession boom of economic growth. To generalize, after a brutal 2020, people’s lives are better today than they were six or 12 months ago and the outlook for the next 12 months suggests they will continue to improve. 

That sort of economic news would usually be positive for incumbent leaders and parties, creating an environment where the public will approve of their presidents and vote to keep incumbents in power.

You follow Latin America; you know that isn’t happening. Fernandez and the Peronists just took a beating in Argentina’s PASO. Bolsonaro is near the lowest point of his term and dropping. Piñera and Duque remain weak lame duck leaders and their parties lag in the upcoming election polling. Authoritarian leaders like Ortega and Maduro may have consolidated control, but they still aren’t well liked. Even the region’s most popular leaders in recent years, AMLO and Bukele, have seen public opinion drops and political disappointments in recent months. 

It’s possible to look at every situation individually and find unique details that explain each leader’s failings. But the regional narrative is that leaders who muddled through the bad news of the pandemic aren’t getting a political bounce now that good news is here.

Why would there be a regional pattern? Two potential reasons that won’t hold up in all cases but can help explain:

  1. The pre-pandemic situation. Before 2020, the region was in an anti-incumbent environment and facing a wave of protests. If the region is returning to status-quo ante, that could be bad for many of the leaders and parties that were struggling even before last year.

  1. Inflation. Economies are doing so well they are overheating. Combined with supply chain and environmental issues, that has inflation running high for all items, but particularly food. That is almost never positive for political stability. Even in a region that tends to do well in moments of high commodity prices, populations experience surges in prices as volatility and inflation rather than sustained economic growth.

I do wonder, however, if there are leaders out there that may be able to get over these challenges and ride the positive economic wave back to political success. There must be some scenario in which Duque or Bolsonaro or Fernandez see a political bounce in 2022 that helps them or their party. While I don’t think it’s likely, it would be a compelling narrative.

New leaders could be big beneficiaries of this good news. Guillermo Lasso’s 70% approval in Ecuador shows he has certainly benefited from some fortunate timing (coming to power right as the economy recovered and cases dropped). The new president also deserves credit for his vaccination effort over his first 100 days that contributed to the country’s improvements. 

Pedro Castillo has had a rockier first few months in office, but his ratings are stable and he could also benefit from the current environment (more on Castillo’s poll numbers in tomorrow's newsletter for subscribers).

It could also turn out to be positive for leaders who get elected in the coming months. As the case of Lasso shows, getting elected after an unpopular leader facing a rough moment and running into an economic boom can be great for political fortunes. If the economic boom continues, that scenario could play out again in Chile, Colombia, Honduras or Costa Rica, giving greater political capital and momentum to whomever wins those elections in the coming 12 months.

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