South America sees Latin populist tide recede

World in 2016 review: Corruption scandals in Brazil and chaos in Venezuela

While this year saw one populist tide sweep in on the democracies of Europe and North America, another was in retreat in South America.

In contrast to the one in the north, this receding tide came from the left of the political spectrum but nevertheless had the familiar populist features of charismatic new leaders rejecting the nostrums of the global leadership class.

The best-known representative of this most recent iteration of Latin populism which mixes socialism, economic nationalism and pan-Latin solidarity was Hugo Chávez and nothing underlines its declining force like the current chaos in Venezuela. This year tens of thousands of its people fled the stricken oil-rich country in search of the food and basic medicines that the Bolivarian revolution can no longer provide.

In Brazil the retreat manifested itself in the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff. This marked the grubby end to 13 years of Workers Party rule that once promised to finally push Latin America's most important nation to the front rank of global affairs but ended in a series of corruption scandals and public fury after a promising left-wing project ended in a morass of contradictory populist measures that provoked Brazil's longest recession in decades.

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Voter exhaustion

Elsewhere there were signs of voter exhaustion at a political phenomenon that started as a continent-wide rejection of the neo-liberal Washington Consensus of the 1990s with its faith in market liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation.

Peru turned its back on a long tradition of electing charismatic figures promising the earth, instead handing the presidency to the deeply dull Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a 78-year old economist with stints in the World Bank and IMF under his belt. Next door in Bolivia voters rejected a proposal to allow Evo Morales, already a decade in power, to seek a fourth term as president. The region's political map that had been painted pink around the turn of the millennium is once again being redrawn.

The easiest explanation for this is the drop in the prices of commodities, to which South American economies are particularly vulnerable. Latin populists whether of the right or left traditionally do well when commodity prices are high and there is plenty of largesse to be spread around.

But the sharp fall in commodity prices in recent years has exposed failings in office and after more than a decade in power it has been difficult for populist rulers to shift blame for the resulting hardships onto traditional suspects like local elites and foreign capital.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon is Venezuela, where the Bolivarian fantasies of chavismo have been terribly exposed by the crash in the oil price. But the crisis in Brazil, student unrest in Chile and change of political mood in Peru all take place against a backdrop of lower prices for various ores in which the region abounds.

But it is still too early to say whether South America's populist moment is fully exhausted. In Ecuador firebrand President Rafael Correa is stepping down after almost a decade in office. But despite accusations he undermined the country's institutions in order to advance his personal power he is likely to elect his chosen successor Lenín Moreno.

Populist excesses

As in Ecuador, across much of the continent the traditional centre-right still lacks mass appeal. It is leading the polls ahead of presidential elections in Chile next year but its standard bearer in the region right now is Argentine President Mauricio Macri. His first year in office saw him talk a good game of cleaning up the country after the populist excesses of Cristina Kirchner but bar loading up on foreign debt he has little else to show for his first year in office and needs signs of major economic progress in 2017 if voter patience is not to wear thin.

Meanwhile waiting in the wings is an ever-growing list of non-conventional candidates ready to tap into rising public anger at the perceived failings of democracy and its elites, old and new. In Brazil a former presenter of the country's version of The Apprentice is openly discussing running for the presidency on an anti-politics platform.

And beyond the simply unconventional are more authoritarian figures promising a strong hand to combat the endemic crime and rampant corruption that took the gloss off real achievements in tackling inequality.

With the death of Fidel Castro in November the era of the Latin strongman looked to be passing into history. But that has been said before, always prematurely.