Rise of the extreme right and populism and decline of the traditional right: Chile and the contagion effect in Latin America | International

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The political photography of the moment in Latin America is that of an apparent paradox. A process of change promoted by a left-wing president who has been in power for just over a year and who, once submitted to the ballot box, yields a result that is in principle incompatible with that transformation. What happened in Chile last Sunday became a mirror of the worst ghosts of the main governments in the region, from Colombia to Argentina, passing through Brazil and Mexico, all led by politicians from the left. The Republican Party, an extreme right formation, swept the elections for the Constitutional Council that will draft a new proposal for a Fundamental Charter. Led by José Antonio Kast and founded just in 2019, it achieved almost 3.5 million endorsements nationwide, the largest number of votes achieved by a political party since the return to democracy in 1990.

The vote, which far exceeds the traditional right made up of three parties –the UDI, RN and Evópoli–, gave this force 23 seats out of the 51 in the constituent body, although the Republicans have always been against replacing the law of laws drafted in 1980 under the Pinochet dictatorship and reformed 64 times in democracy. But the result also leaves some pertinent questions in Chile and in the rest of Latin America. What happened? Why is the opposition to a progressive government incubated from positions of the extreme right or, as in the Argentine case, from a cocktail of Trumpism and populism? In 2021 Kast lost in the second round against Gabriel Boric. However, last September, Chileans already gave their first support to a political project that has managed to interpret the demand of a society that wants more order and security, according to polls. Eight months ago, 62% of citizens rejected the proposal for a new Constitution from a convention marked by the left and independent groups, in a plebiscite with mandatory voting and high participation. It was a key boost for the Republican Party and its leader who, unlike the traditional right, has been implacable against the Boric government, whose popularity is at low times and does not rise above 30%.

Kast has raised the discontent of the citizenry that, in the social outbreak of 2019, was the main cause of the left. Today, the unease is explained by at least three crises: public security -due to the increase in organized crime and violence-, economic and the one that has been unleashed, especially in the north of the country, with irregular immigration that stresses the cities. It is not clear whether the results of Sunday's elections in Chile pave the way for Kast in future elections. It is still premature, in 2024 the municipal and gubernatorial elections will take place and in 2025, the presidential and parliamentary elections. But the Republican Party is in an advantageous position in the face of the political changes that are ahead.

This force of the extreme right exhibits its difference compared to the traditional right mainly on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and its voters are attracted by a discourse surrendered to the ideas of homeland and family. However, his main political challenge will be his performance in the Constitutional Council itself, which debuts on June 7, precisely a body that the Republicans rejected and in which they will now have to negotiate with the other forces.

Bolsonarism struck down the classical right of the PSDB

Kast's victory can be read as a symptom of the reconfiguration of the opposition to left-wing governments that began in Brazil and encompasses countries such as Colombia, Argentina and, to a much lesser extent, Mexico. The annihilation of the classical right, in fact, is a phenomenon in which Brazil was a pioneer. The far-right Jair Bolsonaro lost the last presidential elections by the minimum and that he came from managing a pandemic from denial that killed 700,000 of his compatriots and was measured at the polls with the undisputed leader of the Brazilian left. Bolsonaro, with his coup threats, his isolationist diplomacy and his misogyny, was defeated in the 2022 elections despite achieving more votes than he did in 2018, when he was still a hope for change, a promising unknown, for a large part of the electorate. . That reflects the power of the political movement he leads and how deep-rooted hatred of the Workers' Party remains.

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The spectacular resurrection of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his victory at the polls eclipse some facts that should not be lost sight of: that conservative moral force, in great harmony with the leaders of the evangelical Churches, and liberal in economics that we call Bolsonarismo It has struck down the traditional right, which since the end of the dictatorship alternated in power with the left. Between Lula and Bolsonaro, the majority of the moderate right-wing electorate prefers the former military man.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso's PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) is in tatters, insignificant in Congress and for the first time has been removed from power in the State of São Paulo. The defeat was inflicted on him by a former military officer and reputable official who had never stood in an election, Tarcísio de Freitas, Bolsonaro's former minister. Bolsonaro's future and who succeeds him as the opposition leader if he is disbarred will depend on whether that half of the Brazilian electorate continues to embrace a Bolsonaro-style ultra program or prefers to return to the calmer waters of lifelong conservatives.

Orphan right in Colombia

In Colombia, the right has been slow to react to the 2022 elections, in which it was defeated for the first time by a former left-wing guerrilla, President Gustavo Petro. In addition, he lost representation in Congress and was left without a clear head, after former President Álvaro Uribe, for years the country's most popular politician, saw his favorability shattered and became embroiled in a legal scandal that never ends. A photo of him in a private meeting with Petro after the elections marked a kind of truce between two political rivals that has not been broken.

Orphaned by its leader for 20 years, the Colombian right seems to be leaning towards more extreme positions, such as those embodied by Uribista senator María Fernanda Cabal, close to retired soldiers and who has said of the Petro Government that "communism is what we are living”, a statement that has not been heard from other right-wing leaders. This Thursday, after a retired colonel said of the president "we are going to try to do our best to oust a guy who was a guerrilla," the senator defended the statement, while the former right-wing presidential candidate Federico Gutiérrez expressed his repudiation: "I categorically reject any allusion that someone could make in relation to an alleged coup d'état."

In the most recent survey known about the leadership of the opposition, the pollster Gad3 asks for seven leaders, including a former president and a former presidential candidate. Cabal was the favourite, with 16.5% of the respondents' preferences, when no other reaches 7%.

Without a political compass in Argentina

The electoral irruption of the ultra Javier Milei threatens to upset everything in Argentina when there are just over five months left for the general elections. An ultra-liberal economist, Milei offers himself to the electorate as an "anarcho-capitalist" who promises to end the "political caste", reduce the State to a minimum, hand over the administration of education and health to private capital and, above all, solve chronic inflation. Argentina with a dollarization of the economy. Milei jumped into politics from the television studios, where he raised the audience with shouts, insults and proposals in favor of the free sale of organs or children. When he won a seat in Congress in the 2019 legislative elections, he stopped being a show to become a problem.

Milei threatens the traditional right like no other politician since the return to democracy, in 1983. He likes to enroll in the line of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, with the particularity that in Argentina he has no political structure. His power lies in the growth of the protest vote of young people who no longer trust politicians and are fed up with the economic crisis. The traditional right, represented by former President Mauricio Macri and his alliance Together for Change, is not clear on whether the best strategy is to co-opt or confront Milei. For now, the economist's incendiary speech has forced lifelong liberals to radicalize their right-wing discourse, fearful of the votes that he sees losing every day in the polls.

The ultra politician currently has 20% of the votes, according to the average of the pre-election polls, and has managed to divide the electoral cake in three in a country that has been divided between Peronists and anti-Peronists for decades. The possibility that he will go to a second round on October 22 over Peronism is today a threat that alters the spirit of the Casa Rosada and shakes the alliances. Today, no one really knows what to do with Milei.

From the Mexican Tea Party to flirting with Vox

The extreme right in Mexico has less momentum than in other countries in the region and has settled in the loopholes of the conservative National Action Party. Some of those who were hiding in those corners came to light in September 2021, when Santiago Abascal arrived in the country with an agenda ready to unleash a political storm. In those days, dozens of Mexican politicians took pictures with the Vox leader and signed the Madrid Charter, a kind of crusade against communism that accuses the left-wing governments of Latin America of being "totalitarian regimes", ignoring the abysmal differences. that exist between progressive administrations and authoritarian regimes like Nicaragua. Given the commotion that was generated in the press, the ultra-rightists retracted their support for Abascal and returned to his hideout. Only a handful of them praised the meeting and took the opportunity to come out into the open.

Another example of the crouching right that resists was the seizure of the capital's zócalo by the National Anti-AMLO Front (FRENA). A hundred tents occupied the largest square in Latin America between September and November 2020 to protest against "the dictator López", the insult that this group of ultras directed at President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The movement, born in the north of the country, claims to represent "millions of emputated Mexicans" and is inspired by the tea party US. Since the camp was lifted, they have demonstrated monthly to preach in the streets, speeches fueled by figures such as Jair Bolsonario in Brazil or José Antonio Kast in Chile.

All these episodes served as a prelude to the last, and perhaps most powerful, show of power that the extreme right gave in Mexico. The greatest leaders of this trend in the world gathered last November in the capital for the Conservative Action Political Conference, a kind of ultra-conservative event in which Abascal participated; Steve Bannon, former adviser to Donald Trump; the Brazilian Eduardo Bolsonaro; or the Argentine Javier Milei. For two days and welcomed by a not-so-residual audience, the extreme right muscled up for the first time in a long time in Mexico and left the possibility of building a political party in the future in the air.

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