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Are we seeing a rightward shift in South American politics?

At minimum, a significant number of South Americans are pausing to reconsider the road they’ve been on for years.

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles speaking to journalists during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

In two of South America’s most important countries, powerful populist movements that cater to the poor and working classes have gone down to surprising electoral defeats in recent weeks. In two more, left-leaning presidents are in trouble.

It’s too early to declare that South Americans have reached a political crossroads and are making a hard right turn. But at minimum, a significant number are pausing to look at the map and reconsider a road they’ve been on for years.

In part, that’s a reflection of a natural longing for change. But the desire for something different gets more urgent when the status quo means corruption, economic stagnation – and in the most egregious case, massive shortages and the world’s highest rate of inflation (except perhaps for Syria, if anyone could estimate it).

That most extreme case would be Venezuela, where the movement launched by Hugo Chávez appears to be running out of steam. After 16 years, voters on Sunday didn’t just hand control of parliament to the opposition. They gave the opposition the two-thirds majority it would need to start undoing parts of the late leader’s populist revolution.

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Few people, especially those sitting atop one of the world’s largest reserves of petroleum, will indefinitely endure chronic shortages of the most basic goods, a crumbling health care system, and an economy in freefall.

Venezuela’s economy is projected to shrink 10 percent this year — a worse result than even Ukraine — while inflation hits an estimated 159 perecent. And the International Monetary Fund says next year is likely to be worse. Look for inflation of more than 200 percent. 

Venezuela was in trouble even before Chávez died nearly three years ago, and the global price of oil started to tumble. With the world price projected to stay low for the foreseeable future, the economic picture is catastrophic.

Chávez and his movement lifted up Venezuela’s poor by building a massive network of social welfare programs. For years, even as the economy struggled, loyal voters rewarded them with solid electoral majorities. But few seem to think that Chávez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, is up to the task. 

It wasn’t a huge surprise that the United Socialist Party finally lost an election, but the huge margin was a surprise. The electorate was very clear. About 75 percent of those eligible voted, and the opposition took 112 out of 167 legislative seats. It can use that majority to get jailed opposition leaders released, and perhaps even force a referendum on whether Maduro should step down.

In Argentina last month, it was the handpicked successor to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who went down to defeat. Mauricio Macri, the center-right mayor of Buenos Aires, narrowly upset Daniel Scioli and takes office Thursday as the new president. 

While Argentina is not the economic basket case that Venezuela is, it does have serious problems. Some of them, and their causes, are similar to Venezuela’s: heavy spending on social programs and subsidies, large deficits, inflation and a stagnant economy.

Macri promises to follow more business-friendly policies. But in the last few days of her presidency, Kirchner has among other things signed decrees that limit her successor’s room to maneuver on the economy

Now, add in the political troubles of two more unpopular presidents. 

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The approval rating of Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, dropped this year into the single digits. And as of last week, she faces an impeachment effort that seems likely to drag on even as her country prepares to host the Olympic Summer Games next year.

Chile’s center-left Michelle Bachelet fares a little better. Her plans to impose a progressive tax to help fund improvements in education, and to strengthen labor laws were generally popular, but she still faces questions about whether her moment has passed.

Both countries are struggling economically. Brazil’s economy, for instance, contracted 4.5 percent in the third quarter, compared to a year earlier.  Both economies are heavily dependent on natural resources and both suffer, like so many other countries in South America, when global commodities prices fall. 

But the troubles in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Chile don’t necessarily mean a conservative revolution is coming anytime soon. If they do turn right, it will take time, political skill and perhaps some luck. 

If commodity prices rebound, everything will start looking better – no matter who’s in charge.

But oil prices won’t go up just because the opposition won Venezuela’s elections. The country will still suffer from massive economic problems. And in past elections, opposition leaders have taken care to promise that they will not massively roll back the social programs started by Chávez. 

Bachelet still has two years left to try to right her ship. In Brazil, even if she is politically wounded, Rousseff is likely to survive the impeachment vote. Plus, much of the political class is enmeshed in a massive corruption scandal, and the opposition doesn’t really look any better.

Macri takes office hamstrung by Kirchner’s recent moves. He needs to take on Argentina’s generous subsidies and find a way to work with its powerful unions. He might just be in for four years of frustration.

Perhaps the exact road each country follows is secondary to how it is chosen. This is, after all, a continent where strongmen (and women) have long engaged in political shenanigans. But in each of these cases, as rough as it sometimes looks, a democratic process is at work.

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In Venezuela, the Chavistas lost an election.

In Argentina, Kirchner’s heir apparent lost.

That’s progress.