Friday, July 07, 2006

The Americas: Leftist tide may be ebbing

By MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press Writer Thu Jul 6, 7:09 PM ET MEXICO CITY - Conservative Felipe Calderon's apparent victory could signal that the leftist tide sweeping Latin America has reached its high-water mark, as voters frightened by the radicalism of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seek refuge in more mainstream ideas across the region. That trend has emerged with Mexico's presidential vote count Thursday, the setback dealt to Bolivian President Evo Morales in a referendum Sunday, Peruvian moderate Alan Garcia's victory over Chavez ally Ollanta Humala last month and the landslide re-election of Colombian conservative Alvaro Uribe in May. Intolerance, confrontation, messianic attitudes and stridency — once staples of Latin America's left — are proving less attractive than leaders who can provide stability and strengthen historically weak institutions, like the separation of powers, independent central banks and judiciaries. Manuel Camacho Solis, an adviser to leftist Mexican candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said a month before the election that avoiding class polarization was the key to the campaign. Indeed, the campaign became polarized, and Lopez Obrador lost. "More than 50 percent of Mexicans are center, or conservative, so you can't hope to have a very pure leftist government in Mexico," Camacho Solis said. "What society wants is a progressive government, a broad alliance. It doesn't want a class-division thing." The "leftist tide" idea likely oversimplifies by tossing Indian-rights movements, radicals and moderates into the same boat. The right hasn't exactly gained a mandate, and most of the region's leftist presidents haven't abandoned the market-oriented policies that have improved their economies, even as they assert political independence from Washington. Lopez Obrador arguably did better than any truly leftist candidate has ever done in Mexico, an essentially conservative country. But he also lost the large lead he had early in the race, and may have scared voters with pledges to change an economic model that has brought stability and low inflation, if not much job creation or wage increases."Attacking some of the programs, including some of the economic strategy, was a mistake," said Ana Maria Salazar, a former U.S. defense official and Mexican political analyst. "At least part of the middle class and the lower-middle class for the first time in many decades have access to loans to buy things. ... People felt there was some benefit to them." The right also hasn't regained the kind of power it enjoyed in the early 1990s, when government after Latin American government imposed austere budgets, dropped restrictive tariffs and embarked on wholesale privatizations. Such policies enriched the elites and slowly expanded the middle classes but did little to alleviate poverty in the region, and widespread frustration with the Washington prescription swept a wave of left-leaning governments into power. But most have been more like European social democracies than the 1960s "red tide" of communist guerrilla movements. "There is no such thing as a red tide today," Lopez Obrador adviser Porfirio Munoz Ledo said last week. "The social tide exists because the (conservative) model didn't work."The specter of Chavez's quasi-socialist and confrontational rhetoric scared voters toward the middle in both Peru and Mexico. Calderon's campaign surged only after he bought television attack ads suggesting Lopez Obrador was a Chavez in the making.The comparison is "facile and inaccurate," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at Virginia's College of William & Mary. And Lopez Obrador, for his part, said his proposals were as moderate as the New Deal programs former President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted to bring his nation out of the 1930s Depression.And his pro-business rival, Felipe Calderon, pledged Thursday to "work toward a Mexico without terrible inequalities" — an acknowledgment of Latin America's fundamental challenge.That message hasn't been lost on any of the region's leaders, be they mainstream leftists like socialist Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil or more radical ones like the Washington-bashing Chavez and his ally Morales. Class fears have been a big factor in Bolivia, where Morales' party failed to get enough votes Sunday to push through the constitutional reforms it wants to improve the lives of that nation's poor Indian majority. That says a lot about how much Latin America has changed since the days of Che Guevara. But if the moderate left, or the right, doesn't improve people's everyday life, Latin Americans could tire of both — and of democracy. "People are dissatisfied, and the danger is very great," said Munoz Ledo, "because people have their doubts about whether democracy can improve their lot."

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