WASHINGTON — Few are wagering much on today's presidential runoff in Chile. Last month, pundits were humbled when conservative candidate Joaquin Lavin virtually tied heavily favored Ricardo Lagos in the first round of voting. Lagos, a socialist, is the choice of a coalition of center-left parties that has ruled the country since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990.
To be sure, the Lavin phenomenon is a measure of Chile's progress toward a modern, competitive political system. Still, though Chile may stand out as the exception in a region marked by a resurgence of authoritarian populism, it is worth considering to what extent the country may be part of this trend.
The strength and appeal of such political leaders as Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala suggest that something quite significant may be taking place in the region's political landscape. A winning formula can be discerned: Challenge the political establishment; eschew party attachments and ideological labels; espouse direct contact with "the people"; and use simple language and be authoritative (if not authoritarian).
Fujimori seems determined to exploit that formula and become the longest-running democratically elected president in Latin American history. His plan, though constitutionally dubious, may succeed when he faces voters in April. In separate races, he has already handily defeated Peru's two most internationally recognized figures, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. After a decade in office, Fujimori's popularity is just above 50%, impressive by any measure. His autocratic style has been accompanied by sharp limits on judicial and congressional authority and troubling restrictions in press freedom. But his appeal can be attributed to the enormous success he has had in tackling problems Peruvians care most about.
What is striking is the degree to which Fujimori continues to rely on a formula he used in his first victory in 1990. He has presided over several "movements" but has shown only disdain for parties or formal institutions. In his reelection announcement last month, he charged that the political opposition, weak and fragmented, was incapable of running the country. He incorporated such instruments of "direct democracy" as the referendum in his 1993 constitution and successfully projected an image of strong leadership in national crises, such as the 1997 hostage taking at the Japanese ambassador's residence and the recent El Nino natural disaster. He mixes easily with "the people" and has a penchant for crisp, direct language.
Venezuelan President Chavez, who will complete his first year in office in early February, currently dominates Latin America's political stage. He enjoys the highest level of popular support of any leader in the hemisphere--70%. Venezuelans have overwhelmingly embraced a charismatic figure with authoritarian proclivities to clean up what is widely perceived as a bankrupt, discredited, two-party political establishment. Chavez is successfully riding a tidal wave of public anger. The country's new constitution, resoundingly approved last month, features a referendum mechanism, held up by defenders as a measure of direct democracy.
Notably, both Fujimori and Chavez are products of disastrous economic performances. When Fujimori was first elected, Peru was in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, with annual inflation more than 7,000%. The Chavez juggernaut owes a great deal to Venezuela's two "lost decades"--the 1980s and 1990s--when the country's per-capita income declined by an astounding 40%.
Acute economic conditions in Peru and Venezuela not only resulted in the collapse of democratic institutions, but also provided fertile ground for the growing role of the military. The Peruvian armed forces, buoyed by the defeat of the country's insurgencies in the early 1990s, have been a key pillar of Fujimori's rule. Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel in the army, has filled key ministerial positions with officers and has assigned the armed forces vital social and development functions. Venezuela's recent natural catastrophe will only further secure the military's role in running the country.
Guatemala shares some comparable features. On Friday, Portillo became the country's first president following the signing of the 1996 peace accords, which brought an end to a brutal civil conflict. Portillo was enthusiastically backed by the founder of his Guatemalan Republican Front party, retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a former dictator who became the leader of Congress on Friday. Weary of uncontrolled crime, economic insecurity and unmet promises made by the "international community," Guatemalans opted, in overwhelming numbers, for politics with a distinctly populist flavor and that project authority.