BOGOTÁ — Recent election defeats for the social-democratic Peronist candidate in Argentina, and for Bogotá"s unapologetic socialist mayor, may be part of a wider trend for leftist leaders across Latin America. Both those elections — not to mention several mass protests against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's Workers Party — suggest voters are tired of business-as-usual from long entrenched socialist leaders.
Most immediately, the victory of Mauricio Macri in Sunday's election over the hand-picked candidate of Argentina's outgoing President Cristina Kirchner could be a bad omen for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose rule may be threatened by conservatives and liberals hope to deprive the Left of its parliamentary majority in elections next month.
But the backlash may be even more far-reaching. History has shown that when left-wing forces are in the political opposition, they are usually lucid and effective in denouncing the depredations of the neo-liberal order and globalized economy, and the limitations of liberal democracy in that context. Socialist forces across Latin America have promised alternative models of development and political participation that would be fairer and more inclusive.
For a while, in the first decade of this century, booming commodities prices fueled atypical economic growth that "happily" coincided with the arrival of left-wing governments in several states in the region. Disposing of ample funds, the Left was able to free itself of some entrenched market-related restrictions and dogmas, and push through policies that reduced poverty and (to a lesser degree) inequality. Services were expanded (especially in health care and education), and awareness spread of the importance of defending the rights of weaker sectors of society.
Still, like the mythical Sisyphus whom the gods forced to endlessly roll a rock up a mountain before it tumbled back down, the continent's Left has striven to promote its social justice and fair economy ideals, but apparently lacked the ability to realize them.
Undoubtedly, there are structural and international obstacles here, like globalization; as well as national impediments like weak institutions or scientific and technological deficiencies that have prevented them from delivering their promised "better world."
But the economic and political decisions taken by several "progressive" governments — which admittedly are not all identical — are also to blame.
Beside the uncommon levels of corruption that stain its record in most Latin American countries where the Left has governed, two other broader tensions remain unresolved.
One is between the principles of rule of law and primacy of state institutions on the one hand, and the "direct" and participative style of democracy touted by some, which has too often led to a leader's perpetuation in power.
The other tension is between sustainable development and development based on extracting and selling raw materials. While exploiting natural resources has resolved some problems — like filling state coffers with short-term cash — it has proved environmentally harmful, and kept Latin American economies utterly dependent on the whims of the commodities market.