Two of the most stable democracies in Latin America - Chile and Brazil - are showing signs of increasing polarisation for very different reasons or causes but their stability and economic growth are both threatened, writes Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.
So, what is going on?
Brazil has just held presidential elections which saw incumbent Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers Party (PT), re-elected. She beat her opponent, Aecio Neves of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB) by three per cent and lost several seats in the congress to small groups on the right.
The catalyst leading to polarisation in Brazil is that the PT is determined to become a hegemonic party in the fashion of populist regimes in Venezuela and Ecuador, bulldozing its way to more radical social reforms.
The problem with this is that it misreads the spirit of Brazilian civil society which went onto the streets in 2013 demanding better social services from the government. It also runs the risk of slowing the economy even further, which would serve to worsen social discontent.
October’s election showed serious cleavages in the Brazilian electorate along geographic, social, and ideological fault-lines.
Corruption is part of the PT drive for hegemony and that only inflames civil society’s anger with the state. President Rousseff needs to start her second term with some energy in the economy and give signs she is willing to fight corruption The irony of the president’s dilemma is that the success of her party’s famous Bolsa Familia programme of contingent subsidies has lifted millions of people out of poverty who now want better education and jobs which are not available so long as the economy is stagnant.
The situation in Chile is different.
Michelle Bachelet easily won a second term as president taking office in March 2014. Her challenge is that Chile is suffering a sickening increase in inequality. The middle class has expanded dramatically at the expense of a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
President Bachelet decided to deal with this challenge by adding the small Communist Party to create the Nueva Mayoria coalition. The president set out, with this super majority in the legislature, to achieve significant reforms to improve access to education, make tax structure more equitable, and the political process more open.
Her reform programme has stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition, led by the conservative press. The political discourse has escalated into a strident, polarised debate. The Communist Party has contributed to the debate with some broad criticisms of the market economy and the profit motive, to which elements of the Christian Democratic Party, a critical part of the coalition, have objected strenuously. This threatens the government’s majority in the legislature.
The two presidents face very different social situations. Yet, both of them must deal with the consequences of declining economic activity in order to open opportunities for new sectors of their societies.
Inequality is declining in Brazil. It is increasing in Chile. Brazil needs more growth to satisfy increasing demand; Chile needs more balance between growth and access.
Polarising the political debate will not help either one of them govern.