When Latin American voters went to the polls in 2021, they had an unambiguous message for the ruling elite: we've had enough.
In Chile, the most recent example, none of the traditional centrist parties in government since the end of dictatorship 31 years ago made it to the presidential run-off election. Instead millennial, leftist outsider Gabriel Boric thumped a far-right rival on Sunday.
Ecuador elected its first right-wing president in 14 years in April; Peru opted in June to make an unknown socialist rural schoolteacher its president; and Honduras ended 12 years of conservative National Party rule in November, electing its first woman leader.
In legislative elections last month, Argentina voters dealt a blow to the Peronist movement that had dominated Congress for decades but lost control of the Senate for the first time.
"People are just fed up with the status quo and traditional economic and political elites," analyst Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank told AFP. "And so there is a kind of rejectionist trend in many countries... If governments fail, people look for alternatives."
The result has been an explosion of new political parties, a fragmentation of the vote, and outsider leaders perceived as being closer to the people bursting onto the scene from seemingly nowhere. Peru had 18 first-round presidential candidates, a 15-year record.
It's the economy, stupid
There has also been a trend of close run-off races between polar opposite candidates as moderate voters split their support between centrist candidates to leave only two antipodes standing, as happened in Chile, Peru and Ecuador. With a rise in apathy and alienation, more voters are casting protest ballots.
Many voters in Chile – a country with a high abstention rate – told AFP, for example, that they opted Sunday for the "lesser evil."
"I don't think it has much to do with ideology," analyst Patricio Navia of New York University told AFP of the voting trend. "We've seen this since 2020, since the pandemic began, all incumbents – governments or parties or coalitions – have lost elections in Latin America."
The reasons are manifold. Economic hardship, already a growing burden in many Latin American countries, has worsened since 2020 due to the pandemic and business lost as a result of lockdowns in the most unequal region of the world.
"When the economic conditions were positive, all presidents in Latin America were popular, left-wing presidents and right-wing presidents," said Navia.
During a commodities boom from about 2003 to 2013, the middle class in Latin America grew rapidly, and there were expectations the trend would continue. The opposite turned out to be true.
‘More of the same'
"People are tired of traditional political parties for the perception that they do not honour electoral promises and are 'more of the same'," María Jaraquemada of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance told AFP. And they are susceptible to increasingly populist messages that "offer something against the elite, different from what has been done before," she said.
"In modern politics in every country it's the most extremist voices that drive the debate and social media amplifies those voices," added Shifter. "There used to be a time when people voted for somebody because they believed in them," he said. Now, "you have more and more elections that are [determined] in terms of the lesser of two evils, and more negative votes, and that's a big shift."
This mix of voter polarisation and dissatisfaction bodes for a volatile future, according to analysts.
"The economic situation will probably worsen in the next few years, not improve, so the discontent will continue. The best predictor of discontent is bad economic conditions," said Navia. "I guess the warning for Latin American leaders is that unless the economic conditions improve, they are going to remain largely unpopular."
For Shifter, the next few years will likely be "quite rocky."
"Partly, the leaders are not of the calibre that are really able to address these problems but it's also because the problems are a lot worse, more difficult to deal with."
Next year, new presidents will be elected in Colombia and Brazil, where the trend looks set to continue.
Colombia's conservative Iván Duque became his country's most unpopular president ever in a year marked by social unrest and a violent police crackdown that drew international condemnation. Leftist former guerilla Gustavo Petro is leading in the polls.
In Brazil, far-right Jair Bolsonaro is also massively unpopular amid a recession and missteps in his government's Covid-19 response, with leftist ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva set to make a return, according to polls.
"That doesn't mean enthusiasm for Lula as much as just a rejection of Bolsonaro," said Shifter. "So it's part of the rejectionist trend."
by Mariëtte Le Roux, AFP