Politics: A discredited profession

Young Latin Americans are political, but are not becoming politicians. The discredit of politics and the alienation of the young are common to democracies around the world.

ON THE eve of independence day in Mexico last month, thousands of protesters marched through the capital to demand the resignation of the president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The demonstration was not huge, and in other countries would have been unremarkable. But not in Mexico, where the presidency has long been viewed with deference.

Mexicans blame Mr Peña for a sluggish economy, a renewed rise in violent crime, perceived (though denied) conflicts of interest and, most recently, for inviting and then being humiliated by Donald Trump. His approval rating of 23% is the lowest for a Mexican president since records began. Yet Mr Peña is not the most unpopular leader in Latin America. That dubious honour does not even belong to Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro (21%) but rather to Luis Guillermo Solís of Costa Rica (10%), according to Consulta Mitofsky, a Mexican pollster. Chile’s Michelle Bachelet languishes in the low 20s. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos has only recently risen above that, in part because of his peace deal. Only half a dozen of the region’s presidents, headed by Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic, get a thumbs-up from their electorates.

A few years ago leaders were generally popular. That was largely thanks to the commodity boom, which gave them money to splurge on social programmes and subsidies. Now governing is harder: money is tighter, and public intolerance of corruption has grown. That has prompted an anti-incumbent mood, but not yet an opening for a new generation of leaders. Rather, a gulf has opened up between an increasingly dynamic civil society and fossilised political systems.

Peru’s election in June was won by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, then 77 years old. Chile’s contest next year is likely to be between Ricardo Lagos (who will be 79) and Sebastián Piñera, both former presidents. Polls for Mexico’s election in 2018 are headed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will run for the third time, and Margarita Zavala, whose husband, Felipe Calderón, was president in 2006-12. In Brazil no new faces are among the leading candidates to succeed Michel Temer (aged 76), who took over from the impeached Dilma Rousseff.

What is preventing political renewal? The discredit of politics and the alienation of the young are common to democracies around the world. So are political parties based on 20th-century ideologies that are struggling to adapt to a new world of individuals empowered by social media. It is particularly worrying that bright young people are turned off politics as a career in Latin America because of the weight of its “millennials”: 156m Latin Americans, or 26% of the total population, are aged 15-29. “Everybody thinks that politics is for the corrupt, for opportunists, so the challenge now is to give it a new meaning and a new value,” according to Cecilia Chacón, a youngish city councillor in La Paz.

A factor blocking renewal is presidential re-election, allowed in 14 countries. Even when this is non-consecutive, “it sends presidents not into retirement but to the substitutes’ bench, from where [as in basketball] they expect to return,” says Daniel Zovatto of International IDEA, a body that promotes democracy.

A second factor in some countries is that the battle against corruption risks degenerating into a demagogic criminalisation of politics, says Luiz Felipe d’Avila of the Centre for Public Leadership, an NGO in São Paulo. Brazilian prosecutors have rightly pursued the huge corruption scandal centred on Petrobras, but honest ministers may spend years fighting lawsuits.

Mr d’Avila does sees new leadership emerging, but at local level, where entrepreneurs and activists are running in mayoral elections this month. Those with a local reputation have less need of a party machine or corporate donations. He hopes new local leaders will go on to run for congress.

It is not that young Latin Americans are apolitical. Street demonstrations demanding accountability from leaders have become a feature of the region. Many home-grown NGOs have sprung up (in the past they tended to depend on foreign charities, with their own agendas). As well as wanting better health care, education, public services and more opportunities, millennials mobilise about other issues, ranging from gay marriage and animal rights to climate change.

There are some younger entrants to formal politics, such as former student leaders still in their 20s who are now in Chile’s congress. But in the region’s established political parties, it is hard to rise to the top. Unless the parties find ways to adapt to rapidly changing societies, they risk paving the way for a new crop of populist outsiders or for chronic conflict.

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