April 7, 2006
Confronting Chavez Wins Voters in Mexico and PeruBy A.M. Mora y Leon
This week, two amazing developments have begun to shift the electoral landscape in two Latin American countries in a conservative direction. We may have Hugo Chavez, the Castro—loving, petro—dollar fuelled president of Venezuela to thank for the just—emerging turn away from the left
In Peru, and in Mexico, both of which are in the midst of hotly contested presidential campaigns, conservative candidates are starting to go for the jugular against their leftist opponents by linking them to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. It's driving them both to leading positions in the polls and may win them their elections.
Felipe Calderon of the PAN party in Mexico has run TV ads comparing the raging, invective—laced speeches of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to those of Hugo Chavez, who hurled abuse at Mexico's president last November, as we noted yesterday. Since then, Calderon has risen to first place in one poll and to a close second place in a second poll, both of which amount to statistical ties ahead of the July 2 vote. Prior to that, the race had been written off as a giveaway victory for the Mexican leftist candidate.
The introduction of the Chavez factor has created a real horse race in Mexico that can go in any direction.
Peru is seeming to follow the same pattern. Lourdes Flores, a promising free—market candidate in Peru's presdiential race, has taken off the lace gloves and really given it to Chavez, identifying him a lurking "danger in the shadows" for all of Latin America. Not only does she believe it, she is betting that this statement of the obvious will raise her position in polls, same as it did for Calderon.
Apparently, it's working. Agencia EFE has just announced that Flores has retaken in the lead in Peru's election polls. For Flores, this is a change of tactics, and not a moment too soon. In the past, candidates like Flores tended to demur about Chavez, even when he attacked them, saying that they preferred to focus on domestic issues. In Flores, Chavez had correctly read that approach as a sign of weakness and made atrocious attacks with sexual inneundo against Flores, who then tried to maintain a distant dignity in the face of that Chavez tirade. It didn't win her any votes.
But now, she's identifying the danger clearly, and she's moving up.
Flores, by contrast, is a popular congresswoman with a commitment to poverty eradication through free markets. She has the great economist Hernando de Soto as a leading player on her team.
So why is this happening?
In both Mexico's and Peru's cases, Hugo Chavez has gone from being a self—styled father — benevolent in the background, capable of selectively dispensing Huey—Long—style spoils to favored leftist candidates around the region — to being a campaign issue himself. Chavez was betting that this approach would bring votes to his chosen allies in these races. Becoming the issue himself in these races is something Chavez never expected to happen.
But it's not surprising, given that one little—noted poll a few months back showed that Chavez (and not Bush) had the highest negativity rating of any leader in the region in a survey of Latin America's voters. Latin Americans may fear American domination, but they also have reason to fear Marxist dictators.
These two conservative candidates are realizing that directly confronting the Chavez threat is one way of cutting through the smog of conventional wisdom and reaching voters where their real concerns lie. Chavez is a threat. They're both saying so, affirming what voters know.
Telling the truth about real threats is one of the most effective campaign strategies for winning elections. Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election by driving home the obvious but unspoken truth about the nature of the Soviet empire and the danger it genuinely posed. Now Flores and Calderon are recognizing the figurative elephant in the living room: a Marxist dictator in their own region, intent on regional domination, with a string of puppet candidates leading elections.
When voters recognize a candidate who understands such a threat, they flock to him or her. They appreciate the clear vision of what's at stake and recognize that its end result is leadership from a position of strength. When there is no such candidate, voters often go for the second—best option, an accommodative deal that at least keeps them out of the direct line of fire.
That's the same reason we saw considerable appeasement from Arab governments and the Arab 'street' in the early stages of the Iraq War. They dreaded being left holding the bag alone if America lost its resolve, which was their not—unreasonable fear. When America's resolve proved to be real, those same appeasers became enthusiastic supporters of democracy. They became confident America wouldn't abandon them, and so went for the first choice option, once it became a realistic hope.
This same resolve and willingness to take risks by directly confronting Chavez (after all, Chavez is known for his vicious tirades against leaders who challenge him) gives voters a major reason to throw their support to a candidate. A rising tide of opposition to the neighborhood bully empowers people to stand up and be counted in resisting his braggadocio and threats.
It's too soon to tell whether either election can be salvaged from the formerly—anticipated leftist victories, but we know now that the electoral dynamics are rapidly changing in Peru and Mexico. And for the better.
That gives all of us a window for hope for this hemisphere.
A.M. Mora y Leon is a frequent contributor.