Populism in Latin America is being edged out by a new brand of managerial leaders responding to fatigue over “illogical” platforms and quixotic promises, according to the political guru who masterminded the rise to power of Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri.
“There is almost no such thing as death in politics. But change is coming,” says Jaime Durán Barba, 69, the Ecuadorean political consultant who has advised Mr Macri since he turned to politics in 2003.
Argentina was among the first countries in Latin America to roll back the so-called “pink tide” of leftwing populists that dominated the region in the 2000s. Many of those leaders have since fallen foul of corruption scandals, as in Brazil, or proved unable to manage the economic squeeze that has followed the collapse in commodity prices, as in socialist Venezuela.
The division between populism and pragmatism was illustrated this week when 12 countries from the region, including Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, refused to recognise the so-called constituent assembly installed in Venezuela by President Nicolás Maduro and slammed the country’s “rupture of the democratic order”. Venezuela continues to be supported by Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.
In Argentina, Mr Macri’s centre-right coalition defeated the Peronist party of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2015. Mr Durán Barba, who is the co-author of The Art of Winning and Politics in the 21st century: Art, Myth or Science, was central to Mr Macri’s political strategy.
“Macrismo is a counter-cultural phenomenon. In 2005 [when Mr Macri’s PRO party was formed] everybody used to laugh at us, but we have won every single campaign since then, all 10,” says Mr Durán Barba. He compares Mr Macri to France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
Mr Durán Barba, who has run successful political campaigns from Mexico to Brazil, says the new centrist politics is motivated by citizens' simple pursuit of wellbeing, measured by results. A more managerial approach suits the lean times that have followed the end of the commodity boom, and stands in contrast to the epic narratives and myths spun by Latin American populists like Ms Fernández, and Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez and his successor Mr Maduro.
“Macri’s followers are more agnostic, more critically minded,” he says. “Cristina’s are more religious, guided by faith.”
As Latin America’s political pendulum swings back to the centre, leftwing leaders such as Evo Morales in Bolivia or Ms Fernández in Argentina have decried what they see as a region heading back to the harsh “neoliberal” policies of the 1980s and 90s, led by metropolitan and bourgeoise elites.
Mr Durán Barba rejects this. “[The changing political tide] is something very recent that is expanding from more urbanised areas to less urbanised areas, from more educated people to less educated people,” he says.
His theory will be tested in October, when many predict a political comeback for Ms Fernández in important midterm legislative elections. Polls show her leading the senatorial race in the impoverished province of Buenos Aires, but there will be an early indication of the final result on Sunday, when primaries are to be held.
“Cristina is the candidate of the poor. You can never take that away from her — even if she may be richer than Macri,” quips Mr Durán Barba, conceding that the heir of one of Argentina’s richest men cannot compete with the daughter of a bus driver on that score.
Indeed, this is Mr Macri’s “toughest moment,” he says. Although the economy is increasingly showing signs of recovery, and inflation is gradually being reined in, the full effects of the government’s pro-market reforms have yet to be felt by many Argentines.
Mr Durán Barba is confident Mr Macri’s less confrontational style and his slick internet campaign will triumph over the traditional tub-thumping populism of Ms Fernández.
“She’s still important, yes, but only in one area — the conurbation [of Greater Buenos Aires]. On a national level we will thrash her for sure, in the province of Buenos Aires we will probably win too,” he predicts, adding: “She would certainly lose if she ran in the next presidential elections.”