When an authoritarian government loses an election, there’s always a bit of an embarrassment factor on both sides. The regime finds that it wasn’t as popular as it had made out, but it can also take some credit from the display of democracy, usually in contrast to the claims of its opponents.

So it was last Sunday in Venezuela, where congressional elections delivered a landslide victory to the centre-right opposition. The Democratic Unity Roundtable, with 56.3% of the vote, won 112 of the 167 seats in the National Assembly, a two-thirds majority. The governing United Socialist Party was reduced to 40.9% and 55 seats.

With falling oil prices and the more or less routine failures of doctrinaire socialism, Venezuela’s economy is in dire straits. Not surprisingly, the opposition had long enjoyed a commanding lead in the opinion polls. There had been much speculation that president Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chávez in 2013, would try to avoid holding the election or ignore its results in some way. Instead, he conceded defeat promptly.

When the opposition narrowly lost the presidential election two and a half years ago, I put it like this:

This is one of those situations where everyone concerned just needs to step back and chill out. If the electoral council finds nothing amiss the opposition should accept the verdict, congratulate itself on how close it came in very difficult circumstances, and set its sights on winning control of the National Assembly in 2015.

The government, on the other hand, should tone down the abuse and the dirty tricks and try to demonstrate that post-Chávez Venezuela is a constitutional state.

There certainly hasn’t been much cooling off: both sides escalated their rhetoric, and the Maduro government ratcheted up the repression – notably with the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez earlier this year. Anti-government protests have been widespread and occasionally violent. But Venezuelan democracy, remarkably, seems to have survived.

Maduro’s term has another three and a half years to run, although after next April it’s possible for the National Assembly to call a referendum to try to remove him. So unless one side or the other has an unexpected attack of bipartisanship, Venezuela will be in for some interesting times.

It’s uneven, but there definitely appears to be a shift to the right going on in South America. Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri of the centre-right Republican Proposal, will be sworn in tonight, having defeated Peronist Daniel Scioli in a runoff election on 22 November with 51.4% of the vote.

Like Venezuela, the Argentinian result was no surprise. Having come within 3% of Scioli in the first round, it was always likely that Macri would be able to overtake him, given that most of the remaining vote was with the dissident Peronist candidate Sergio Massa, who also leant to the right. Scioli quickly conceded defeat – perhaps more quickly than he should have, since the exit polls substantially overstated the margin (has there ever been such a bad year for opinion polling?).

But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that this a real sea change in South America. Argentina has been been governed by the left-leaning Kirchners for twelve years, and its democratic elections have invariably returned either the Peronists or the centre-left Radical Civic Union (which this time was part of Macri’s coalition). Macri will be the first president to look like a regular centre-right politician.

Taken in conjunction with last year’s swing to the right in Brazil (and the continuing troubles of its narrowly re-elected centre-left government), it suggests the South American left is in trouble. But it’s not clear whether that reflects any real ideological shift or just a general anti-incumbent mood. Having had a good few years in the early part of this century, the left happens to be in the position of having a number of vulnerable long-term incumbents.

The next test will be next April, in Peru, where the left’s Ollanta Humala won narrowly in 2011. The contest to choose his successor might tell us a bit more about the mood on the continent.


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