Left or Right: The Rise of the Socially Conservative Liberal

Emily Meggs | Latin American Fellow


Image credit: Leon Overweel via Unsplash
Image credit: Leon Overweel via Unsplash

Left-wing political candidates in Latin America are scrapping progressive values to form electoral coalitions and seize power. But why are these left-wing politicians abandoning their progressive mandates and feeding conservative social views? The answer lies in a dramatic shift in Latin American politics towards a new evangelist populism.


The imagery of the left-wing Latin American strongman, and the backlash to it, looms large as a theme in the region’s politics. Governments and political candidates are so desperate not to succumb to communism, that they overcorrect to avoid it. This is one tactic employed by many hard right-wing governments to win power. One must only look at the current far-right governments in Colombia and Brazil, as well as candidates in Peru, to see this trend unfold in the region. However, there is also the rise of a new political power in Latin America – the rise of the socially conservative liberal.


Evangelism has become more successful at reaching the Latin American people and converting them into a political voting bloc. This is possible because they can provide basic services that the state or non-government organisations can’t, or simply won’t provide in areas such as healthcare, childcare, and employment. It is easy to see why Latin Americans are turning to the evangelical church in droves. Once Catholic-dominated, the number of evangelicals in Latin America has grown dramatically over the past years 20 years, from three per cent of the total population to 20 per cent, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 19 countries. In some places, such as Guatemala and Honduras, that figure is as high as 40 per cent of the population. This popularity is fuelled by a message of economic populism, but comes alongside socially conservative values and an entrenched ‘machismo’ culture.


This is the catch, the trade-off. The evangelical movement espouses an anti-sexuality social agenda that sees the replacement of progressive values with ‘family values’. In Latin America, these values include a strict stance against abortion, LGBTQIA+ rights, and voluntary euthanasia.


The effect of the evangelical church has already been felt in Latin America. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a Catholic, yet he was elected on the back of the evangelical vote. In Brazil, there are 90 evangelical members of Congress and they have thwarted LGBTQIA+ policies and legislation. Likewise, evangelicals in Colombia were able to torpedo the 2016 peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), because they objected to any and all references to ‘gender,’ ‘LGBTI,’ and ‘sexual orientation’ in the agreement. The same movement also lobbied against former Education Minister Gina Parody, because she complied with a report about how to prevent discrimination in schools. In doing so, right-wing candidate Ivan Duque swept to power over his left-wing opponent Petro in the 2018 election. It is estimated that one million of Duque’s 10 million votes were from the evangelical movement.


The effort to find evangelical votes can be seen on both sides of the political fence. In Colombia, Petro is priming to run in the 2022 election, and he is heavily courting the evangelical vote. This phenomenon has spread across the continent.


Mexican President Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is actively courting evangelicals and empowering their community. The Partido Encuentro Social (PES) was once a fringe party, but since siding with AMLO have become the fourth largest faction across both houses of the Mexican. Congress. Since his election, AMLO has opted to shun language around abortion, deferring to the Supreme Court, despite being previously outspoken on the gender pay gap and eliminating gender-based violence in Mexico. However, since he has assumed power Mexico has seen increasingly high levels of femicide. He went as far as erecting steel barriers around the national palace before a protest on International Women’s Day last year.


Likewise, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele was once a left-wing, pro LGBTQIA+ Mayor, but he now opposes these views and has removed sexual diversity information as he crafts his image as the world’s coolest dictator. His rise and rule will help shape the next generation of Central American politics.


This trend of evangelism is likely to play itself out in votes taking place later this year. The world saw a taste last year when left-wing progressive candidate and unionist, Gabriel Boric, triumphed over the pro-Pinochet and family values candidate, José Antonio Kast with a clear margin. Colombia and Brazil both have critical elections in 2022 where the right is polling badly and the left actively courting the evangelical vote. There are also questions in Brazil as to whether the recently released Lula will run again.


Further issues will arise with younger voting blocs, as those coming of age have grown up in the age of social media. These voters are more socially progressive and may be unlikely to vote for a left-wing evangelical candidate. Politicians may have to decide if they want to lose the voters of tomorrow for a chance at power today.


There appears to be a power struggle playing out in leftist Latin American politics. There still exists true progressives in Latin America like Boric in Chile, yet the rise of the socially conservative liberal will unabated as long as they have the votes.


Emily Meggs is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.