Political Science Now

Indigenous Voters and the Rise of the Left in Latin America

Chapter 12: Indigenous Voters and the Rise of the Left in Latin America

Raúl Madrid, University of Texas at Austin

During the last two decades, a historic shift has occurred in the voting patterns of the indigenous population of some South American countries. Indigenous people, who traditionally voted for a mix of different types of parties, have begun to vote in large numbers for new left-wing parties. This shift has been particularly pronounced in the Central Andean countries, specifically Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, which have the largest indigenous populations. What explains this historic shift? Why have indigenous voters embraced leftist parties in recent years? And what are the consequences of this shift for policies in the region? This chapter argues that leftist parties in the Central Andes have used a combination of ethnic and populist appeals to win the support of large numbers of indigenous people. Whereas centrist and rightist parties have largely avoided politicizing ethnicity, leftist parties have sought to appeal to indigenous voters as indigenous people. They have forged close ties to the indigenous movement, recruited indigenous candidates, invoked indigenous symbols, and advocated indigenous rights. These appeals have resonated with many indigenous people who have become increasingly ethnically conscious in recent years.

Leftist parties have also used classical populist appeals to attract indigenous as well as nonindigenous voters. I define classical populist appeals as a mix of personalist, antiestablishment, nationalist, and state interventionist appeals that are focused on the subaltern sectors of the population. Leftist parties have recruited charismatic candidates, denounced the traditional parties, vigorously opposed market-oriented reforms, criticized foreign intervention in their countries, and called for income redistribution. These types of appeals have resonated among indigenous people because they continue to be overwhelmingly poor and they have benefited little from the policies implemented by the traditional parties beginning in the 1980s. Although some centrist and right-wing parties have also employed populist appeals, they have not done so to nearly the same degree as leftist parties.