Image Source: Latin America Reports
Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, entered office in August 2022, touting a “second chance” in the country’s ongoing efforts to fight crippling poverty and the constant specter of violence that stems from conflict between rebels, drug trafficking organizations, and the government. However, a series of scandals have tanked his approval ratings to the low 30s, putting his ambitious reform agenda at severe risk. With his internal political struggles becoming more prominent, the opposition Congress he faces creates a layer of obstacles that might be too much to overcome.
Despite his victory, Petro’s political party controls not even a quarter of the country’s congressional seats, only one governorship, and relatively few other leadership positions within the state—either at the federal or sub-national level. The coalition he created that led to him winning the presidency began to unravel almost as quickly as they cobbled it together. The center-right and right politicians Petro had convinced to create his support base quickly jumped ship even though some were given cabinet positions in return for their backing. The dissolution of his coalition is a prime example of how large groups are often prone to fragmentation, especially one including politicians from opposing ideological positions.
Lawmakers that would push back on Petro’s agenda knew he would have to make concessions to turn any significant reforms into reality, putting an opposition Congress in the driver’s seat. The current political environment in Colombia’s executive-legislative relations exemplifies how such systems have evolved in the region. Throughout the course of Latin American history, political dissent and challenges to the status quo have been omnipresent features of its political landscape.
As distinct bodies or movements that counter the prevailing political powers, opposition congresses have often played pivotal roles in the evolution of Latin American democracies. They can also create new challenges that must be handled. The existence of strong opposition blocs within a legislative body can lead to deep-seated political polarization as well as mistrust from the public if corruption takes hold. Polarization can result in legislative gridlock, where essential bills and reforms stall because of political disagreements, preventing smooth governance. A legislative logjam might also encourage someone in Petro’s position, for example, to lean toward democratic backsliding to advance his agenda rather than operating within the constraints of the existing system. These relationships have lasting effects on coalition politics, executive-level objectives, and international relations.
The 20th Century: Opposition in the Shadow of Authoritarianism
Throughout the 20th century, Latin America faced a recurring cycle of democratically elected governments being overthrown by military coups or authoritarian rulers. In many cases, these regimes dissolved or strictly controlled existing legislative bodies. This repression spurred the creation of alternative congresses or opposition bodies in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
In 1976, for instance, Argentina’s military junta dissolved the National Congress, leading opposition leaders and exiled politicians to create informal platforms for political dissent. Similarly, during Pinochet’s regime in Chile, the opposition formed clandestine assemblies to challenge the dictatorship. Opposition congresses in 20th-century Latin America were adaptive entities, evolving in response to the region’s shifting political landscapes. While their forms varied, their consistent objective was to challenge, balance, or reform the prevailing powers, with a notable emphasis on championing democratic values and human rights.
The Turn of the Century: A Revitalized Commitment to Democracy?
In the 21st century, Latin America’s political landscape experienced significant changes, marked by the rise of left-leaning governments, a reassertion of democracy in some regions, and persistent challenges to democratic institutions in others. Opposition congresses, reflecting these dynamics, have evolved in behavior, approach, and significance. The 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a significant shift in the Latin American political paradigm. With the decline of Cold War-era geopolitics, many countries embarked on a process of democratic transition. Opposition congresses in this period often transitioned from clandestine operations to legitimate political parties and movements.
Yet, challenges persisted. In Venezuela, the early 21st century saw significant political polarization, with the National Assembly at times in direct opposition to President Hugo Chávez and later Nicolás Maduro. This led to the creation of parallel legislative bodies, highlighting the region’s continued relevance of opposition congresses. Some countries have witnessed more collaborative dynamics between the government and opposition, with congresses playing a constructive role. For instance, in Uruguay and Chile, despite ideological differences, there have been instances of legislative collaboration on key national issues.
The 21st century has been a period of significant dynamism for Latin American politics. Opposition congresses, reflecting the broader socio-political currents, have showcased a spectrum of effectiveness. Their roles have been pivotal in shaping the political discourse, with both positive and negative outcomes. They’ve shown adaptive qualities, navigating challenges, and seizing opportunities to play a crucial role in the region’s evolving democratic tapestry. At times, their behavior underscores the resilience of democratic aspirations, even in the face of formidable challenges.
Nevertheless, while they have played instrumental roles in holding governments accountable and ensuring democratic checks and balances, there have also been instances where their actions have led to political instability and weakened democratic processes. Peru, for example, has witnessed a series of confrontations between the executive and legislative branches, with both sides at times using their powers in ways that led to accusations of overreach.
Latin America’s turbulent political history has seen the rise and fall of numerous opposition congresses. Whether challenging colonial rule, authoritarian regimes, or democratically elected governments, these bodies have consistently played a critical role in advocating for political change and representing dissenting voices. As Latin America continues its democratic journey, understanding the legacy of these opposition bodies offers crucial insights into the region’s quest for genuine democracy.
Committing to the Democratic Process
In Latin America, as in other regions, an opposition congress can create a multi-faceted legitimacy tribulation within the government. An opposition-majority congress may question the legitimacy of an election, especially if there are allegations of fraud or misconduct. The 2019 Bolivian general elections serve as a case. Accusations of electoral fraud led to civil unrest and eventually to a political crisis that culminated in the resignation of then-President Evo Morales. Opposition congresses can contest amendments or reforms introduced by the executive branch, framing them as undemocratic or as power grabs. In various countries like Venezuela and Ecuador, attempts by leaders to change constitutional term limits or concentrate powers were criticized and challenged by opposition factions.
Opposition congresses can set up investigative commissions into alleged government corruption, human rights abuses, or other misconducts. If they uncover wrongdoing, these investigations can seriously undermine a country’s Executive branch’s legitimacy. Brazil’s Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal, which started as a money laundering investigation, eventually implicated various government officials and business leaders, undermining the legitimacy of multiple administrations. A similar situation could develop for Petro and the ongoing scandal involving his son and corruption charges. Using its platform in Congress, Colombia’s opposition can rally public support against the government, leading to protests, strikes, and other forms of civil unrest. Protests in countries like Venezuela, Chile and Ecuador have seen opposition factions in Congress play supportive or even leading roles in mobilizing public sentiment against ruling administrations. Recent protests against Petro’s reform plans could also lead in this direction.
While opposition congresses play a crucial role in ensuring checks and balances in Latin American democracies, the complexities they introduce are far-reaching and multifaceted. These challenges underscore the need for mature political behavior, open dialogue, and a steadfast commitment to democratic norms from all political actors. Across various countries, opposition parties have not only served as vital counterweights to ruling parties but also as a catalyst for essential political reforms. Yet, the very nature of opposition can lead to political polarization, gridlock, or even instability if not managed with sagacity and restraint. Mature political behavior requires a willingness to compromise and recognize the legitimacy of differing viewpoints rather than resorting to obstruction or confrontation. Open dialogue fosters a culture of respect and understanding, encouraging collaboration even amidst ideological differences. Finally, unwavering adherence to democratic norms ensures that these differences do not undermine the foundational principles of governance but rather strengthen the resilience and integrity of the political system. Together, these elements shape a political environment where opposition does not equate to antagonism—especially the violent form—and where critical voices contribute to, rather than detract from, a flourishing democratic landscape.
Jeffery Allen Tobin is a researcher for the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy specializing in democratization, corruption, and migration. He is a political science doctoral candidate at Florida International University. He was a journalist for more than 20 years.