By Francesc Badia i Dalmases
This year’s election cycle will tell us whether political systems in the region can deal with social tensions made worse by the pandemic.
Aseries of elections in Latin America this year, either held already or scheduled to take place, are testing the robustness of democracy in the region. The results will show whether increasing social tensions, partly as a result of the ongoing pandemic, can be channelled through existing political systems.
Overall, the outlook for the region is complex and challenging. Haiti and Nicaragua give particular cause for concern, but El Salvador and Honduras should also be watched closely. In Chile, by contrast, a process to rewrite the constitution brings hope of a truly democratic renewal.
The good news is that Latin America’s troubled democracies continue to go to the polls to decide their future. In most cases, this seems to be a guarantee of the political representation and legitimate government that people badly need for the hard times ahead. Here’s what to look out for.
Presidential elections in Ecuador, already disputed, marked the beginning of what will be an intense year. After a fractious first round on 7 February, it was decided that Andrés Arauz, a left-winger, would make it through to the run-off, with 32% of the vote. But it was unclear at first whether his opponent would be Guillermo Lasso, a banker, or Yaku Pérez, an indigenous leader.
Both received around 20%, with Lasso eventually coming out ahead of his rival. Yet the close race for second place has puzzled voters and led to accusations of fraud, which has helped undermine the legitimacy of the result as well as that of the National Electoral Commission.
Had Pérez made it through to the second round, it would be hard to predict the overall winner. Lasso, a right-winger, is likely to lose to Arauz, who is said to be a proxy of Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa, who has been convicted of corruption and is on the run in Brussels, but whose correismo movement retains significant popular support.
Pérez, as the candidate of the country’s indigenous movement and an environmental campaigner, would give Arauz a closer run. He has alleged fraud and is demanding a recount, with the results to be confirmed by the courts. Yet he offers a democratic renewal that neither the correistas nor the anticorreistas (embodied by Lasso) wanted. Both these currents represent the continuation of orthodox yet destructive economic policies that have prevailed over recent decades, bringing recession along with social and environmental problems, plus high debt and control of macroeconomic decisions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
There was no clean start to the year in El Salvador, either. On 28 February, legislative and local elections resulted in a landslide victory for candidates backed by the current president, Nayib Bukele. The president, who won power in a surprise victory in 2019, promising to fight violence and corruption with his new party Nuevas Ideas, but has since moved in an authoritarian direction, has therefore tightened his grip on power.
Bukele, a youthful populist, will certainly exert greater control over Congress, which he already threatened a year ago when he arrived at the National Assembly escorted by troops, to bully legislators. February’s election spells irrelevance for ARENA and the FMLN, the two traditional parties of left and right, who have been crushed at the ballot box. Plurality in Salvadoran democracy is now at stake.
In April, presidential and legislative elections will be held in Peru, which has just been through a turbulent political period, with four presidents having held office since March 2018. The current president, Francisco Sagasti, who was chosen as interim president by Congress in November 2020 amid consensus for a rapid transition to new elections, is not standing for office.
Sagasti’s three predecessors were deposed by scandals and intense street protests. The new contenders appear to be George Forsyth, a former soccer player with populist leanings, and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori. Keiko has already served a prison sentence for corruption, while her father is currently in jail for human rights violations.
Also running, with some support, is the nationalist Daniel Urresti, a former army general and interior minister accused of murdering a journalist in 1988. He is running for a second time. Other candidates out of the current total of 17, on both left and right, have fewer skeletons in their cupboards but less chance of success. In any case, it doesn’t seem likely that the election will bring an end to instability in a country that has been badly hit by the pandemic, and where deep constitutional reform is demanded by civil society.
Beginning in April and ending in December, Chile faces a long period of elections this year. First are the elections for regional governors and members of the constitutional commission. Then, from November, are the presidential, legislative and regional elections.
This cycle also includes the election, in April, of representatives who will redraft Chile’s constitution. The constitutional convention was proposed as a way out of the political crisis triggered by massive protests, known as the estallido social (‘social outbreak’), that lasted from October 2019 to March 2020.
The process will dominate debate in all the country’s other elections this year, and requires broad national consensus, which is likely to force politics towards the centre-ground. In July, presidential primaries will be held, with the right-winger Joaquin Lavin, the centrist Paula Naráaez and the left-winger Daniel Jadue all likely to run.
On 6 June, Mexico holds federal, legislative, and local elections, which will be the first litmus test for MORENA, the party of president Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador. “AMLO”, as he is called, maintains his popularity despite poor management of the pandemic and a contradictory approach to policy that mixes left-wing populism with concessions to neoliberal economic ideology.
For the other two major parties, the PRI and the PAN – but also for the smaller Movimiento Ciudadano and PRD – it will be an occasion to play the long game, and position their players ahead of presidential elections in 2024. (Those are still so far away because presidential terms in Mexico last 6 years.)
September’s presidential and legislative elections in Haiti are perhaps the region’s most critical. The current president, Jovenel Moïse, governs without a parliament and has just dealt a lethal blow to the legitimacy of the presidency by refusing to recognise the constitutional end of his mandate on 7 February.
Moïse intends to call a constitutional referendum, which would enable him to accumulate powers and shield the presidency from possible judicial proceedings for corruption. But he intends to do so outside the established procedures, since such a reform must be agreed by parliament and requires an extensive debate among civil society.
Protests against Moïse are large and ongoing. Repression is utterly violent and human rights are systematically violated through massacres and kidnappings. Criminal gangs, allegedly backed by the government, are terrorising a population where 80% live below the poverty line. The legitimacy of September’s election is thus already challenged by opposition parties, while Moïse’s authoritarian drift is becoming explicit. The situation in Haiti today is potentially explosive, yet the international community seems unable to respond.
In Nicaragua, a new president will be elected on 7 November, but everything indicates that Daniel Ortega, who has run the country in tandem with his wife Rosario Murillo since 2007, does not intend to give up. The couple plan to hold on to absolute power and have been setting up legislative obstacles so that the opposition cannot function normally. With erratic management of the pandemic and violent repression of the opposition, it does not seem that Nicaragua will escape its recent designation by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 democracy index as an authoritarian regime.
The 2021 cycle will close with presidential, legislative, and local elections in Honduras, scheduled for November. Replacing Juan Rolando Hernández, the controversial and disputed president, with someone better, will not be easy, since the two most likely candidates, Yani Rosental and Nasry Asfura, have both been implicated in corruption scandals.
The migrant caravans that have left Honduras in recent months, despite slim chances of reaching the US, are a clear indication of how little hope the Central American country offers its citizens. They are battered by extreme poverty, devastating hurricanes, insufferable violence, and universal corruption.
Francesc Badia i Dalmases is editor of DemocraciaAbierta. A political analyst, an author and a publisher, he specializes in geopolitics and international affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.