Global Policy Studies & International Security Politics and Governance

A Look Ahead at Elections in Latin America

After watching the recent democratic turmoil in the United States with a mix of alarm and familiarity, neighbors in Latin America will soon begin their own busy season of elections. 2020 saw major electoral upheavals across the region, bringing about a return to democracy in some countries, while political disenfranchisement increased in others. As voters bring in new governments and make their opinions known about first-term administrations, divulging indicators about the future of the region may solidify into observable trends. In a region ravaged by COVID-19, elections present opportunities for citizens to influence the response to a pandemic that has swirled out of their control.

Looking Back at 2020

In Chile, after a year of protests over economic and political disenfranchisement, the country decided, by referendum, to rewrite its 1980 constitution written under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The referendum results, and in particular the decision to set up a constitutional committee ensuring gender parity and representation for indigenous and other minority groups, have been hailed as victories for democracy. 

Likewise, the neighboring nation of Bolivia held twice-delayed elections to return to a democratically-elected government following a coup in 2019 which resulted in the resignation and exile of former President Evo Morales. Former Finance Minister Luis Arce won a significant victory in the first round of elections, securing a return to power for the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party.

Democracy did not progress uniformly across the region, however. In Peru, President Martin Vizcarra was impeached by a congressional majority on corruption charges which regional experts say have been inflated for political purposes (namely to thwart Vizcarra’s attempt at corruption reform in the country). Peruvians took to the streets in protest, ultimately resulting in the resignation of interim President Manuel Merino and the arrival of current interim President Fancisco Sagasti, a former member of Congress and academic in office until elections later this year.

Venezuela’s legislative elections best illustrate the stakes for democracy across Latin America. Western-recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó led a coalition of opposition groups to boycott the elections, resulting in a dismal 31 percent turnout across the country. The strategy, however, resulted in a sweeping “victory” for autocrat President Nicolas Maduro, who took control in the country’s Parliament and effectively sealed his hold on power in the economically-crippled nation.

Looking to 2021

The dangers to democracy for Latin America in 2021 often manifest in direct political repression. However, they also remain evident in the continued influence of former political leaders and the wide and polarized field of candidates that voters face.

These trends are perhaps no better represented than in the case of the recent elections in Ecuador, the first of many taking place this year. Ahead of the election, democracy watchdog groups expressed concerns over government crackdowns and threats to cancel the vote that fortunately did not manifest. Andrés Arauz, the young partisan of former leftist President Rafael Correa, took first place in the elections’ first round by campaigning on reversing the neoliberal turn taken by current President Lenin Moreno, Correa’s original successor. Previous conservative opposition candidate and banker Guillermo Lasso will join Arauz in the election’s second round in April after just narrowly beating indegenous leader Yaku Perez. Both Lasso and Pérez ran on anti-correísta platforms — albeit from different sides of the political spectrum — setting the stage for a referendum on the former leader’s return to political influence, a divide which currently defines the National Assembly elections as well. 

Elections in Central America stand out as key points of concern for political repression and issues of rule of law. In Nicaragua, the elections scheduled for Nov. 7 appear to be democratic only in form, as the country’s legislative body approved a measure in December to bar opposition members from participating. Incumbent President Daniel Ortega will be pursuing his third term in office and offers no indication that he intends to cease his ongoing crackdown on protest and dissent, which has driven tens of thousands from the country since 2018. The new Biden administration just condemned recent actions by Ortega that would “take the country further away from free and fair elections in November.”

Meanwhile, campaigns are already underway for El Salvador’s midterm elections, which will be fully digital this year in light of the pandemic. Tensions are high between President Nayib Bukele and the opposition-held Congress, and early polling shows that Bukele is likely to make gains against his opponents. This is concerning given Bukele’s leveraging of the coronavirus to institute social crackdowns and signs that the administration intends to seek constitutional reform to extend the presidential term.

Finally, Honduras’ November general elections face a number of complications, and the country has yet to set a date. After holding primary elections in March, the legislature intends to reshape the nation’s electoral process ahead of the general election, which will take place with numerous COVID-19 regulations in place. Current President Juan Orlando Hernandéz recently affirmed his prior commitment to not seek reelection, and is facing accusations of drug trafficking from U.S. prosecutors. Whether this will enable the National Party’s opposition to break its running hold on power remains to be seen as the parties enter yet another crowded field of contenders.

North of the region in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is expected to perform well despite his poor handling of the country’s pandemic response, which has resulted in more than 150,000 dead from the virus. With opposition parties coordinating to defeat him, however, and AMLO facing coordination challenges with the Biden administration on trade and immigration, the June results remain to be seen.

Elections in South America feature crowded ballots and polarization defining the candidate fields. Following the combination of impeachment and resignation noted above, Peru’s contest to succeed interim President Sagasti will take place on April 11 and is also likely to extend to a second round if a candidate does not initially exceed 50 percent. The leading candidate George Forsyth, a well-known celebrity running on the conservative party, was recently excluded from running due to misreporting his financial investments. This unexpected turn leaves several candidates vying for the tops spot including: Keiko Fujimori, previous competitor and the daughter of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori, who is also plagued by her own corruption charges; Julian Guzmán, an economist and  former secretary-general; and Verónika Mendoza, a former congresswoman and the sole left-wing candidate. 

As noted, Chile will have a uniquely busy year at the polls, first looking to select representatives from a field of more than three thousand candidates for its Constitutional Convention in April. Then, in November, general elections will be held to replace second-term incumbent President Sebastián Piñera who is unable to run again due to restrictions on consecutive re-elections in Chile’s current constitution.This field too looks crowded, with candidates from across Chile’s wide political spectrum. Similar to the constitutional elections, multiple candidates have announced intentions to run, and the next few months will see parties hold primaries to narrow the field.

Finally, in Argentina, new President Fernández brought the return of the left-wing Peronist party to power in his 2019 victory and has since been focused on addressing the country’s debt challenges with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In addition to reflecting on the country’s relatively successful economic performance and mixed opinions on the government’s COVID-19 response, voters will likely use the November elections as a reflection on Argentina’s recent legalization of abortion that passed in January.

Latin America faces a busy election season with consequential ballots in several countries, likely setting up a year of contention and polarization. While the opportunity for peaceful democratic change that shone through in 2020 is abundant, concerning trends around social repression requires vigilance and transparency from election observers. The worsening trajectory of coronavirus in the region will likely affect both the outcomes and processes of these elections, with possible postponements and additional restrictions. In hopes of changing that path, we should expect candidates and voters alike to make their voices heard, whether at the ballot box or in the streets.

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