Very different elections in Argentina and Venezuela

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 20, 2015

 

Because of their ideological closeness, the governments of Argentina and Venezuela have often been grouped together as part of a wave of leftist leaderships in Latin America. But though current Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Nicolás Maduro, and former leaders, the late Hugo Chávez and Néstor Kirchner, championed many causes together, they also set their respective countries on different paths of democratic consolidation. Democratic institutions, opposition parties and civil society are stronger in Argentina than in Venezuela. In the second-biggest South American economy, there is great uncertainty about the result of the October 25 presidential vote, but no one believes that democracy is at risk. In Venezuela, there is high level of uncertainty about whether the overwhelming favourites, the opposition, can achieve an electoral victory in the upcoming December 6 legislative elections and whether the government will concede defeat, should they lose.

 

The rise to power of Hugo Chávez in 1999 and the institutional re-founding of Venezuelan democracy he led, with the drafting of a new constitution, launched what came to be a resurgence of the Latin American left. Four years later, the election of Argentine president Néstor Kirchner in 2003 was also categorized as part of the revival. During the four years that Néstor Kirchner and Hugo Chávez coincided as national leaders, both championed opposition to the prevailing neoconservative economic model. Their opposition to a free trade area in the Americas came to symbolize the end of the dominant role of a market-friendly approach in the region. Awash in oil money, Venezuela lent much needed cash to Argentina when the country was struggling to come out of the 2001 recession and default on its debt. CFK’s presidential election deepened relations between the two countries. Thus, Argentina was an enthusiastic supporter of Chávez’s Bolivarian integration initiative and helped ease Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur. Most observers considered the Argentine and Venezuelan governments to be “best friends” in the region and equal partners in championing a shift to the left in the Latin American political arena.

 

Since then, the economic policies adopted by the Venezuelan and Argentine governments have had some similarities — especially in in areas like price controls, the nationalization of key economic sectors and intervention in the exchange rate market — many observers often ignored the differences between the economies of both countries and simply labelled them part of the same anti-neoconservative movement.

As the presidential election nears in Argentina, and the legislative election captures the attention of the political arena in Venezuela, the differences between these two democracies and their respective governments are more evident. While Argentina’s outgoing president enjoys a healthy approval level, close to 45 percent (after eight years in power and 12 years in the presidential palace), Maduro is a liability for the ruling Chavista party. The Venezuelan opposition bets that it can win a majority in the unicameral legislature by running against Maduro. In Argentina, the opposition has refrained from campaigning against CFK.

 

In Argentina, polls indicate that a majority of voters will support alternatives other than Daniel Scioli, the candidate of the ruling coalition. He might still go on to win in the first round if he gets more than 40 percent of the vote and leads his rivals by more than 10 percentage points. But the strength of the opposition and its ability to mount a formidable electoral challenge against the incumbent governments is undeniable.

Though CFK is enjoying high approval ratings, her candidate will not win a majority of the vote in the first round. On the contrary, if the Venezuelan opposition wins, it will be because the people have grown tired of the government, not because the opposition has won over the minds and hearts of voters.

 

The most striking difference between Venezuela and Argentina is the strength of democratic institutions. While in Argentina there is no doubt that all contenders will accept the results (though there might be tension if Scioli barely wins over 40 percent of the vote), in Caracas there is growing concern that the government will tamper with electoral results.

 

More differences. The opposition in Argentina has been free to campaign, while some leaders of the Venezuelan opposition have been unjustly jailed. Argentina faces some difficult economic challenges ahead, but its democracy is strong and its institutions are solid. If the opposition forces a runoff and wins office, there will be a peaceful transition. Venezuela also faces difficult times ahead, but its democratic institutions will be tested if, as expected, the opposition wins.

 

For more than a decade, Venezuela and Argentina were labelled as part of the same wave of leftist governments in Latin America. Though they implemented similar economic policies, the way in which the Chávez-Maduro and Kirchner-CFK administrations governed and interacted with democratic institutions proved to be different in many other areas. Whereas it is not difficult to imagine an Argentina no longer led by the Kirchners, there are doubts as to how Venezuela can move beyond Chavismo. As both countries prepare for their respective elections, Argentina has well-functioning democratic institutions, but Venezuela faces testing times ahead.