A good year for democracy in Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 29, 2015

 

Latin America does not have a lot of reasons to be cheerful about the year coming to an end.

 

The end of the commodity boom has hit LatAm economies hard. Everywhere in the region, presidents are battling high disapproval ratings. Social discontent is growing. But despite the bleak outlook, 2015 is ending on a high note for democracy in Latin America. The presidential elections in Argentina and Guatemala and the recent legislative election in Venezuela have resulted in strong endorsements of democratic principles. As Latin America prepares for a challenging year in 2016, the decision to support democratic alternatives stands out as good news in an otherwise grey end of the year for Latin America.

 

If 2014 was a bad year in terms of economic growth in the region — with only a 1.3-percent expansion in GDP — 2015 turned out to be even worse. The economy is expected to decline by 0.3 percent this year, according to IMF projections released in October. The economy in Brazil, the largest country in the region, will decline by three percent. The end of the commodity boom is partly to blame, as is the slow reaction by Latin American countries adjusting to the new reality. Failure to implement much needed reforms to foster competitiveness and increase productivity also contributed to the bad performance. Because many presidents suffer from low approval ratings, national governments are unwilling to undertake reforms that will have a delayed impact. In the long run, the reforms will be good for the countries, but many presidents fear tightening their fiscal belts and cutting social spending in the short run to produce long term positive results. For many of them, long-term results are not an option when they face immediate pressures to deliver subsidies.

 

In a context where bad news abounds, democracy emerged as a beacon of light in 2015. The Argentine presidential election was the most important vote held in Latin America this year. Though Guatemala and Haiti also elected new presidents, Argentina is a far larger country. After 12 years of Peronist rule under Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentines elected — for the first time in history — a president from a party other than those Radical (UCR) or Peronist, the two players that have dominated democracy in this country.

 

The fact that pre-election polls predicted a victory for ruling coalition candidate Daniel Scioli added an element of surprise. The first round’s close finish forced a runoff — another first for Argentine democracy— in which Mauricio Macri won the presidency.

 

Argentina’s difficult economic situation will test Macri’s ability and management skills. The fact that his coalition does not command a majority of seats in Congress will force Macri to display some superb political manoeuvring skills. Yet, the fact that Argentines voted for change and place their trust in the leader of a new party who advocates for the opposite policies to those implemented over the past 12 years speaks volumes about the maturity of the Argentine electorate. People voted for a radical change in policy and a few weeks later, a peaceful alternation of power took place. In the few weeks since he took office, Macri has begun to deliver on his promises and, so far, things have move forward more smoothly than most people expected.

 

In Venezuela, a momentous legislative election resulted in the biggest electoral setback for the left-wing government there since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. Though the campaign was filled with irregularities favouring the ruling party and even though the playing field was not level, the opposition still managed to obtain a resounding victory. Though President Nicolás Maduro will still be in office until 2019 (though he can be recalled in a referendum after mid-2016), the fact that there will be greater checks and balances on the left-wing government through an opposition-controlled Congress points to a stronger and more consolidated version of democracy for Venezuela.

 

In Guatemala, a presidential vote took place in the middle of a corruption scandal that forced the resignation and imprisonment of outgoing president Otto Pérez Molina. Though a majority of Guatemalans abstained, the election was won by the candidate that was most clearly associated with the anti-incumbency sentiment that was prevalent in the country. Television comedian Jimmy Morales won the election based on his anti-corruption platform and his strong campaign against the established political parties that have dominated that country.

 

Unfortunately, in Haiti things did not turn out well. After no candidate won the first round vote on October 25, a runoff was scheduled for December 27. At the last minute, amid accusations of irregularities favouring one of the remaining candidates, the election was postponed. It is not clear when the election to replace outgoing President Michel Martelly will now be held.

 

Latin American countries will likely want to forget 2015 as they prepare for a difficult 2016. Yet, when they look back and analyze the ups and downs of 2015, they should be proud that democracy proved strong as the people freely chose to change the political direction of two of the largest countries in the region, simply by casting their votes.