A new election season in Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 23, 2014


During the last quarter of 2014, three Latin American countries will hold presidential elections. The way the campaigns have unfolded in Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia shows that politics in Latin American countries continues to be driven by national concerns.


Three of the seven presidential elections scheduled for 2014 will be held in October. Brazil and Bolivia will vote on October 5 and Uruguay will do so on October 26. Runoffs are expected in Brazil (October 26) and Uruguay (November 30). In the unlikely case of a runoff in Bolivia, the vote will happen on December 7.


Earlier this year, elections were held in Costa Rica (February 2nd and a runoff on April 6), El Salvador (February 2 and a runoff on March 9), Panama (May 4) and Colombia (May 25 and a runoff on June 15).


With elections in seven countries, 2014 has been the most active year in presidential elections in the region since 2009, when seven countries chose presidents. In recent memory, only 2006 was more active, with 10 presidential elections in the 18 Latin American countries (including the Dominican Republic).


Because countries have presidential terms that last four, five or six years — and because there are occasional democratic interruptions and constitutional changes — electoral calendars move at different paces in different countries. If all countries stick to their current calendars, the next large electoral year will be 2018, when six countries (including Mexico and Brazil, the two largest in the region) will hold presidential elections.


So far in 2014, the one incumbent who ran for re-election, Colombian Juan Manuel Santos, won, in a runoff. In the upcoming races, another incumbent is likely to win, Bolivian Evo Morales, while Brazilian Dilma Rouseff, is in a tight race. Betting on incumbents to win re-election is safe in Latin America. Since 1990, only one incumbent has lost — Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic in 2004. Another incumbent, Daniel Ortega, also lost in Nicaragua in 1990 (but he had been elected in a non-competitive election five years earlier, so he was not a proper democratic president). Though President Santos had to put up a fight to win, he ended up joining the long list of re-elected Latin American presidents. Because incumbent presidents enjoy an advantage in access to public resources and to television and mass media, they normally win. Challengers always face an uphill battle when they run against an incumbent. This year, Brazilian Marina Silva might become the second challenger to defeat a sitting incumbent in Latin America in 24 years. However, after her rapid rise in polls following her late entry, Marina Silva is no onger invulnerable. She will make it to the runoff, but defeating an incumbent president remains an almost unsurmountable challenge in Brazil.


Though elections are the only game in town in Latin America (with the exception of Cuba), not all elections are competitive. Evo Morales is the longest-serving democratically-elected president in the history of Bolivia and he is the senior president in Latin America, in office since 2006. Though the other two elections to be held in October are highly competitive, the case of Bolivia underlines some of the problems that democracy faces in Latin America. When broken political party systems fail to offer more than one credible alternative, people do not really have a choice. The election turns into a plebiscite on the perpetuation of the sitting president.


The elections in Brazil and Uruguay also show that prolonged periods in power end up wearing out any coalition. In Brazil, the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) has been in power since 2003. After 12 years, many Brazilians are ready to vote the PT out of office. In Uruguay, the Broad Front has been in power for two terms (10 years). The fact that former president Tabaré Vázquez is running for a second term at age 74 partially explains the rapid recent rise of moderate rightwing challenger Luis Lacalle Pou, the 41-year-old son of a former president.


So far, an incumbent centrist president (Colombia) and a leftist party (El Salvador) have won the elections. In the other two countries, a rightist was replaced by a centrist (Panamá) and a centre-left was replaced by a leftist (Costa Rica). Accusations of corruption in Panama and the fatigue of an eight-year run in office for the social democrats in Costa Rica proved decisive to explain the victory by the moderate opposition in both countries.


If the opposition wins in Brazil and Uruguay, there will be a moderate shift to the left and right respectively. In recent weeks, Marina Silva and Lacalle Pou have stressed their moderation and pragmatism. Since they know that the decisive voters in both countries are centrists, challengers offer a change in the pilot seat rather than a drastic modification of the roadmap.


A few years ago, there was a widespread perception that Latin America had made a turn to the left. In 2014, the only lesson that can be learned so far from election results is that Latin American politics is increasingly a national affair.