Ballotage in Latin America: Methods and Trends

Editor’s note: In this commentary, Daniel Zovatto discusses the origins, strengths and weakness of ballotage – a second ballot taken in the absence of a first round majority – in Latin American presidential elections.

Ballotage is in fashion in Latin America: of the seven presidential elections expected this year, a second round is regulated in six of the seven countries (Panama is the sole exception).

Last April 6, Costa Rica held an unprecedented ballotage, since the candidate of the ruling party gave up campaigning and suffered a crushing defeat. In El Salvador, the second round last March 9 was heart-stopping: the difference between the first and second place was 0.22 percent and this brought about an electoral crisis (ARENA claimed rigging and refused to accept the results), which was happily overcome with the passing of days.

Almost certainly (barring a surprise), the results of the presidential election in Colombia next May 25 will bring about the need of a second round to define whether President Santos attains reelection or a new ruler is chosen. Also, it is highly probable that there will be a ballotage in some of the presidential elections to be held at the end of the year: Bolivia (least likely), Brazil (there is no clear forecast yet) and Uruguay (probable enough).

Origin and Modalities

Ballotage is an institution of French constitutional law, which was regulated for the first time in 1852 and definitely recovered by the Constitution of the 5th Republic. One distinctive feature (among several) of the regulations of ballotage in our region is that, differently from the French model (which is used to elect both the President and the congress), in Latin America (excepting Haiti) it is used only to elect the chief executive.

The second round is one of the most common electoral reforms in Latin America during the Third Democratic Wave. The prevailing regional trend to elect the chief executive was substituting the system of relative majority with ballotage or a second round.

As a result, today, 12 of the 18 nations (in addition to Haiti, whose case we will not discuss in this article) regulate ballotage in several modalities. In eight of the cases, the majority required is 50 percent plus one of the votes. Costa Rica, on the opposite side, requires a lower percentage: 40 percent of the votes plus one. In Ecuador and Bolivia it is 50 percent plus one or 40 percent with an over 10-point difference, and in Argentina it is 45 percent plus one or 40 percent with an over 10-point difference.

Only Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela do not consider it and, since early 2014, neither does Nicaragua, which has just returned to the relative majority system.

Virtues and Weaknesses

Ballotage champions argue that the system has two leading goals: 1) granting high legitimacy in the origin of the elected President, and 2) strengthening democratic governance by promoting the establishment of electoral coalitions in the period between the first and the second round, which can become government coalitions later on.

For its detractors, in turn, ballotage hardly comes close to its alleged virtues. They point out that it creates less incentive for the strategic vote of the first round, which favors an increase in the number of parties. Also, they warn about the likelihood that, indirectly, it promotes hurdles for governance, instead of preventing them; this because, even though the legislative and executive elections are technically simultaneous, the first are defined in a first round, which in turns causes the risk for a President elected in a second round of not having a majority support in Congress.

A clear example of this problem is the current configuration of the Legislative Assembly in Costa Rica, which has a high fragmentation level and where PAC –the party (PAC) of the recently elected president Luis Guillermo Solis (who was supported by one of the largest majorities ever in Latin American history (77.8 percent to 22.2 percent)—has only 13 of the 57 seats.

Meanwhile, in El Salvador, President elect Salvador Sánchez-Cerén will have to contend during his five-year term in office with three different parliaments (its members are elected every three years). Even though one of the advantages of this institutional arrangement is preventing that presidential and parliamentary elections be simultaneous (thus averting the dragging effect of the first over the second), it potentially entangles the governance of the country in an important fashion.

Reversion of Results and Electoral Turnout

The comparative analysis that we have made of 133 presidential elections in Latin America after 1978, shows that a second round does not alter the initial result in those cases where the winner of the first round was considered “the lesser evil” by a majority of the voters, even though he may not be the favorite candidate for all. This rule was confirmed in two times in which Costa Rica had to stage a second round (2002 and 2014), as well as in the three times when El Salvador held a ballotage (1984, 1994, and 2014).

On the contrary, result restructuring (RR from now on) takes place when a majority of the voters share a “negative consensus” against the candidate who won the election in the first round and votes in the second round for the candidate who placed second in the first one.

In such cases, only a second round enables the voters to establish a new majority and thus prevent that a highly unpopular candidate who won the first round become President.

Of the more than 130 presidential elections that took place between 1978 and April 2014, 76 were held under the principle of ballotage. In 40 of these 76 cases, a second round became necessary. And in 30 of these 40 elections, the winner of the first round also won the second one. In only nine of these elections there was RR and in one of them (the Argentine elections in 2003), the one who placed first in the initial election, former President Carlos Menem, did not show up for the second round and Nestor Kirchner was appointed President for the 2003-2007 term.

As we can see, RR is little likely but not impossible, because it has taken place one time in Guatemala (1991), The Dominican Republic (1996), Colombia (1998), and Uruguay (1999); twice in Peru (1990 and 2006); and three times in Ecuador (1984, 1996 and 2006).

Regarding turnout, the regional trend is that it decreases for second rounds. Of the 40 ballotages, turnout decreased in 23 cases and increased in 15 (there are no available data for the 1984 election in El Salvador and in Argentina the 2003 second round was not actually staged). In the two most recent ballotages, both trends were present: turnout decreased in the second round in Costa Rica (from 68.8 percent to 60.2 percent), but it increased in El Salvador (from 55.31 percent to 60.17 percent).

Concluding Thoughts

The introduction of ballotage in the region has brought some benefits but also major risks and negative consequences or undesired effects. The modified institutional grafting of the original French model onto our reality (above all by limiting ballotage to the presidential election and applying it in a presidential system) and the doubtful results achieved in practice (regarding its leading goals) in a large number of the nations which currently regulate it, point to the need of careful analysis on the benefit of keeping it effective and, in such event, the best options of available reforms to improve its effectiveness.

This piece was originally published in Spanish by La Voz.