Elections in the Southern Cone: Citizens Chose Continuity

Editor’s note: This piece has been translated into English.

October has been a month of major news in electoral politics in the Southern Cone. The various leftist parties in power in Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay, each of which was facing tough competition, did quite well in recent presidential elections.

Blank check for Evo Morales

In the Bolivian elections held on October 12, Evo Morales won 61.36 percent of the votes, leading his main rival, center-right businessman Samuel Doria Medina, by more than 37 points. This also secured him two-thirds of both houses of Congress, which will enable him to change the Constitution (if he decides to do so to seek a fourth consecutive term) without any need to enter into a pact with the opposition.

This blank check casts a shadow of doubt over a regime that lacks solid and independent institutions capable of containing the growing personalismo that characterizes Morales’s presidency.

Continuity in Brazil and Uruguay

The volatility of the vote and the uncertainty throughout the campaign have been the most salient features of the elections in Brazil and Uruguay.

In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party, PT) had a close second-round victory (October 26) by only 3 percent over the center-right opposition candidate Aécio Neves (Brazilian Social Democracy Party, PSDB), without a majority in a highly fragmented legislature (28 parties). With a weak leadership, a Brazil that is fractured socially, ethnically, and geographically, an economy that has slowed down, high inflation, unsatisfied citizen demands, and corruption scandals, Dilma faces a complicated second term.

In case of Uruguay, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), led by Tabaré Vázquez and with decisive support from President Mujica, fared much better in the elections than the polls had suggested, maintaining the legislative majority in both houses (which it has enjoyed since 2005), and winning by a 17-point advantage over the center-right opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou (Partido Blanco). This clear victory, however, did not suffice (47.9 percent) to avoid a run-off election, which is planned for November 30.

What conclusions can be drawn from the October elections?

  1. First, the left continues to win elections in the region. It won in four of the five South American elections that took place during the last 12 months and in five of the seven held in Latin America in 2014. The re-election of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and the triumph of Juan Carlos Varela in Panama (both center-right) are the only exceptions to this regional trend.
  2. Second, the oppositions made it difficult for the parties in power to win, forcing them to a second round (except in Bolivia) with close results in several cases, but they were incapable of forcing a change. In the four South American elections this year there was continuity of the parties in power. 
  3. Third, it is increasingly evident that it is difficult for the parties in power to win elections easily (this happened in El Salvador, in Colombia, and again in Brazil). But it is also true that it has not been easy for the oppositions to defeat the parties in power (they failed this year in El Salvador, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, and probably in Uruguay as well).
    The electorate appears to be opting not so much for change, understood as alternation, but for “change in the context of continuity,” reelecting the parties in power yet at the same time sending them a message of dissatisfaction with the current situation.
  4. Fourth, in the elections in Bolivia, as well as the Brazilian and Uruguayan elections, the fear of losing what has been gained in the last decade has prevailed. It’s true that there’s a generalized desire for change (greater than 70 percent in the Brazilian case) and that the electorate has “flirted” with candidates who were proposing a break with the status quo (Marina Silva, Aécio Neves and Luis Lacalle Pou). Nonetheless, when it comes down to it, a more “conservative” position has prevailed driven by fear of the gamble implicit in embracing new parties under whom it is unclear whether the social progress attained in recent years would be preserved.
  5. Fifth, run-off elections are back in style. Of the four presidential elections this year in South America, in three of them (all but Bolivia) a run-off was needed to determine who would be elected president. The same happened in the first months of the year in Costa Rica and El Salvador, and in Chile’s 2013 elections.
  6. Sixth, consecutive reelection (in Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia) continues to be infallible. Every South American president who sought reelection from 1978 to 2014 was re-elected.
  7. Seventh, these last three elections (except the second-round voting in Uruguay) have shown the political heterogeneity of Latin America in which the Southern Cone votes massively for the center-left or left, and for continuity, while Central America reflects a greater balance between continuity and alternation, and greater ideological pluralism as reflected in the victory of the center-left in Costa Rica, the left in El Salvador and the center-right in Panama.
  8. Eighth, negative campaigning was seen in several cases, especially Colombia and Brazil, causing greater social polarization and leaving open wounds difficult to heal in the post-election period, and which may complicate governability. 
  9. Ninth, the polls erred again in several countries, most notably in the elections in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Brazil, and especially in Uruguay, where the Frente Amplio won by a much wider margin that suggested by the polls prior to election day as well as the exit polling the very night of the elections.

My opinion

Economic growth matters, but the employment rate, growth in real wages, level of consumption and especially social programs are determining factors in the vote. This was clearly the case in the Brazilian elections, where despite low economic growth during Dilma Rousseff’s first administration and current high inflation, Rousseff was reelected because thus far neither of those variables has had a negative impact on employment or consumption or on the continuity of social programs. In Bolivia and Uruguay, the sound macroeconomic situation (much better than in Brazil), accompanied by major gains in poverty reduction, social inclusion, employment and consumption all favored the continuity of the parties in power.

The profound transformation in Latin America during the “golden decade,” thanks to which 60 million Latin Americans emerged from poverty, has brought about the rise of a heterogeneous and broad “vulnerable” and “middle” class, which has not only a profound social impact, but also a profound impact on electoral politics. The numerous and generous social programs are a powerful clientelistic weapon that generates political loyalty and electoral returns for the parties in power. For example, in the 150 municipalities in which the Bolsa Família program has the largest coverage, Dilma won with 78 percent of the vote (in the first round), while at the national level she obtained 41 percent.

Yet there is something more behind these three victories of the left. These are cultural projects which, beyond their national specificities, weave a narrative that places emphasis on dignity, building citizenship and upward social mobility, and that are aimed at laying the foundation for solid and lasting majorities of the left.

In other words, in Latin America no one wants to be poor again and, to achieve this objective, it appears that for broad sectors of the Latin American population the governments of the left offer better guarantees than those of the center-right. So long as these conditions remained unchanged, alternation of power in most South American countries will not prevail.

This piece was initially published in Spanish by Estrategia & Negocios.