Latin America 2013: Political and Electoral Balance

2013 was an intense year in Latin America, full of important developments, including the death of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro’s succession via tight and questioned elections; Rafael Correa’s re-election in Ecuador and the return of Michelle Bachelet to power in Chile. The political situation in Paraguay returned to normal through general elections; however, in Honduras (because of claims of electoral fraud) the situation became entangled once more. Daniel Ortega, with his reform in favor of indefinite re-election, looks more and more like Somoza. The Castro brothers keep on ruling in Cuba and chaired the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The structural reforms in Mexico and the peace process in Colombia remain active, even though facing major challenges. The US Secretary of State declared at the Organization of American States that the Monroe Doctrine had come to an end. And for the first time ever, a Latin American is the head of the Vatican, Pope Francisco, whom the Time declared the celebrity of the year because of his leadership.

Elections, economic deceleration, and social protests

This year marked the 35th anniversary of the Third Democratic Wave in the region and a new electoral cycle began and will continue through 2016, a period in which 17 of the 18 countries in the region (except for Mexico) will hold presidential elections.

The five electoral presidential processes this year were held in a context of economic deceleration. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), growth in Latin America in 2013 will be just 2.6 percent. This is compounded with progressive social unrest, which is made plain by an increase in citizen demands (particularly from the emerging and very heterogeneous middle classes) in several countries in the region. Even though these citizens do not reject “the democratic system”, they do display disatisfaction with the performance of this system and demand more representation, more transparency and accountability, and, above everything else, improved public services in education, health, transportation, and citizen security.

The processes

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa was re-elected a second time (he was elected in 2006 and re-elected a first time in 2009) with a clear advantage over a fragmented and weak opposition.

In Venezuela, as a result of the passing of Chavez, there was a short campaign marked by the physical –but not “spiritual”—absence of the charismatic leader. Chavismo was led by Nicolas Maduro, who had been acting president since Chavez went to Cuba in December 2012. The opposition repeated its candidate, Henrique Capriles, who had been defeated by Chavez in the October 2012 presidential election. The progressive economic deterioration, Maduro’s lack of charisma, and the good performance displayed by the opposition led Chavismo to win only by a very narrow margin. The opposition refused to acknowledge the results, claiming major irregularities, but electoral authorities (under the control of Chavismo) turned down such questioning.

Paraguay returned to normal, both locally and externally, with an election in which Horacio Cartes easily won, marking the return of the Colorado Party in to power, which had been taken from them in the 2008 election, after 61 years uninterrupted years in office.

The Honduran election featured polarization, fraud claims, and the win of the ruling National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez. Another feature was the collapse of the historical bi-party system (at the national level, not at the municipal one). The runner-up was the LIBRE Party, an emerging force born after the 2009 coup and led by former president Manuel Zelaya, with his wife Xiomara Castro-Zelaya as presidential candidate. LIBRE did not accept the results disclosed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and claimed fraud. As a consequence, the country is faced with a serious challenge to governability because of the persistence of high political polarization –between those who support Zelaya’s party and those who oppose it—and the division in parliament, which obstructs the possibility of reaching agreements.

Chile closed its electoral year with a second-round of presidential elections which marked a return of the left to power after four years in which the right had ruled. Michelle Bachelet, leader of the left-center coalition New Majority, won over Evelyn Matthei, electoral head of a center-right coalition. The campaign lacked emotion, since Bachelet was believed to be the winner from the start, whether in a first or in a second round, as was the case. Her lead over Matthei was huge. Both election rounds were characterized by high abstention.

Two other important electoral processes in the region took place in Argentina and Venezuela. The mid-term legislative election had a negative outcome for the president of Argentina Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner and put an end to her re re-election project. In Venezuela, the municipal elections (of which the opposition made a symbolic plebiscite over Maduro’s performance) gave a new win to the ruling party (which again had behind it a marked opportunism), this time with a better lead than in the presidential elections last April.

Final reflection

The 2013 electoral processes confirmed some of the major trends in the region. First, the combination of continuity (Correa’s win in Ecuador, Chavismo’s in Venezuela, and the ruling party’s in Honduras) and alternation (in Paraguay and in Chile). Second, political heterogeneity has been present too: the win of “21st century socialism” in Ecuador and Venezuela, of the moderate left in Chile, and of the center-right in Paraguay and Honduras. Third, with a few exceptions, there was a trend towards the political middle (more moderation and pragmatism).

Several open processes remain from 2013 and will continue marking Latin American political reality in 2014. In Mexico, Enrique Pena-Nieto, basing himself in the Pact for Mexico, was able to achieve the approval of the leading structural reforms which he had set forth (education, telecommunications, transparency, fiscal, political, and energy); however, that pact has been eroded because of the Democratic Revolution Party’s (PRD in Spanish) resignation. The challenge becomes now to achieve an effective and successful implementation of said reforms.

In Colombia, the challenge lies in progressing in the peace negotiations with the FARC, amidst an electoral campaign which will last during the first five months in 2014. In spite of the progress made, the talks have been slow (Santos had set November 2013 as the deadline for an agreement). It is going to be a difficult year, plagued by tensions and pressures, coming particularly from Uribe’s followers.

The electoral rally which began this year will continue in 2014 with seven major presidential elections. In most of the instances, the ruling party’s candidates start as favorites (Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay). In the three remaining countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panamá) the options are still wide open, but in all of them the ruling parties stand a good chance of winning. Re-election is livelier than ever: in three countries (Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil), the presidents will seek to remain in office; meanwhile, in Uruguay and El Salvador, former presidents are making efforts to return (Tabare Vazquez and Antonio Saca). In all of these processes the performance of the economy, the level of social conflict, and specific national circumstances will play a leading role. And, for sure, governability will be more complex in all of these countries.

This article was translated into English by International IDEA, and was originally published in Spanish by El País.