Super Sunday: The October 25 elections in Latin America

Last Sunday, October 25, several Latin American countries held elections. Two presidential elections were held – the first round in Argentina and the runoff in Guatemala – in addition to important local elections in Colombia, whose results are understood in light of both the ongoing peace process and the 2018 presidential elections.

In Argentina, the surprise was in the mediocre showing at the polls (the lowest in the history of the Peronista political movement) by the candidate of the party in power, Daniel Scioli, who many polls – which were also among the big losers – pointed to as a possible winner on the first round (for which he would have needed 40% of the votes, with at least a 10-point lead over the second-leading candidate). Scioli fell far short of that objective (he came away with just 36% of the vote), surpassing Mauricio Macri, candidate of the opposition coalition Cambiemos, by only two-and-a-half percentage points (Macri garnered 34% of total votes).

The other surprise in these elections – the biggest of all and also unanticipated by any pollster – was the historic defeat of the Peronistas in the province of Buenos Aires (after 28 years of hegemony of the Justicialista party), in the process sweeping away, in a genuine political earthquake, the so-called “barons” of the Buenos Aires suburbs (which are in the province of Buenos Aires). María Eugenia Vidal beat Aníbal Fernández by five points, becoming the new governor of the province of Buenos Aires – which is the country’s largest electoral district – as of December 10.

As a result of the first-round results, a historic (and unprecedented) second-round election will be held on November 22. Although second-round elections have been in the constitution since 1994, Argentina had remained the only country in the region that had never needed to use them, until now. The key issues of the campaign in the second round – which we anticipate will be intense and marked by negative and dirty campaigning – will revolve around governance and the kind of change most advisable for Argentine society: the change within continuity that Daniel Scioli espouses, or change as alternation, as proposed by Macri. Both candidates have committed to participating in a national debate – also unprecedented in Argentina’s political history – and they have begun to deploy their respective strategies to attract the almost eight million voters from the first round whose choice did not make it to the second round (five million votes received by Sergio Massa in the first round, who, with 21%, came in third place; the almost two million votes of the other three candidates – Del Caño, Stolbizer, and Rodríguez Saa – and the almost 800,000 blank and annulled ballots). For the time being, Macri has the advantage. Even though he was the second-place finisher in the first round, he is now better positioned politically going into the runoffs. But the outcome remains to be seen.

In Guatemala, the results of the second-round balloting remained within the parameters suggested by the polls. Evangelical comedian Jimmy Morales won by a landslide (67% to 33% for Sandra Torres). The victory of the outsider Morales is explained above all by the current moment in Guatemala. While his political rivals (Manuel Baldizón and Sandra Torres) embodied the old vices, Morales succeeded in channeling the aspirations of political regeneration, greater transparency, and anti-corruption sentiment that citizens were calling for.

Yet if winning the two rounds of the presidential election was relatively simple for Morales, the challenges he must face as president (as of January 14, 2016) are daunting. His promise, set out in the slogan “Neither corrupt nor a thief,” (“Ni corrupto ni ladrón”), points in the right direction, but is insufficient for responding to citizens’ expectations of change and political and institutional transformation. And this year, in a period of just six months, the citizens of Guatemala mobilizedand, pressing their demands, were able to overthrow and send to prison the vice-president (Roxana Baldetti) and the president (Otto Pérez Molina). If Morales wishes to preserve the democratic dividend and citizen support he currently enjoys, he needs to respond swiftly and effectively to citizen demands on issues such as education, health, security, and anti-corruption efforts. The fiscal situation is precarious and the State is on the verge of collapse in several areas. Morales’s political resources are too scarce to guarantee governance and give impetus to the reforms that citizens have been demanding: he is not backed by a strong party with unquestionable democratic credentials; he does not yet have a solid government team; and his party has an insignificant number of seats in the legislature (11 of a total 158). In these circumstances Guatemala’s political future appears uncertain and plagued by obstacles.

In Colombia’s local elections the big winners were President Juan Manuel Santos and Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras (one of the strongest of those aspiring to succeed Santos in 2018). Both were strengthened as several of their political allies won elective office in principal main departments and capital cities across the country. These local authorities will play a key role in implementing the future peace accords. The biggest losers were Uribe’s new party (Centro Democrático), with adverse results not only in Bogotá (its candidate Francisco Santos finished a distant fourth) but also in Uribe’s main geographic base (department of Antioquia and its capital, Medellín). The other big loser in these elections was the left, which after 12 years of being in power lost the crown jewel, the office of the mayor of Bogotá, which was won by former mayor Enrique Peñalosa who leads a coalition made up of Vargas Lleras’s party (Cambio Radical), the Alianza Verde, and the Partido Conservador.

My opinion: Super Sunday confirms the growing importance of the second round for determining the outcomes of presidential elections in Latin America. The two presidential elections this year (Guatemala and Argentina) had to go to a second round; the same trend was observed in the vast majority of the presidential elections held in 2014. These processes have also been marked by a demand for change, and the surprise factor which, if it plays out in the Argentine case, could usher in a new political cycle in the region.

Adapted from a piece originally published in La Nación.