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Op-Ed

Latin America 2014: Results and Electoral Trends

Daniel Zovatto


Editor’s note: This piece was translated into English by International IDEA.

2014 features an intense electoral agenda. In the first six months, four of the seven Latin American presidential elections expected this year took place. These have a strong Central American geographic slant (Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama), with the Colombian ballot as the only exception.

These elections are part of the current electoral rally in which 17 countries in the region will hold presidential elections between 2013 and 2016. Only Mexico (where the most recent presidential elections were held in 2012 and the next ones will take place in 2018) is at odds with this trend.

On February 2, Costa Rica and El Salvador started the electoral marathon. In the Costa Rican case, candidate Luis Guillermo Solís, of the center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC in Spanish) and Johnny Araya, of the then ruling National Liberation Party (PLN in Spanish), received the most votes in the first round, respectively.  In a second round held on April 5, Solís prevailed with 77.9 percent of the vote, as compared to Araya’s 22.1 percent. In El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the ruling party (the leftist FMLN), was the most popular candidate in the first round, but he did not attain 50 percent of the vote and was forced into a second round against Norman Quijano, of the rightist ARENA. On March 9, Sánchez Cerén won by the narrow margin of 0.22 percent (5,364 votes).

In Panama, on May 4, the opposition candidate Juan Carlos Varela of the conservative Authentic Panamanian Party won with 39.1 percent of the vote over José Domingo Arias (31.4 percent) of the ruling party. Lastly, in Colombia, on June 15, President Juan Manuel Santos was not only reelected but also reversed the outcome of the May 25 first round; that is, he lost to Uribe follower Óscar Iván Zuluaga, but triumphed in the runoff election (50.9 percent vs. 45 percent of Uribe’s group).

The three pending presidential elections this year will take place next October: on the 5th in Brazil, on the 12th in Bolivia, and on the 26th in Uruguay. Of the three, both those in Brazil and Uruguay remain open (even though the ruling party candidates hold an advantage for the time being) and have a high probability of a second round; meanwhile, in Bolivia a win by Morales in the first round is assumed.

In Brazil, opinion polls agree that as a consequence of the current economic deceleration, high inflation, and citizen uneasiness regarding deficiencies in education, health, and transportation, there will be a second round and that the race (a tightly contested one that will focus on the economy and the quality of public services) will come down to President Dilma Rousseff and Aecio Neves, the candidate of the opposition PSDB Party. However, the polls differ on the likely outcome of a second round. Datafolha predicts a technical tie, while Ibope forecasts a clear difference in favor of Rousseff (41 percent against 33 percent for Neves).

On the contrary, in Bolivia, President Evo Morales will most surely be reelected by a wide margin in the first round, just like in 2005 (54 percent) and 2009 (64 percent). A recent poll in the newspapers Página 7 and Los Tiempos predict Morales at 44.6 percent, followed by Samuel Doria-Medina (the most popular opposition candidate to date) with 19.8 percent. If these projections are confirmed in the October 12 elections, Morales would be reelected, since the 2009 Constitution establishes that the presidency goes to the candidate who receives over 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent of the vote if there is at least a 10 percent difference over the second-place candidate. A second survey by Ipsos, Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado, for the journal La Razón, also predicts a victory for President Morales in the first round with 59 percent of the votes. The closest opponent (as in the first poll) is predicted to be Doria-Medina, with only 18 percent of the votes.

The almost guaranteed win by Evo is due, on the one hand, to the high level of approval of his performance (70 percent in the Ipsos survey) and on the other, to the continued inability of the opposition to agree upon a sole candidate that is able to present itself as a viable alternative to MAS.

Finally, in the case of Uruguay, former President Tabaré Vázquez, of the ruling Frente Amplio (FA), leads polls in July, but is stagnant in most of them at 42 percent to 43 percent of the vote, which makes the need for a second round likely (barring a major change). Partido Nacional (also called Blanco) places second with 27 percent and third comes Partido Colorado with 13 percent. Thus, a win by Tabaré Vázquez, which until recently was taken as a given, has become complicated. Also, it is not yet clear if the FA will win an absolute majority in the parliament, which it currently holds.

The most recent survey by Factum (the last week of July) shows that Tabaré Vázquez remains in first place, but that the distance with the Blanco Party candidate Luis Lacalle-Pou, in the case of a second round, has narrowed considerably (51 percent to 46 percent). As it is well pointed out by Oscar Bottinelli (an analyst for the polling firm), “these data pose a major change: for the first time in the last four years, it cannot be taken for granted that Tabaré Vázquez will be the next President of Uruguay. The election is open. Tabaré Vázquez still has the highest chance of winning, but there are also major probabilities against him.”

Results and Trends

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The results of the first four elections show that Latin America is a highly heterogeneous region, politically speaking. Firstly, we have witnessed wins by candidates with a conservative slant (Juan Carlos Varela), of center left (Luis Guillermo Solís), close to “21st century socialism” (Salvador Sánchez Cerén), and of center (Juan Manuel Santos). However, if my forecasted win by the three candidates of the incumbent parties in the October elections is to prove accurate, the prevailing trend in the Southern Cone will be left and center-left.

Second, in this year’s first six months, there was a balance between continuity and alternation.  In two countries, the ruling party or coalition won (the FMLN in El Salvador and Unidad Nacional in Colombia), while there was alternation in the other two cases (Costa Rica and Panama). Again, if my forecast is confirmed, in the October elections we will see a clear trend in favor of continuation and of reelection: two cases of consecutive reelection (Brazil and Bolivia) and an alternate one (Uruguay).

Third, in most of the cases, the slight differences in the results have necessitated second rounds (Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Colombia), a trend that we are very likely to see in the Brazil and Uruguay elections. The first rounds wins, which were so common in the region a few years ago and particularly in South America, are becoming scarce due to changes in the socio-economic context, the erosion of ruling parties after two consecutive terms, and the highly competitive nature of electoral races.

Fourth, the vote has become diversified and more volatile, causing new presidents to govern with congresses in which no party has a majority (Costa Rica, Panama, and El Salvador). All of this has a strong influence on governability in these countries and lessens the ability of the chief executives to act, since it favors scenarios in which branches clash (legislative vs. executive) and block both public policies and reforms.

Fifth, the high abstention in several races reveals a dangerous disillusionment of citizens regarding the democratic system. Abstention was over 50 percent in Colombia, both in the first and the second rounds. In Costa Rica, abstention was close to 43 percent in the second round, and in the first round in El Salvador it was 45 percent. So far, Panama has been the only exception, with a 76.77 percent turnout.

My Opinion

Now that we have passed the halfway point in 2014 following the first four of seven presidential elections, several conclusions can be drawn. Such trends are likely to prevail in the second part of the year:

  1. The economic deceleration and social tensions, fundamentally the problems facing the middle classes due to insecurity, corruption and bad public services, are starting to have a major impact on the electoral cycle. The recent report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF, Economic Outlook 2014) confirms the economic deceleration in Latin America (regional growth for 2014 has again been corrected downwards to 2 percent), noting in particular the reduction in growth of its two engines: Brazil with a meager 1.3 percent and Mexico with a modest 2.4 percent (six tenths under the rate projected in April).
  2. This complex socio-economic context is making it increasingly difficult for presidents who seek reelection to win in the first round, since political loyalty has become more volatile. The three elections in October pose an additional challenge for ruling party candidates as the parties are seeking a third consecutive term in the case of Bolivia and Uruguay, and a fourth in the case of Brazil. According to comparative regional experience, attaining this goal is difficult (but not impossible). The reelection of Morales, because of the reasons previously discussed, is an exception to this trend. Regardless of the growing difficulty to win a first round and an accompanying a legislative majority, presidents who seek reelection maintain a clear advantage over their opponents to date.
  3. Consequently, reliance on a second round to decide presidential elections is becoming the norm. In five of the seven elections in 2014 (in Panama it is not regulated and, in Bolivia, Evo Morales is considered the definite winner in the first round) there are high chances of a second round. In my opinion, this trend will also be present in the presidential elections in Argentina and Guatemala next year.

In a Latin American context of moderate economic growth and intense electoral marathon, the governments elected during the present electoral cycle will have to meet the expectations and demands of citizens with fewer resources. As a consequence, social conflicts will remain present and be accompanied by demands that, while they might not endanger democratic continuity, will make the continuation of ruling party governments more difficult and their governability more complex.

This piece was initially published in Spanish by

International IDEA



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