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Op-Ed

Latin America 2016: Another difficult year

Daniel Zovatto

If 2015 was a difficult year globally, both in economic and political terms– terrorist attacks by the Islamic State, massive migration flows, geopolitical tensions, war in Syria and populism on the rise in the United States and Europe – 2016 will not be much better. Economically, both in Latin America and internationally, the slow growth is expected to continue with a mix of possible outcomes.

In the words of International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, growth in 2016 will be disappointing and uneven. Regionally the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) projects anemic economic growth of 0.2 per cent. Even more pessimistic, the World Bank projects that growth in 2016 will be void after shrinking 0.9 per cent in 2015.

Elections, elections and more elections

The Latin American agenda is replete with elections and crucial political events. This year will conclude the second stage of the Latin American electoral marathon during which, in a period of four years (2013-2016), a total of 17 presidential elections will have taken place. Fourteen have already been completed. If we add the first stage (2009-2012), during which another 17 were held, we find ourselves in the presence of an unprecedented series of elections. In only eight years the 18 countries in the Latin American region will have experienced a total of 34 presidential elections.

The three presidential elections that will complete this electoral rally will take place in Peru on April 10, the Dominican Republic on May 15, and Nicaragua on November 6. Bolivia will also hold a referendum in February in which incumbent President Evo Morales will ask the citizens to ratify constitutional reforms that would allow him to seek re-election in 2019.

Brazil will hold local elections, which will be decisive for President Dilma Rousseff and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Local elections will also be very important in Chile for President Michelle Bachelet and the future of the Nueva Mayoría, and in Mexico where elections in 12 states will be an early sign of the 2018 presidential elections.

In Venezuela, local elections (governors) will be held in the context of the ongoing conflict between President Maduro and the new National Assembly in the hands of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). Depending on how the political situation evolves, those elections might also lead to a call for a recall election seeking an early, constitutional end to the administration of President Nicolás Maduro, whose term expires in 2019.

In Colombia, depending on the speed with which the peace process moves forward, there may be a referendum to approve or reject the agreements signed by the Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Electoral trends for 2016

Out of seven presidential elections held in Latin America in 2014 (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay), the predominant trend in South America was the re-election of the centre-left or left-wing governments already in power. By contrast, in Central America there was a greater balance between continuity and alternation. In 2015 two presidential elections—Guatemala and Argentina— resulted in a new political direction.

In 2016 we are likely to see re-elections of incumbents in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. In Peru, by contrast, we are likely to see an alternation in power, which has become the tradition since elections in 2000.

In both Peru and the Dominican Republic, it may be necessary to have a second round of balloting to elect the president, as occurred from 2013 to 2015 in most of the countries that have runoff elections: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Uruguay.

In Peru, Keiko Fujimori appears to be assured a place in a runoff election as she currently tops the polls with more than 30 per cent of the votes. What is unknown is who she would face in the second round. As things stand today, the most likely rivals would be former cabinet minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, former mayor César Acuña or former president Alan García. Yet one mustn’t rule out last-minute surprises, as has happened in recent elections.

In May, the most likely scenario in the Dominican Republic is the re-election of the incumbent President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). He currently rules a coalition government with several parties, including PLD’s traditional rival the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Medina’s main rival is opposition leader Luis Abinader who heads a coalition between the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) and the Social Christian Reformist Party.

In Nicaragua, current President Daniel Ortega (FSLN) appears to be the favorite to win a third consecutive term in November. Nonetheless, encouraged by the opposition victory in Venezuela, the Nicaraguan opposition formed the National Coalition for Democracy, made up of the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI), headed by Eduardo Montealegre, and the centre-left Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

Countries to watch in 2016

The first half of 2016 will be crucial for several countries of the region. In Argentina it will be the litmus test for the administration of President Mauricio Macri. In Bolivia, Evo Morales is putting his prestige on the line as he attempts to change the constitution in the 21 February referendum.

In Venezuela, we are likely to see more clashes between President Maduro heading up the executive branch and the opposition which, for the first time in 16 years, now controls Congress. The MUD already warned, in remarks by the new speaker of the National Assembly Henry Ramos Allup, that it will pursue options to bring about a constitutional change of government in the next six months. This situation will increase the levels of polarization and confrontation between the government and the opposition and will further deteriorate the serious economic crisis.

In Brazil we should pay close attention to the economy—to date projections are very negative—and the progress of the possible impeachment of President Rousseff on corruption charges.

Peace negotiations in Colombia and tensions in Haiti

In Colombia, if negotiations continue to move forward, we may see the signing of the much longed-for peace agreement, and the calling of a referendum to approve or reject the accords.

It will be equally important to monitor the complex and tense political and electoral situation in Haiti, especially whether the second round of the presidential election will be held as scheduled on January 24 or put off once again due to the serious irregularities in the first round in October last year.

New economic cycle

The results of last year’s presidential election in Argentina and legislative election in Venezuela, in which both governing parties were defeated, would appear to indicate a new political cycle has begun in South America, likely as a result (at least in part) of a profound change in the economic cycle.

This new cycle is accompanied by an explosive combination of economic slowdown, adjustment programs, stagnation in the reduction of poverty, allegations of corruption on the rise, and increased social mobilization. This is likely to lead to greater social conflict and more complex governance in several countries of the region.

As Moisés Naím points out: “While societies are undergoing full effervescence, paralyzed governments and stagnant political parties continue without credible responses to the new demands of a society that is changing at a pace that cannot be reached by those operating with ideas from the past.”

This piece was originally published by International IDEA.

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