A Latin American Reset: Ten Elections in Thirteen Months
A Latin American Reset: Ten Elections in Thirteen Months

From October 2013 to December 2014, there will be ten national elections in Latin America. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Uruguay are either having presidential or legislative elections, or both. In most of these countries, democracy has taken root. Which is fortunate because in general, analysts do not fear that the election results will be followed by violence or a weakening of democratic institutions. One exception though is Honduras, where violence is expected.

International, regional as well as national factors are play, helping determine the outcomes of these elections. Some of the international and regional factors include weakened commodities markets and restricted access to capital. Expat populations may influence election outcomes as well. On a national level, security and economic issues will play an important role. The citizens wants leaders that will grow the economy and provide for personal security, both of which are lacking in many of these countries.

This analysis will examine the international, regional and national challenges influencing the upcoming elections in Latin America.

International factors at play

From 2004 to 2011, Latin America went through an extremely prosperous period; the continent benefited from high commodity prices and access to foreign inflows of capital.  The resulting growth allowed many of the countries to redistribute the profits to the poor and create a middle class. Poverty rates for the region declined thirteen percent and extreme poverty dropped by five percent.

This golden era came to an end two years ago when commodity prices started to drop and when international finance markets tightened. This meant that governments were not able to continue to redistribute the wealth through generous social programs. The electorate became dissatisfied with reduced government handouts and benefits. Social protests broke out across the region (Talvi and Trinkunas, 2013).

Thus, incumbents in many of these countries are not very strong. Opposition leaders face a real chance of unseating current leaders. Already in Argentina, midterm elections in late October, The Renewal Front party (an opposition party) won 44 percent of the vote. So, the opposition party is 12 points ahead of President Kirchner’s party, the Front for Victory. This result almost guarantees that Kirchner will not be able to change the country’s constitution to allow her to run for a third term (Gilbert, 2013).

Not all countries in the region are expected to make political shifts. Major shifts in power are not expected in Bolivia, though Morales’s absolute majority in Congress may decline. Leadership in Chile and Uruguay is not expected to change hands either. While leadership will change hands in Costa Rica since the current President Laura Chinchilla is not popular, the ruling party is likely to remain the same as the official candidate of the Partido Liberación Nacional, Johnny Araya is leading the polls (Former San José Mayor Leads Presidential Poll in Costa Rica, 2013).

Regional Factors

Relations with the U.S. and the allowance of expat populations, many of whom live in the U.S., to vote in elections are two factors that will play a role in the upcoming elections.

Expat populations from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador can vote in elections. Numbers of registered expat voters is currently small, for example only 10,000 El Salvadorans living in the U.S.. This means that the current elections will probably not be impacted, though future ones will likely be (Schneider, 2013). The 2009 El Salvadoran presidential elections though was won by only a three percent margin, indicating that the diaspora vote could serve as a deciding factor.  El Salvadorans in the U.S. continue to have strong ties to their homelands, many send back remittances to family members and some successful businessmen are investing back home. El Salvadoran candidates from both parties are visiting the U.S., courting the expat vote (Mills, 2013).

Relations with the U.S. are a major issue for Honduras. The U.S. supported the 2009 coup that deposed the democratically elected leader, Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya tried to change the country’s constitution to allow him to run a third term and was overthrown in a coup, which the U.S. endorsed as legitimate. Zelaya is not allowed to run for office; however, his wife, Xiomara Castro, is considered a viable third party candidate for presidency. Her newly formed Libre party may upset the traditional two-party system in Honduras. Her candidacy builds upon her husband’s leftist principles and capitalizes on discontent of his removal (Save all your kisses for Mel, 2013). If she gains the presidency, there is likely to be a cooling of relations with the U.S.

Miriam Kornblith (2013), director of the Latin America and the Caribbean Program at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., notes that if Xiomara Castro wins as well as Sánchez Cerén from FMLN in El Salvador, then politics in Central America may shift toward the ALBA Alliance in Latin America. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) is a regional bloc created by Venezuela and Cuba as an alternative to the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas and an alternative to the neo-liberal policies of the World Bank and IMF. Castro is likely to join ALBA if she wins the presidency, while it is unclear if FMLN will join as well, its politics are certainly left-leaning. The 2014 FMLN presidential candidate, Sánchez Cerén, is also much further left-leaning the current FMLN leader, Mauricio Funes, who is considered a moderate.  ALBA’s influence though may be waning due to Chavez’s death, so analysts will see if Chavez’s legacy continues or if this regional body loses steam.

The common thread amongst these regional trends is the U.S. Feeling towards the U.S. will impact voters living in these countries and expat voters living in the U.S.

Common National Challenges

There are two interrelated challenges that many of these countries face, the rise of the middle class and security concerns. These elections are seen as a referendum on both.

Chile, Argentina, and Brazil face increased concerns by their new middle classes about the quality of citizen services. The middle class voters are concerned with low quality education (a major issue Chile), poor public services, poor quality infrastructure, and low quality jobs (Kornblith, 2013). This is a major issue in Brazil, whose middle class owes its existence to strong macroeconomic policies and the growth of consumer credit. Brazil recently experienced major social protests. Participants were angry about the rising costs of living. The tightening of global credit markets will exacerbate the situation. The Brazilian governments may need to further reduce services, a move that is going to be highly unpopular for President Roussef (Talvi, 2013).

On the security front, in March 2013, gangs in El Salvador signed a truce, which resulted in a 50 percent decrease in homicide rates in the six months to follow. While this truce was mediated by the Catholic Church, the decreased violence will certainly benefit the ruling party, FMLN, as long as the truce sticks until the elections in 2014 (Allison, 2014). El Salvador will eventually need to address the underlying issues that led to gangs and organized crime in the first place.

Colombia too faces major security challenges. Columbia is in the midst of a peace process with the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla organization formed in the 1960s,  has been violently clashing with the government. The FARC signed an agreement in August 2013 outlining principals and procedures for negotiations. The agreement though is not a cease fire and the government holds the right to continue military operations against the FARC until the final deal is reached. The final agreement is expected to address land reform, political participation, disarmament of the rebels, drug trafficking, victim’s rights, and the implementation of the peace deal.

In addition, the Colombian government may also be entering into negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest militant group (Q&A: Colombia peace talks, 2013). While the peace process will most likely not be concluded by the presidential elections in May 2014, significant progress will certainly help the incumbent leader, President Santos, who has not formally announced his decision to run for another term.

Another country that faces major security challenges is Honduras. In 2012, Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world. Organized crime carried out by cartels is rampant across the country. Many communities are paralyzed by crime. Beyond reducing the murder rate, leaders will need to figure out how to address corruption-filled institutions and break the influence of organized crime (Schneider, 2013).

Juan Orlando Hernández of the ruling National Party, created a 5,000 member military police force, which are patrolling the streets during the campaign period. Opposition leaders fear this militarization as a threat to civil liberties and the U.S. has noted that due to intimidation and other threats, opposition leaders are not facing a fair fight (Save all your kisses for Mel, 2013). Castro has noted that she plans to focus on community policing and will leave the military in their bases (Will November elections bring a political shift in Honduras?, 2013). The electorate will decide which path they prefer.

Conclusion

Latin America is a complex region. Over the past century, this area of the world has faced colonial imperialism, violent civil wars, military juntas, genocide, and vast power differentials amongst the ruling class and the rest of the populations. The scars of this past are still present today, violence and drug cartels unfortunately still prey on the region, though their influence has been greatly diminished in many countries. Economies are finally starting to grow, though many countries are still dependent on extractive industries, which are not a long-term solution to creating a lasting middle class.

These recent and upcoming elections offer the opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power, as the voters can express their opinions and desires through the ballot box. Honduras aside, most feel that the outcomes will not result in violence and though policies may shift or change, the region as a whole will benefit from an era of increased democracy and citizen participation.

Works Cited

Allison, M. (2013, May 13). El Salvador gears up for 2014 presidential elections. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/05/20125982136500698.html

Former San José mayor leads presidential poll in Costa Rica (2013, August 6). Americas Quarterly. Retrieved from: http://www.americasquarterly.org/tags/costa-rica-presidential-election

Gilbert, J. (2013, October 28). Voters, in midterm elections, give new momentum to the opposition in Argentina. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/world/americas/opposition-party-makes-gains-in-argentine-elections.html?_r=0

Kornbluth, M. (2013, October 18).  Proceedings from: The upcoming electoral cycle in Latin America in the midst of social unrest: What lies ahead?  Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2013/10/18%20latin%20america%20elections/20131018_latin_america_electoral_cycle_transcript.pdf

Mills, F. (2013, March 12). The 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador and the transnational electorate. Retrieved from: http://www.coha.org/the-2014-presidential-elections-in-el-salvador-and-the-transnational-electorate/

Q&A: Colombia peace talks (2013, September 2). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-19875363

Save all your kisses for Mel (2013, October 28). The Economist. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2013/10/elections-honduras

Schneider, M. (2013, October 18).  Proceedings from: The upcoming electoral cycle in Latin America in the midst of social unrest: What lies ahead?  Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2013/10/18%20latin%20america%20elections/20131018_latin_america_electoral_cycle_transcript.pdf

Talvi, E. (2013, October 18).  Proceedings from: The upcoming electoral cycle in Latin America in the midst of social unrest: What lies ahead?  Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/events/2013/10/18%20latin%20america%20elections/20131018_latin_america_electoral_cycle_transcript.pdf

Talvi, E. and Trinkunas, H. (2013, October 28). The upcoming electoral cycle in Latin America in the midst of social unrest: What lies ahead?. Retrieved from: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2013/10/28-electoral-cycle-latin-america-talvi-trinkunas

Will November elections bring a political shift in Honduras? (2013, October 13). Tico Times. Retrieved from: http://www.ticotimes.net/More-news/News-Briefs/Will-November-elections-bring-a-political-shift-in-Honduras-_Sunday-October-13-2013

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