PhD (Political Science), Senior Research Fellow, RAS Institute for Latin American Studies
In 2013, Latin America entered a new electoral cycle. Between 2013 and 2016, there will be presidential elections in 17 countries of the region (of the larger countries, only Mexico does not fit this cycle, as its election will take place in 2018). This election marathon will hit its peak in 2014, when seven presidential election campaigns will take place in the region’s key countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia), with ballots to be cast by 50 percent of Latin American voters.
In 2013, Latin America entered a new electoral cycle. Between 2013 and 2016, there will be presidential elections in 17 countries of the region (of the larger countries, only Mexico does not fit this cycle, as its election will take place in 2018). This election marathon will hit its peak in 2014, when seven presidential election campaigns will take place in the region’s key countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia), with ballots to be cast by 50 percent of Latin American voters . In six out of these seven nations (the exception being Costa Rica), the obvious favorites are either incumbent presidents or nominees of the authorities. Will the ongoing election process in Latin America affect the regional political landscape?
Post-Crisis Developments: Held Back by Chronic Social Malaise
Anti-crisis policies helped Latin America overcome the financial crisis, and it is now approaching a new electoral cycle with fairly stable macroeconomic indicators . The economic slowdown of 2011-2012 was well within the range of global fluctuations . In 2013, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) recorded 2.6 percent growth in the region’s GDP; in 2014, the regional economy is expected to grow a further 3.2 percent . At the same time, Latin America, which is one of the most uneven world regions in terms of social development, shows ever increasing chronic problems caused by social disparities and poverty. In 2012, about 167 million Latin Americans were below the poverty level. It is a highly polarized region, where 10 percent of the richest people hold 32 percent of all the income, while 40 percent of the poorest have only 15 percent of the total income .
These issues shape the agenda and the discourse of the election campaigns equally for both right-wing and left-wing candidates. Public disaffection pumps up the opposition’s social base, as election campaigns and persistent social protests indicate. This growing oppositional mood may be a harbinger of the political intensity of the forthcoming presidential elections. Political analysts expect a run-off in five out of seven elections (the exceptions being Panama, which does not allow for this procedure, and Bolivia, where the current support for Evo Morales is rather high) . Given the massive social protests by the middle class in 2013 in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia, the pre-electoral discourse among politicians, irrespective of their political allegiances, will have to deal with corruption, social welfare and security, openness of government entities, transparency of governance, and the quality of public services.
The political process in Latin America has recently seen clear growth in both left- and right-wing populism (the urge to consolidate power), and hyper-presidentialism – a tendency to ensure that the constitution allows national leaders to be re-elected an unlimited number of times (largely in the countries of the Bolivarian alliance, with their 21st century socialism model – Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador). These patterns are expected to underpin the political agenda for the forthcoming election campaigns.
Shaky Continuity in the Left-Wing Camp
For the left-wing camp, the electoral cycle started with the presidential elections in Ecuador (February 2013) and Venezuela (April 2013). The center-left were on their marks with the election in Chile (December 2013), while the right-wingers were given a clear message by elections in Honduras (November 2013) and Paraguay (April 2013). Campaigns by the left and center-left focused on policy continuity with a fairly high level of predictability in terms of election outcome. The right-wing also concentrated on continuity and the overall conservatism of the political process. If and when new political leaders come to power, the ruling parties usually retain their control, with few drastic changes to the political landscape.
The election in Ecuador that launched the election cycle delivered a confident first round victory for Rafael Correa. However, by February 2014, the authorities had suffered a significant erosion of their social and, consequently, electoral base: municipal elections in key major cities went to the opposition. Ecuador will soon be facing growing political tensions. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that, if he decides to run for a third time, Rafael Correa will amend the Constitution to allow him to be re-elected. That would mean Ecuador following in the footsteps of Nicaragua, where similar constitutional reforms were implemented in November 2013.
The president of Argentina Cristina Fernandez
Kirchner and the president of Brazil Dilma
Rousseff at Michelle Bachelet´s innauguration
The presidential election in Venezuela demonstrated the general pattern that is likely to dominate the left-wing part of the political spectrum in the region. Under this pattern, voters are evenly split between the authorities’ nominee candidate and the opposition contender. After the election, with the opposition’s growing activism, Venezuela entered a phase of continuing economic and political turbulence. This instability and uncertainty may well last through April 2016 when, in accordance with the Constitution, the opposition wants to hold a referendum recalling President Nicolas Maduro. If convened, the referendum would be the final chord in the current electoral cycle.
The presidential election in El Salvador in March 2014 was a virtual rerun of the Venezuelan election scenario. The vote was almost split fifty-fifty, and the country was on the brink of political collapse. After a lengthy process, the office went to the candidate nominated by the incumbent authorities – a leader in the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and former guerrilla fighter Salvador Sánchez. The outcome of this election was shaky continuity. Given the mass support that the opposition enjoys, the new government has limited room for maneuver, and as a result, Salvador Sanchez has already moderated his election campaign rhetoric.
At the left and center-left wing, the incumbent presidents in Bolivia and Brazil are well set to win the election in October 2014. Evo Morales’s ratings at the end of 2013 reached 60 percent, enough to allow him a comfortable re-election . But the situation could flare up closer to voting day because Evo Morales is running for office for the third time. The opposition argues that the Constitutional Tribunal’s 2013 judgment, allowing the President to run again, was illegitimate. The argument is that the first presidential term (2006-2010) should not be counted, as the count was reset with the adoption of a new Constitution. In addition, Bolivia (much as in Ecuador) is home to rather strong separatist feelings in the more economically developed provinces . This has been a latent threat so far, but there is a slight risk that these attitudes could become a factor of internal destabilization on the eve of the election.
Center-Left to Keep Power
Costa Rica: Should We Expect Changesafter
The election in Chile also ensured continuity of power. Michelle Bachelet, who left presidential office in 2010 at the peak of her popularity, returned to the presidential palace after four-year rule of the center-right under Sebastián Piñera. The “right-wing experiment” did not offer any solutions to Chile’s festering issues. The new government’s domestic agenda will have to deal with longstanding problems in education and with constitutional reforms to modernize the political system. Any radical shift in foreign policy is unlikely, particularly regarding the effective free trade treaties or the position of the government on the new integration alliance in the Pacific.
The only foreign policy issue where a major breakthrough can be expected is Bolivia ceasing to be land-locked. It lost its access to the ocean as a result of the 1879 war. Michelle Bachelet is prepared to negotiate with Bolivia on the issue that has been a source of considerable tension in the region . Of all the bilateral territorial disputes in Latin America, the smoldering conflict between Chile and Bolivia is the longest running, and it touches on geopolitical interests that are central for both countries. Its resolution depends equally on the judgment of the Hague Tribunal, where Bolivia presented its formal action in February 2014  and on both parties’ willingness to compromise.
In Brazil it is hard to find any politician who would be able to compete with President Dilma Vana Rousseff, who despite the damage done by mass protests in 2013, continues to enjoy high support with an approval rating of 55 percent . Significantly, her popularity may rise even further after the FIFA World Cup in summer 2014. If she is re-elected, the ruling Workers’ Party will continue its political marathon at the helm of the state, which started in 2002, for four more years.
In Uruguay, the incumbent Broad Front may well continue in power, and ex-President Tabaré Vázquez has a good chance of replacing the current President José Mujica.
The only exception to this continuity in the current and forthcoming parade of continuities has so far been Costa Rica, where the election (February 2014) produced a peculiar situation, quite without parallel in the region. The nominee of the powers that be from the center-right party withdrew from the race under pressure from the rising ratings for his opponent . As a result, the second electoral round will be purely a formality. However, with the center-left in power, little change to domestic or foreign policies are expected (it is, therefore, unlikely that the country will suspend its accession to the Pacific Alliance, initiated late in the term of the current incumbent – the extremely unpopular Laura Chinchilla).
The Right Wing and the Status Quo
Colombia: After the Parliamentary Elections
In the right-wing camp, the prevalent trend has been set by elections in Honduras and Paraguay where, in 2009 and 2012, respectively, state coups (or, in the case of Paraguay, a “parliamentary coup”), ousted center-left presidents from power. However, left-wing forces have failed to consolidate in the aftermath, allowing the right-wing candidates, a candidate from the ruling National Party in Honduras, and a nominee of the right conservative Colorado Party in Paraguay, to rule victorious.
It is likely that center-right forces will also retain their positions in Colombia and in Panama. In Colombia, where incumbent President Manuel Santos is likely to be re-elected immediately after the first round in May 2014, the key issue remains the evolutionary resolution of the country’s internal armed conflict (there have already been over 20 rounds of talks with the rebels). With the ongoing social protests and strikes, issues related to internal economic regulation are bound to rise to a new level of tension.
In Panama, where the incumbent president is not allowed to run again, the favorite is the authorities’ nominee José Domingo Arias, who pledges to continue the current course . As in Colombia, the key contender standing against the government’s nominee will come from the more right-wing forces.
The Electoral Cycle and its Geopolitical Dimension
Geopolitically, electoral processes will consolidate Latin America’s current integration architecture. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), established in 2011 and notably gaining in weight recently, was yet another attempt to pool together all 33 countries that share common geopolitical, cultural and civilizational elements within Latin America. In geopolitical terms this new bloc may one day try to become one of the poles of a multi-polar world. CELAC could become a mechanism for holding a dialogue between various sub-regional integration alliances, acting as their coordinator, and representing the region on the world stage. Importantly, comprising countries with highly differentiated political regimes, CELAC is extremely diverse and ridden with internal differences. With Cuba as a full member, CELAC aims to neutralize the Organization of American States (OAS). This political alliance, established in 1948 and headquartered in Washington, is essentially an agency for North American interests (Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962). Institutionally, competition between CELAC and the OAS results from the often-conflicting interests of the United States and Latin America. And although relations between the northern and southern neighbors have been more balanced of late, there are a number of potential issues that could, potentially, disturb them (such as the internal political situation in Venezuela) . Interestingly, in economic terms, CELAC is focused on China more than on the United States. The first CELAC-China forum in 2014 is expected to deliver a new impetus to relations among the BRICS states . Competition between the OAS and CELAC is expected to grow, shaped not so much by electoral as by intergovernmental and internal political issues.
Given the context of the ongoing electoral cycle, the prediction is that none of the countries will end this electoral phase with leaving the three key integration alliances: the free-trade-centered Pacific Alliance, the protectionist South American Common Market (MERCOSUR), or the association of left-wing countries of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). It is worth noting that recently the Pacific Alliance has been the most active of all these integration blocs. In February 2014 it held its eighth summit in the three years since its establishment, indicating a high level of activity (in terms of the number of meetings held, the Pacific Alliance has outstripped all other Latin American integration associations).
It is also worth noting that Russia’s interests in Latin America will hardly be affected by the ongoing electoral process. In the six states that are Moscow’s key trade and economic partners – Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela and Chile – presidential campaigns either have not or will not have introduced any radical change that has negative implications for mutual partnership. Any potential risks would come not so much with electoral processes as with other internal or foreign policy dimensions (destabilization of the situation in Venezuela, growing differences between the countries, including territorial issues).
Consequently the outcome of the 2014 presidential campaigns is unlikely to deliver radical changes to the region’s political stage or affect the current balance of power. It will be a fairly calm year in this ongoing election cycle. It is its second phase that may generate potential tension. In 2015, the second largest country of the region in geopolitical terms, Argentina, will hold a presidential election in which the right-wing opposition is dead set on taking revenge. 2016 may see a referendum to recall the Venezuelan president, which could affect the configuration of the left-wing spectrum in Latin America. The political environment across the region will be shaped by the integration alliance that proves to be the most viable as well as the most efficient and dynamic.
2. For details see Latin America and Caribbean-in the context of the global crisis. Ed. V.M. Davydov. Moscow, ILA RAC, 2012 (in Russian)
3. Simonova L.N. Slower Growth / North-South Russia. Yearbook. Moscow, IMEMO RAC, 2013 (in Russian)
5. Panorama social de América Latina 2012 (Cepal) http://www.eclac.org/publicaciones/xml/5/48455/PanoramaSocial2012DocI-Rev.pdf
6. ElNacional, Venezuela. 2014: Año electoral en América Latina. – http://www.el-nacional.com/mundo/Ano-electoral-America-Latina_0_343765788.html
8. For details, see A.V. Kharlamenko. Separatism in Bolivia and Ecuador in the early 21st century. Journal of Latin America, # 12, 2013 (in Russian).