Mexican Presidential Candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador during his campaign in 2012. Photo by Eneas De Troya via wikimedia.org, CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Latin America at the Crossroads Ahead of Big Election Year

Latin America’s bumper election year got into gear with a centre-left candidate sweeping to the top in Costa Rica. And with a slew of elections set to follow, experts are asking where the continent is headed.

A spate of elections will make 2018 decisive for Latin America. As the world marches towards a more conservative and even authoritarian future, this year’s presidential elections – in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay and Costa Rica – will determine whether the region will follow suit, and to what extent. Venezuela is also about to head to the ballot box, but evidence suggests the vote will be far from free.

And election season is getting underway. Leading the pack, voters in Costa Rica on April 1 backed the centre-left former cabinet minister, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who decisively beat a conservative evangelical pastor, although polls had put the two candidates neck and neck.

Paraguay’s election is the next, slated for April 22. But it isn’t easy to tell where the continent is headed, amid a rise of alternative candidates and a widespread frustration with the political establishment.

International shockwaves

“The big question is what will happen to Brazil and Mexico, both in economic and in political terms,” said Professor Mauricio Tenorio, a historian specialized in Latin America and a professor at the University of Chicago, referring to two countries in political crises that have both seen an escalation of anti establishment views.

But those events, Tenorio explained, cannot be seen in isolation from the rest of the world. “What happens will depend a lot on what happens in the United States, while in Brazil, it will depend a lot on China.”

Meanwhile, each nation has very specific local issues to worry about, as they set their route for the next few years.

In Mexico, tensions in the business community are high on the agenda as the leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran candidate with two presidential campaigns behind him, leads in the polls. He is trailed by the lesser-known establishment candidate, José Antonio Meade.

In Brazil, while it is still unclear who exactly will run, there are hopes an election could help ease long years of economic and political crisis – although Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right anti-establishment politician, has ignited fears of an even bumpier road ahead. Meanwhile, ahead of Colombia’s pending election, questions about the peace deal with the FARC are setting the tone.

The outsider uptick

While the three biggest countries in the region face tough questions, the rise of anti establishment politicians in Mexico and Brazil reflect the poor track record of the political establishment in addressing voters’ issues. In recent years, both countries – alongside many others in the region – have been tainted by corruption allegations, wiping out citizens’ little remaining trust in their governments. One of the most striking incidents involved the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht where high-ranking executives admitted to bribing politicians in ten Latin American countries.

A survey conducted by the Latinobarómetro in the region’s 18 countries (excluding Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica) showed that 46% of respondents believe politicians had lost their credibility and would most likely never recover it. The scandals can help explain the appeal of anti-establishment politicians.

And according to the 2018 regional report on Latin America from Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), widespread dissatisfaction is fueling a race to the extremes of the voting spectrum. “Authoritarian – even autocratic – solutions for pressing problems are an increasingly popular option in these countries,” stated the report, published this month.

And it pointed to voter disillusionment as a widespread trend. “Brazil is not alone in its malaise – almost everywhere in the region there is a marked decline in approval ratings for democracy.”

But while the conservative parties are gathering steam, support for leftist ideas continues unabated, as shown by López Obrador’s strong fanbase in Mexico. In Brazil, meanwhile, a recent survey by Datafolha, points to a resurgence of leftist ideas such as supporting gay rights and the belief that poverty reflects a lack of opportunity. Support for social policies have likely made former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the frontrunner in this year’s elections in Brazil.

Creeping conservatism

But regarding economic policies, a veer towards conservative ideas is in evidence. The election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina in 2015 was the first sign of this tendency, which was later confirmed by a string of subsequent elections in the region. In 2016, Peru elected banker Pedro Paulo Kuczynski, who recently resigned amid corruption allegations. And in 2017, Sebastián Piñera won the elections in Chile, replacing Michelle Bachelet’s leftist government.

“This is a new tide that changes what happened in the ten previous years, the so-called ‘pink tide’,” said Professor Rafael Loris, a professor of Latin American History at the University of Denver. The “pink tide” lifted populist left-wing leaders to power all over the region for over a decade, with Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in Venezuela in 1998, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s election in Brazil in 2002.

For Brazilians the “pink tide” broke without elections. Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 and she was substituted by her vice-president Michel Temer, veteran center-right politician, who pushed more conservative policies, such as an overhaul in the labor and pension legislations.

So eyes are on this bonanza election year to see if Latin American voters will continue to back this market-friendly trend or whether there will be a swing to even more conservative views, echoing a pattern underway elsewhere with Brexit, President Donald Trump and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz. The rise of Brazil’s Bolsonaro, who has been second in the polls for months, is leading some to believe the status quo in Brasília will face the same surprise Washington did in November 2016.

The last political cycle lifted millions out of poverty in many countries of Latin America. It is unclear what this new political tide will bring. As the BTI report stresses, “structural transformation takes time and patience, which many citizens no longer have to spare.”


Manuela Andreoni is a journalist from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has worked for newspapers, magazines and television programms in Brazil and abroad, such as The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, O Globo, Agência Pública, BBC Panorama. She currently is a reporter at Columbia Journalism Investigations.

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