Introduction: From Hope to Despair?

Latin America’s Year of Elections



by | May 1, 2006

Latin American democracy is living through unprecedented times. The list of countries where political leadership is not determined through competitive elections has for many years now been limited to one case: Cuba. Between November 2005 and December 2006, electoral episodes will be cruising the region at full steam. Twelve countries will have featured presidential contests: Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Chile. In the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Argentina, where presidents will not have been chosen, legislative elections will have taken place. In only four countries will voters not have gone to the polls during this period: Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

As a historical reality, the fact itself is remarkable and should speak volumes about how much the region has changed in the past twenty years. And as several contributors to this issue of ReVista indicate, given a context of propitious domestic and international conditions, the coincidence of so many elections might produce widespread political change in country after country, mandated only by the sheer strength of the ballot.

Such might be the basic themes of a mostly upbeat evaluation of the current health of Latin America’s politics. Dozens of millions of Latin Americans will witness campaigns where parties and candidates will be free to criticize incumbents as well as challengers, and offer alternative programs and policies for the immediate future. A mostly free press and electronic media will report these contests in all their stridence and bluntness without major undue intervention. Voters will vote, more than ever before, without substantial fear of reprisal, and with unprecedented freedom of choice. Ballots will be counted, patiently if need be, and winners shall take office, with nearly all losers abiding by the outcome and preparing better for a future election. All of this, with the increasing participation and empowerment of women, indigenous peoples, and other minorities. All, also, in a context where the most potentially disruptive international force is clearly not the U.S. government, but the arguably more manageable Venezuelan one.

And yet, whoever expects this issue of ReVista to be a series of celebratory essays depicting advances in democratization and good governance is likely to be disappointed. With some heartening exceptions, our collective perspective of these democratic “fiestas” would appear to be rather bleak. This is the case perhaps because it is the duty of a review of contemporary issues to highlight shortcomings rather than underscore accomplishments; surely, in the search of better output from elected officials, accountability and representation, and in the defense of civil and political rights, one must always ask for more. Maybe the tone is less than positive because the benefits of democratic rule are more evident in comparison to the authoritarian past than when gazing at an uncertain future, as elections force us to do. Or it might be the fact that Latin America has performed poorly in economic terms compared to its East and Southeast Asian counterparts. Or it could be the case that this collection of essays is less optimistic than guarded, simply because there is less reason for hope than there is for concern.

In some sense, the essays in this issue, as the countries with which they deal, reveal multiple layers of possible disillusionment. First, because whenever effective governments are found, of all ideological stripes, they are too often only semi-modernized instances of good old caudillismo, some more destructive than others. Second, because in the absence of these strong leaders and inchoate institutions, cooperation between Congress and the Executive has been mostly elusive, leading to immobilism in the face of a great need for reform. Third, because when cooperation of some sort has existed, the process and outcome have frequently been clientelistic or outright corrupt. Finally, some of the labels that give observers reason for hope often mask facts that could account for more cautious judgments.

Two of our cases stand out at the extremes: Chile and Venezuela. Bachelet’s Chile, as presented by Patricio Navia, shines with a light that makes the rest of the region envy and awe at the neighbor’s political, economic, and now even social success. The contrast could not be more stark with Angel Alvarez and Yorelis Acosta’s report on Venezuela’s chavismo: at best, it looks as an oil-rich brother to what Guillermo O’Donnell called—back in the era of Menem in Argentina and Collor de Melo in Brazil—“delegative democracies;” at worst, it is an unapologetic populist authoritarianism in the process of further consolidating its power.

In most other places, the diagnosis is not that bad, yet seldom encouraging: Mark Jones’s portrayal of Kirchner’s Argentine politics as populistic, corrupt, and clientelistic matches Álvaro Vargas Llosa’s concern with Peru’s prevailing cronyism and patronage. And Scott Desposato’s assessment of Lula’s mudança parallels the disappointment with change that has marred Vicente Fox’s tenure in Mexico. The travails of political polarization faced by executives without a congressional majority that—according to Allyson Benton and Fabrice Lehoucq—are likely futures for Mexico’s and Costa Rica’s presidencies, have an eerie resemblance to what Andrés Mejía-Acosta calls “thin air” for democratic governance in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

It is looking at Bolivia’s “EVOlution” that the tone shifts a bit, as David King sees an honest chance for statehood by this country’s new generation of founding parents. In Nicaragua, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues the time may be ripe for an intervention-free electoral process. Brian Crisp and Felipe Botero’s Colombia could be evaluated by some as an instance of democratic consolidation, yet others might be much more guarded about the medium-term implications of some of Uribe’s peace policies. Likewise, the challenges to Mexico’s democracy highlighted by IFE’s President Luis Carlos Ugalde will be a matter of heated debate in that country’s immediate future. From a more general perspective, the evaluation of the incoming left-of-center governments presented by Kathleen Bruhn and by Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Igor Paunovic is surely reassuring for some, yet probably disheartening for many—the reasons for such attitudes being entirely different depending on ideological perspective. Miguel Angel Centeno’s concluding essay argues, half ironically, half in anxiety, that the only reason for the endurance of the “bad marriage” between Latin America and democracy is the lack of reasonable alternatives.

But is the overall prognosis that bad? Maybe—but given so many ways to be pessimistic, I want to stress one more reason, beyond the ones mentioned at the outset, to be optimistic about Latin America’s political future. There is one bright side to the region’s current economic malaise: in general, the key concern is not anymore how to stop a major crisis or how to finally bring inflation down, but how to speed up growth and diminish poverty and inequality. In this sense, the so-called failure of “Washington Consensus” policies is less useful as an explanation for recent electoral results than as an effective benchmark from which voters must be able to gauge new economic policymaking.

One wonders how Argentines will judge Kirchner’s decidedly heterodox policies if higher inflation persists, as much as how electorates elsewhere will evaluate governments’ revamped public investments if these prove unsustainable in the short run, or force interest rates to rise again. In this sense, the electoral punishment wrought to instances of “neoliberal” mismanagement in the recent past (carried out in different degrees in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico) is only another reminder of how democratic governments promoting “neostructural” policies should not be able to commit sins much less harmful than the massive ones they made in the seventies and eighties, without being duly voted out by fed-up voters looking for better government. Hopefully, the overall stability of the past few years, combined with the persistence of free and fair elections, should make the room for economic atrocities shrink substantially.

Alas, this hypothesis hinges upon the electorate’s ability to compare and evaluate alternatives, and politicians and parties being able to hold their ground and remind citizens—and themselves—of the failures of the past. And while much more water would need to pass under the bridge for politics in the region to resemble the appealing tone of contemporary Chile, in most countries the basic institutional seeds of competitive politics remain in place.

Perhaps Latin America’s bad marriage is not with democracy itself, but with the cronyist-state style of it that governments of the left and right have brought along. Perhaps further rounds of the democratic phenomenon, with its emphasis on liberty, will bring along political alternatives that allow for the construction of a viable state that invests and promotes investment in human capital and innovation, and seeks to increase competitiveness, instead of just augmenting the wealth of some segment of the population, as the key means of sustainable development and diminished inequality. Perhaps, also, voters will notice.

Latin America’s Year of Elections: November 2005 to December 2006

Country Date President’s Term   Winner or Key Candidate(s) Party or Coalition
Argentina 23-Oct-05    Congress    President Kirchner’s peronista coalition
Honduras 27-Nov-05 4 years   Manuel Zelaya Liberal
Venezuela 4-Dec-05    Congress    President Chávez’s coalition took 100% of the seats
Chile 11-Dec-05 4 years   Michelle Bachelet Concertación, Socialist Party
Bolivia 18-Dec-05 5 years  Congress  Evo Morales Movement to Socialism
Haiti 8-Jan-06 5 years  Congress  René Preval Hope
Costa Rica 5-Feb-06 4 years   Oscar Ariasl National Liberation
Colombia 12-Mar-06    Congress    President Uribe’s uribista party
El Salvador 12-Mar-06    Congress    Alianza Republicana Nacioalista (ARENA)
Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional
Peru 9-Apr-06 5 years   Alan García
Lourdes Flores
Ollanta Humala
Social Christian
Colombia May/June-06 4 years   Alvaro Uribe Incumbent, uribista party
Mexico 2-Jul-06 6 years   Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Felipe Calderón
Roberto Madrazo
Brazil 1-Oct-06 4 years   Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva Incumbent, Workers’ Party
Ecuador 15-Oct-06 4 years      
Nicaragua 5-Nov-06 5 years   Daniel Ortega Sandinista Front (FSLN)
Venezuela Nov/Dec-06 6 years   Hugo Chávez Incumbent, Bolivarian Movement


Spring | Summer 2006Volume V, Number 1

Alejandro Poiré is the Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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