2013 elections in Latin America: Does victory at the polls ensure a full democratic term?

Ecuador, Paraguay, and Honduras have each had at least one irregular power transition in the past decade. Given their histories, finishing a term may be more meaningful than democratic elections.

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters/File
Employees of the Honduras Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) carry sealed ballot boxes for a recount of votes in a 2012 primary election for mayors, congress, and candidates for Honduras' presidency. Presidential elections are slated for November 2013.

Ecuador, Paraguay, Honduras, and Chile will hold presidential elections in 2013. We'll deal with Chile later. The other three represent three of the least stable countries in the hemisphere.

  • Ecuador had seven different presidents in the decade before President Rafael Correa and the current president faced his own odd coup attempt in September 2010. While President Correa remains popular, the tensions within the political system have led to protests and tension among the branches of government.
  • After several years of coup threats and rumors, Paraguay controversially impeached President Fernando Lugo last year. It sets a bad precedent that the first post-Colorado [the political party which ran Paraguay for six decades] president failed to finish his term.
  • Honduras had its coup against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. President Profirio Lobo has had his share of institutional turmoil. The country is also hit hard by corruption, organized crime, and violent crime.

So three countries that have had one or several irregular power transitions in the past decade are all going to hold elections this year. An optimist might see these elections as a big win for democracy. Indeed, the fact that the hemisphere now expects a quick return to regular elections, even in the face of coups and quasi-coups, is a victory over the trends of decades past.
But democracy has its bookends in an election and inauguration on one side and a peaceful, normal power transfer while stepping down on the other. The ability and normality of handing off power to the next elected leader may be a bigger symbol of democracy than the elections. Given their recent histories, there should be doubts whether all three of the presidents elected will make it to the finishing point of their democratic term.
I'm sure various international organizations will send observers to the 2013 elections in these countries and declare them free and fair and wonderful victories for democracy in countries that have faced so many problems. Then those observers will leave and the real questions about democratic stability will begin.

Editor's note: The photo caption has been edited for clarity.

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