Will an incipient wave of elections change the face of Latin America?

Over the coming 24 months, a host of Latin American nations are slated to elect their leaders. The outcome of many of these races is far from certain.

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters
Supporters of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández celebrate in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, after the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced a verdict allowing Mr. Hernández to present his candidacy for reelection, Dec. 14.

A version of this post ran on the Council on Foreign Relations Latin America's Moment blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Almost half of the 20 nations in Central and South America will hold presidential elections over the next two years (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, and Venezuela). The number of elections is not unprecedented, but the degree of uncertainty is, given the economic doldrums and political crises that have afflicted the region in recent years.

As a consequence of the electoral outlook’s uncertainty, many of the coming year’s events in Latin America will need to be interpreted through the peculiar lens of candidates’ strategic calculations and parties’ maneuvering for advantage at the polls.

Of the seven largest Latin economies, all but Peru face elections before the end of 2018. Argentina is the only one of the six remaining big countries that will not be holding presidential elections, but given the hostile Congress President Mauricio Macri faces, the legislative elections of Oct. 2017 will in many ways be a referendum on the course of his presidency, determining how far and fast he can bend Argentina’s course.

In his first year, Mr. Macri has chalked up many achievements in the opposition-dominated Congress, approving more than 70 new laws. Growth is projected to reach as high as 3 percent in 2017. But inflation is stubbornly high, the fiscal deficit looms, and tax reform has stalled, none of which bodes well for Macri’s reform efforts. As a consequence, the legislative elections will be a bellwether of the country’s longer-term trajectory.

Chile is in many ways the harbinger of the uncertain presidential election season. It will be the first of the large countries to go to the presidential polls, in Nov. 2017.

Incumbent Michelle Bachelet is barred from running for reelection, but the social conflicts of her presidency are very much center stage. Deteriorating relations between the Nueva Mayoría coalition and civil society have been highlighted by November public sector strikes, following a poor coalition showing in the October municipal elections. The Nueva Mayoría is fractured, and while former president Ricardo Lagos remains the frontrunner for the coalition’s nomination, he has had to push back against internal competitors such as Senator Isabel Allende Busi (who has withdrawn) and former Organization of American States secretary general José Miguel Insulza (who has not).

This means that the run-up to the mid-year primary that will select Nueva Mayoría’s candidate could be turbulent. In the face of this divided center, conservative former president Sebastián Piñera looks increasingly like the national frontrunner. But relative outsiders could still roil the race, from politicians such as Senator Alejandro Guillier to businessmen such as Leonardo Farkas.

Colombia holds legislative elections in March 2018, followed by the presidential contest in May. The elections hinge on the fate of the new peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was narrowly defeated in a national referendum in October, renegotiated, and then unanimously approved in a Nov. 2016 legislative vote (boycotted by opponents led by former president Álvaro Uribe).

The fate of the peace deal is so deeply intertwined with the 2018 elections that the presidential election can be said to be a second, definitive referendum. Neither President Juan Manuel Santos nor Mr. Uribe can run for reelection, but their rivalry is playing out in the implementation of the deal.

For Uribe and the right, the calculus seems to be that the longer implementation is delayed, the more likely the FARC can be driven back to conflict, and the less likely voters will support the deal. For Mr. Santos and the center-left, the calculus seems to be that a successful deal could help voters to set aside the unpopularity of Santos’s government in favor of a legacy of peace. The degree to which implementation can be delayed in the run-up to the mid-2017 disarmament deadline may therefore have big effects as the political campaigns begin to ramp up in the second half of the year.

The next question is who will run, and how: The current frontrunner in the polls is Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, whose Radical Change party falls on the center-right, in the space between the center-left that backs the peace and the uribistas on the right. If the center-left were to gel together, they might be able to pick up a legislative majority, but the question is whether the current leading center-left candidate, peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle, will have the popular support needed to take the presidency.

Meanwhile, although none of the uribista candidates are currently polling strongly, it is possible that this could be an election decided in the second round of voting. Much will depend on the peace deal’s success in coming months.

Mexico’s electoral season will be dominated by a politician from other parts: Donald Trump, whose August visit to the country was seen by many Mexicans as one more in a string of strategic miscalculations by incumbent Peña Nieto. Significant reforms opening the economy have been overshadowed by recrudescent violence, a ham-handed government response to the Ayotzinapa disappearances, and a string of corruption scandals that have diminished the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI was severely punished in the June 2016 gubernatorial elections, and repeated stories of corrupt governors – including some on the lam – have done little to improve its electoral chances.

The top running PRI candidate, government secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, currently polls in third place behind the National Action Party’s top-seeded Margarita Zavala (wife of former president Felipe Calderón) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Mr. López Obrador has been seen as the candidate most likely to push back against the new US administration’s efforts to revisit the North American Free Trade Agreement and migration issues and, perhaps as a consequence, he has risen to meet Ms. Zavala in recent polls. Both far outpace Mr. Osorio, suggesting that whoever wins, this election will lead the country away from the PRI.

In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment has thrown the political class into disarray. The big question at present is whether her successor, Michel Temer, will survive until the Oct. 2018 vote: he faces an impeachment threat of his own, and his centrist coalition appears to be fraying in the face of a massive set of plea bargains by executives at construction giant Odebrecht.

Given the breadth of political corruption exposed by the Car Wash investigation, it is hard to know who will be the last man standing. At present, it looks to be a woman, Marina Silva, who leads head-to-head simulations of second round voting. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the Workers’ Party, continues to lead in first round voting projections, but his high levels of rejection mean that Ms. Silva could prevail in a second round.

The big question in Brazil may be less about the presidential race, though, then about the coalition the new president must pull together to govern effectively in 2019. The judicial phase of the Car Wash investigations is unlikely to proceed quickly enough to remove scandal-ridden legislators from office by 2018, and the intricacies of Brazilian electoral law mean that voters may not do much better at throwing the miscreants out, however much they may wish to do so.

There is at least the prospect, then, that an electorate desirous of change may elect a relative outsider such as Marina Silva as president, only to find that she is forced to govern with the same old crowd that has caused such upheaval in the first place.

Finally, Venezuela, where elections are – in theory, at least – scheduled for Dec. 2018. The profound economic and political crisis means that it is not even clear at this juncture whether elections will happen, much less who the candidates might be.

The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable has dominated the National Assembly since 2015, but its efforts to impose a recall referendum have so far been sidetracked by a skillful set of dodges and parries by Hugo Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro. Most recently, Mr. Maduro appears to have used Vatican-sponsored talks to delay any real discussion of a recall until January of next year, thereby ensuring that even if a recall were to take place, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela would continue to govern.  

Given unprecedented levels of popular discontent and the depth of the crisis, however, it is hard to envision a scenario in which Maduro survives as a viable candidate for the 2018 election, or continues in office beyond 2018 with any kind of popular mandate. Venezuela is in uncharted waters.

Matthew Taylor is an adjunct senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University.

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