Latin America faces an unprecedented electoral course marked by the impact of the pandemic

When a country is hungry, unemployed and afraid, who does it vote for? October marks the beginning of an electoral cycle, a decisive year for Latin America in which presidents and political parties will be put to the test in an unprecedented context. The region faces the threat of the coronavirus, but it also suffers the economic blow that covid-19 has brought. The impact that the economic and health crisis will have leads Latin America to an uncertain scenario. Specialists agree that on this side of the world the pandemic will open the way to new leaderships.

Forty-five million people are at risk of poverty as a result of the worst economic crisis Latin America has seen in 100 years, derived from a pandemic that has already cost more than a million lives. Before covid-19, the region was already the most unequal in the world. The virus not only brought these inequalities back to the fore; Multilateral organizations and experts agree that the situation will get worse. Also, wealth, measured as gross domestic product (GDP), will fall this year by 9.4% according to the International Monetary Fund and by 2021, growth will be just 3.7%. In fact, all economic forecasts are preliminary and it would not be strange if they got worse. Every day that passes that workers stay at home to avoid contagion, is a day of income and lost sustenance.

On October 18, Bolivia will be the first country to vote – in the first round – for a new president and a new congress, in elections postponed twice already due to the contingency of the coronavirus. A week later, Chile will hold a national plebiscite in which the citizens will decide on a new constitution. The South American country will vote next year for a new president, as well as Ecuador, Peru and Honduras. The same is also expected in Nicaragua, where the regime looms eternal. There will also be midterm elections in which the ruling party in Mexico, Argentina and El Salvador will be put to the test in parliamentary and local elections. The uncertainty of what will happen in the legislative elections in Venezuela, scheduled for December 6, and in which the majority of the opposition refuses to participate, arguing that the necessary guarantees are not given, adds even more uncertainty to the electoral scenario .

Political parties were already weakened before the arrival of the coronavirus due to corruption scandals, judicial processes and even the imprisonment of former presidents. Economic growth, with a few exceptions, had stagnated and governments already had less money in their coffers. A wave of social discontent had already gripped some countries and social movements, such as feminism, gained strength in the face of the threat of violence.

More alternation and new faces

“I predict shorter cycles in power, with more alternation, with more new faces, largely caused by the socioeconomic context. Unlike the first 12 or 14 years of this decade, when there was still the boom in raw materials and governments had a lot of wallets, the current ones are managing a crisis ”, says Daniel Zovatto, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of International IDEA, an independent organization that studies democracy. In most cases, Zovatto explains, current presidents are in the minority in congresses, which makes governance more complex. “There is more polarization and there is more political fragmentation, which makes it more difficult to articulate consensus, which is what the region needs to advance in profound reforms. This is the political reconfiguration we are having in Latin America in light of what we have seen now ”.

The electorate will respond with their vote to a couple of key questions, says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center Latin America program, an independent organization that studies public policies. First, how clean was the government during the crisis? “A very important issue has to do with perceptions of corruption in the response to the pandemic, and there have been shameful examples in virtually every country in the region,” says Arnson. In Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, various investigations have exposed an abuse by the authorities to enrich allies with emergency spending on health. “We have already seen since the episode of the Lava Jato henceforth, the way in which popular anger against corruption plays an important role in the elections, ”adds the expert.

The second key question, Arnson says, is what do the candidates propose to address economic disparities? “The coronavirus exposed, perhaps as never before, what had been done in the past, the profound inequalities in the region and, therefore, this opens the door for inequality to become an electoral banner,” says the specialist, ” it allows the condemnation of inequality and the promise to do something different about it, to fall into populist calls, whether from the left or the right, to do something against the elites who have benefited ”.

A recent report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) points to inequality as a catalyst for vote buying. The IDB cites research from 2017 that suggests that vote buying is “a predominant phenomenon in many Latin American democracies” and adds: “Vote buying as an electoral strategy is more common in countries where campaign promises have a low credibility, as in the case of Latin American democracies where political parties are weak ”. Given that the poorest voters are more susceptible to vote buying, the IDB notes, this type of resource distribution could become a substitute for the welfare state.

Authoritarian populism

Zovatto agrees with Arnson’s diagnosis and warns that even more authoritarian populism may come. “Faced with this very angry and very fragile economic situation, people may say: ‘I want a savior, I don’t want a president. I don’t want a Churchill telling me blood, sweat and tears. What I want is someone to tell me come with me that I protect you and I take care of you, ‘”says Zovatto.

In Chile and Bolivia, the elections were postponed on two occasions due to the contingency. The Dominican Republic is, so far, the only country that has had elections during the pandemic, in a process in which the opposition candidate, Luis Abinader, won the election with 52.5% of the votes, after catching the virus three weeks before the elections. For Von Vacano, a risk is that, on the one hand, the elections continue to be postponed and, on the other, that the governments overshadow the results of the election by using force and justifying it as necessary to maintain a healthy distance or order. “In the case of Bolivia, there is a lot of fear that there is fraud because the government is asking the army and the police, for example, to participate and collaborate with the Electoral Tribunal under the pretext of guaranteeing the elections,” says Von Vacano. “That was not seen before and it can be a problem, it can result in the opposite, it can affect the result, it can dull. I think that this can be repeated in other countries also under the pretext of the security of the elections of involving the Army or doing them in some way that is not so transparent, “said the specialist.

Social discontent

As in the rest of the world, Latin America is at risk of growing polarization and fragmentation, says Zovatto. These elections can bring more authoritarian populism if there are no good options and if citizen demands are not adequately channeled through institutional channels. “It may happen that you have a reappearance of all the waves of social protests marked by violence because we have already seen that the pandemic hit the region at a time of marked weakness,” adds Zovatto.

In the last two years, from Chile and Argentina to Colombia and Mexico there have been large social mobilizations and protests against inequality, corruption and poverty. Furthermore, feminist protests against gender discrimination and violence have been on the rise throughout the region since 2017. Although confinement by the virus temporarily put them on hold, in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico discontent has already returned to the streets.

“The fact that there will be more alternation, that there may be a vote to punish the parties in power, that few leaders have the option of re-election, that there will be new faces and that feminism has come gaining importance, isn’t it going to open up the possibility of the emergence of new female candidates and leaders who in turn can take advantage of what the pandemic has shown, that in 7 of the 10 countries where the pandemic has been best managed, women are the ones who are up front? ”asks Zovatto. “This is an important question in the next elections. That issue of female leadership that has different characteristics at a time when different leadership is required ”.

Read original article here.