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Electoral super marathon to bring big changes to Latin America

On April 1, Costa Rica will have a new president. Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz from the conservative National Restoration Party and writer and former Minister Carlos Alvarado Quesada from the progressive Citizens’ Action Party have reached a second round of election after collecting 24.78% and 21.74% of votes in the first round on February 4, respectively.

In the cross hairs

This year is going to be a super marathon for Latin America (LA) from viewpoint of elections. Over 350 million people will vote in the parliamentary and presidential election. Political analysts forecast high turbulence in political and other fields in the region.

The list of elections is impressive. On February 4, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Costa Rica. On March 4, Salvador elected a new parliament. On March 11, Columbians elected new parliament, and on May 27 and June 17, they are going to elect a new president. On April 19, power will be handed over to new president in Cuba. On April 22, elections will be held in Paraguay and Venezuela. Paraguay will elect a new parliament as well. Mexico will see parliamentary and presidential elections on July 1. Election of the president of the largest country in LA, Brazil, are scheduled for October 7.

Such super marathon of elections is held in Latin America once in 12 years. 14 countries are holding presidential elections from November 2017 up to November 2019. Chile and Honduras saw elections in 2017. In 2018, within some six months, new presidents will be elected in Brazil and Mexico (the first two countries with the largest economy in the region) and in Columbia (the fourth country by the economic rate in the region).

Elections are held in heavy situation, amid social conflicts and highest corruption scandals ever. This cannot but affect the economic growth, that will grow this year as compared to the last year, but it will remain at a low level – 2.2%, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latic America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). It is insufficient to satisfy the growing needs of the middle class. 2.2% is too little to avoid poverty and inequality growth and to keep employment rate.

According to Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), this super-cycle of elections is coming at a time when support for democracy in Latin America has been experiencing a sharp decline. This is accompanied by greater dissatisfaction with democracy, a major drop in support for the governments, and low levels of confidence in elections and in the leading institutions of representative democracy. According to LatinoBarómetro sociological company, only 53% of Latin Americans support democracy as the best form of government. In 1995, this indicator was higher by 10%. Such downward trends are observed in the leading democratic states in Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, as well as in the authoritarian Cuba and Venezuela.

This set of elections will prove crucial for assessing the quality of democracy and the integrity of electoral processes in Latin America. In the vast majority of cases, these elections are characterized by a high degree of polarization and uncertainty. The outcomes of this electoral marathon will be key for defining the trends, direction, and intensity of political change in Latin America in coming 12 years. For instance, elections will show if the region will suffer a populist relapse, if the moderate left will win the strategic elections in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, or whether the pragmatic middle classes will decide to go with moderate center-right candidates. This will consolidate the ideological turn that the region began in this direction with the election of Mauricio Macri and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (in Argentina in 2015 and in Peru in 2016, respectively), and which was recently reinforced by the election of Sebastián Piñera in Chile in 2017.

Making their choice, Latin American voters will be guided with more grounded problems, rather than ideologies. They need to be governed by “pure” politicians. Security issues are a priority for the local population. Latin America has the highest rate of murders on the planet.

It has always been uneasy in Latin America, but now the situation is even worse. Bolivia has scrapped presidential term limits, as President Evo Morales will seek a fourth presidential term in 2019. Bolivians are fed up with mainstream politicians and need some replacement, though there is no deserved alternative yet.

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega who has been governing the country since 2007, will find a way to hand over his power to Rosario Murillo, who is not just the first lady of Nicaragua, but also the vice president. Honduras will face uneasy time as well. Dozens of high-ranking officials are accused of ties with drug traffickers. Last December incumbent president of Honduras Juan Hernandez was re-elected, amid opposition’s accusations of election rigging. The outcomes of elections prompted public protests and clashes that claimed more than 30 lives.

President of Cuba will be named soon. For the first time over the last sixty years, his second name will not be Castro.

The situation in Chile is not stable either. Last December, center-right Sebastián Piñera won the election, mainly as the people were afraid of potential chaos. Piñera frightened them with Venezuelan scenario, if they vote for the leftist candidate. Sebastián Piñera’s second term will be harder than the first one, as opposition dominates in the parliament.

As for Venezuela, the crisis there has reached a level “exemplary” for other countries, where candidates frighten voters with Venezuelan scenario.

Brazilian-style “Carwash”

Corruption has reached unprecedented scales in Latin America and dozens of millions are frustrated at corrupt officials, scandalous disclosures.

Brazil was covered by a huge corruption scandal. President Michel Temer faced trial, and his approval rating slumped to 3%. Another four former presidents and about one hundred of federal politicians were detained. Petrobas oil company widely practicing paybacks and bribery occurred in the center of the scandal. As a result of Lava Jato (Car Wash Operation), it turned out that bribe-takers were top level politicians, including the presidents.

“Car Wash” prompted also other anti-corruption investigations, including investigation of Odebrecht engineer and construction company. The scandal with Petrobras touched Brazil only, whereas Odebrecht scandal affected the entire continent. Corruption charges were brought against former presidents of Argentina and Panama, two former presidents of Peru and the president and former vice president of Ecuador.

The situation was incredible, as for the first time in history of the country, ministers accused the government of corruption. On the other hand, despite court verdict, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva remain the favorite candidate in the presidential rate. The latest polls showed that about 36% of Brazilians are still ready to vote for him. The Supreme Court will hear the 72-year-old president’s appeal on April 4. If rejected, Lula will face 12 years in prison and will not be let to the presidential election in October.

Even if judges leave him at large, the Election Commission will find a reason to ban the former president from running for another term. The final list of the candidates for president will be published in August. Irrespective of the Court ruling and the Election Commission’s decision, the situation in Brazil can be called nothing but chaos.

If the former president is not let to election, Jair Bolsonaro, a controversial far-right populist, will get more chances for victory. Among other candidates are Marina Silva, environmentalist, who took third places in the presidential elections of 2010 and 2014, São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles.

Amnesty for drug traffickers

Mexico was left out of the list of the countries with anti-corruption investigations and juicy corruption scandals. However, its ruling party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is not sinless. President Enrique Peña Nieto is fighting corruption just symbolically. In December 2017, the parliament banned Mexicans from blaming officials for corruption in social media. The president and first lady are blamed for corruption as well.

Presidential election in Mexico is scheduled for July 1. It will be a one-round election. The presidential term is 6 years, like it is in Russia. At present, the favorite in the presidential race is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leader of MORENA National Revival Union. Obrador is former Mexico mayor and claims victory in the election. This will be his third attempt to become president. In 2006, he lost to Felipe Calderon by 0,5% and this prompted protests that were due to grow into a civil war.

Despite criticism, Lopez Obrador is the favorite in the presidential election and businessperson are ready to support his activity as Mexico Mayor.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promises to combat corruption, put an end to the civil war and calls Fidel Castro a hero. Oraculus polls held in late February showed that over 32% of voters are ready to vote for him on July 1. However, he has strong opponents. According to the poll, center-right Ricardo Anaya from Civil Front for Mexico Coalition has 26% of votes and the third candidate, representing PRI, Jose Antonio Meade has 16% of supporters.

No other country in the region has so much influence on the United States as Mexico does. Anti-Russian hysteria-ridden Americans fear that Russia may interfere into the presidential election in Mexico to increase the political tensions to harm “hateful” Americans.

“If Russia truly wants to damage the U.S. and weaken the western world order, Mexico’s elections next year offer a more rewarding and more vulnerable target. No other country influences the U.S. as much as its southern neighbor. Mexico remains one of America’s largest trading partners,” says Shannon O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonpartisan foreign-policy think tank and membership organization.

Another victim of anti-corruption efforts

Last week, Peru got a new president, though no through elections. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski came to power in 2016 mostly due to his promises to end corruption, but he failed to keep them eventually. Now, once most stable Latin American country of the last years is facing crisis that will actually result in economic problems.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned after a huge corruption scandal. He became the first effective president in Latin America to leave his post due to ties with Odebrecht. Vice President Martin Vizcarra sworn in last week. He will be heading Peru until next elections to be held in 2021.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was accused of bribes and kickbacks for about $800,000 that his Westfield Capital Ltd. received from Odebrecht in 2004-2007. He denied all accusations, but no one has actually believed his words.

Sergey Manukov

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