Latin America, an election cascade

A series of fifteen elections across Latin America in 2009-12 offers a useful guide to the region's main democratic trends, says Daniel Zovatto. 

Daniel Zovatto
25 June 2012

The presidential election in the Dominican Republic on 20 May 2012 was the first of three such elections to take place this year, the others being in Mexico and Venezuela. These elections cap a remarkable voting season in which since 2009 all Latin American countries bar one will have held presidential elections. (The exception is Paraguay, where elections will be held in 2013, assuming that recent events - where the president, Fernando Lugo, was replaced by his vice-president Federico Franco following an impeachment vote in the senate - do not affect the timetable).

The year of three

A closer look at the triple elections of 2012 gives an indication of political trends in the region. In the Dominican Republic, the governing party candidate Danilo Medina of the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD) defeated Hipólito Mejía of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD). In a highly contested election where the turnout was almost 70%, Medina won outright in the first round by taking 51% of the total vote against 47% for Mejía.

The campaign was very polarised and even violent at times, something evident on election-day and after the closure of polling-stations and the ballot-counting. Mejía took two days to accept his defeat; he acknowledged it indirectly in an address to the nation on 22 May where he both alleged serious irregularities in the process and proclaimed himself to be opposition leader.

The next election will be held in México on 1 July 2012. The evidence indicates that after twelve years in the wilderness the formerly hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) is the probable winner and that its candidate Enrique Peña Nieto will enter Los Pinos. The rival candidate of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) is doing his best to challenge this expectation, however. This is Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known as "AMLO"), who lost controversially in 2006 to Felipe Calderón of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) by only 0.5% of the vote.

AMLO has made a strong showing in the last weeks of the campaign, wresting second place from the PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota and reducing the gap with the PRI frontrunner. A national survey carried out by Ipsos Bimsa, published at the end of May 2012, places Peña Nieto in first place with 36% of the projected vote, followed by López Obrador with 24% and Vázquez Mota with 21% (representing a halving of the gap between the two leading candidates in a month). The survey also shows that 15% of voters are undecided. The leftwing politician Manuel Camacho Solís considers that the presidential race will be between the top two, and that if the gap between the PRI and AMLO is reduced to five points, "the election will be like flipping a coin".

The final presidential election this year will take place in Venezuela on 7 October. This resembles "the mother of all elections", as Hugo Chávez attempts to win a fourth term after twelve consecutive years in office. In contrast to the situation in Mexico, where barring late surprises the triumph of the PRI seems guaranteed, in Caracas great uncertainty prevails: not only about the electoral result, but also about President Chávez’s health after lengthy and much-publicised treatment for cancer). The opposition led now by Henrique Capriles appears to trail the governing party by a considerable margin in almost all surveys, yet it still has the best chance in years to try to break Chavez’s hold on power.

It is worth mentioning that two other elections, municipal in this case, will take place in Chile and in Brazil in October 2012. These are important as possible indicators of trends in the next presidential elections, in Chile (2013) and in Brazil (2014).

The broader picture

These electoral processes are occurring within a wider context:

* Just as in 2010 and 2011, the 2012 elections will take place within a regional context characterised by substantial economic growth (the research organisation Cepal projects 3.7%, albeit that is lower than the 5.9% in 2010 and the 4.5% in 2011), active social policies, and an important level of support for democracy (58%, according to Latinobarómetro

* The three presidential elections of 2012 are occurring against a conflict-filled political background, where the issues of insecurity and employment are prominent campaign themes

* Two of the three elections (the Dominican Republic and, especially, Venezuela) are characterised by troubling conditions: a lack of assurance of electoral equity, the meddling of the incumbent in the electoral process, and the use of state resources in favour of the official party

* There are differences over continuity in office. Indefinite successive re-election is allowed in Venezuela and prohibited in Mexico; re-election is allowed in the Dominican Republic, but not for consecutive terms

* In two of the three elections (México and Venezuela) run-off elections are not provided for. Only the Dominican Republic allows for this possibility, although, as previously indicated, a second round was not necessary because Medina won with 51% of the valid votes cast.

The fifteen presidential elections that have taken place in 2009-12 show a range of results. In south America, where eight of the fifteen presidential elections took place, the votes tended to favour the incumbent (usually centre-left or left), though the opposition won in Chile (the centre-right Sebastián Piñera) and Peru (the centre-left Ollanta Humala); in the remaining six cases, the existing dominant party won (with leaders re-elected in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, and party continuity in Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil).

In central America by contrast, there has been more alternation of power and a broad trend towards the centre-right or right. In Honduras, Panamá, El Salvador and Guatemala the opposition party won, and the centre-right or right parties won five of the seven elections; in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic the governing party won, and in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega was re-elected president.

It is hard to summarise the legacy of these fifteen presidential elections in a few words. But a reasonable digest may be that they reveal a politically heterogeneous region with a marked tendency towards the political centre and, in most cases, a choice in favour of moderation, pragmatism and stability.

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