- Elections across the region in 2021 have delivered a complex patchwork of anti-status quo voting, minority governments, and political fragmentation, while also showing a continued susceptibility to authoritarian populism.
- These trends are likely to continue in the rest of this pandemic-driven electoral cycle, resulting in deeper-than-usual political uncertainty and increased susceptibility to crisis and instability.
So far this year, elections have taken place in Ecuador (presidential and legislative); El Salvador (legislative); Bolivia (gubernatorial and municipal); Chile (gubernatorial and municipal plus constituent assembly); Peru (presidential and legislative); and Mexico (partial legislative and various state and local votes). Drawing universal conclusions from the votes that have taken place would be reductive. However, some common features are discernible and wider lessons for upcoming votes can be identified. Incidentally, for every rule, there tends to be an exception; interestingly, the exception to the patterns identified below is most often Mexico.
Still to come – all in November – are votes in Argentina (partial legislative mid-terms); Venezuela (gubernatorial, mayoral, and municipal); Nicaragua (presidential and legislative); and Chile (presidential and legislative), with the latter’s run-off scheduled for December. Of these, Argentina and Chile are the most relevant given Nicaragua and Venezuela’s slide into outright authoritarianism (even as they maintain outward trappings of democracy). In 2022, Colombia (legislative and presidential) and Brazil (presidential and legislative) will be the key elections to watch.
Anti-status quo sentiment : votes in Ecuador, Chile, and Peru all demonstrate anti-incumbent or anti-status quo sentiment. This trend began earlier with Luis Abinader’s victory in the Dominican Republic in July 2020, which ended the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD)’s 16-year grip on power. In Ecuador, Lasso’s success ended 14 years of Correismo (albeit in a diluted version from 2017). In Peru, Pedro Castillo’s victory marks the biggest break from the status quo in a generation, while in Chile’s constituent assembly election, voters opted overwhelmingly for political independents and new groupings promising a break from the past. Finally, Bolivia’s regional elections over March/April were also disappointing for the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) party. Only in Mexico did the governing National Regeneration Movement (Morena) avoid a major anti-incumbency swing, which owes a lot to AMLO’s relentless campaigning against the “neo-liberal” order of the 25 years up to 2018.
Minority governments and fragmentation : Anti-status quo sentiment has not necessarily translated into powerful mandates for new presidents. Ecuador and Peru both have minority governments that must rely on other parties to pass legislation. Moreover, both countries’ legislatures are highly fragmented, as is Chile’s constituent assembly, where there is a high bar for approval. Fragmentation begets uncertainty. There are two exceptions. The first is Mexico, where Morena preserved its simple lower house majority in the June mid-terms and where the three main opposition parties forged an alliance that endures, at least for now. The second is El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party won the National Assembly elections by a landslide, a highly unusual outcome in El Salvador.
Authoritarian populism : modern authoritarian populism in the region long pre-dates the pandemic, so it is not a complete surprise that two elections (El Salvador and Peru) delivered manifestations of this pathology. What is more surprising is that Chile has proven susceptible to populism, while Ecuador resisted it despite enduring a weak government, prolonged economic crisis, and a Covid-19 outbreak that authorities initially struggled to contain. Local political cycles go some way to explaining this curious phenomenon – a majority of voters in Ecuador could not stomach more Correismo , while in Chile, the old model no longer met public expectations. Local cycles mean that in 2022 Colombia could seemingly shift towards leftist populism in the shape of Gustavo Petro while Brazil could move away from Jair Bolsonaro’s rightist populism. If so, the notion of blanket political “tides” sweeping the region may no longer be valid. A complex patchwork of improving or deteriorating democratic standards (alongside out-and-out authoritarianism in Nicaragua and Venezuela) may instead better characterize the region following this election cycle.
Left divided : within the Left, unreconstructed forces with top-down, centralized philosophies remain dominant even if there are signs of new progressive forces emerging or growing in strength. Ecuador saw strong showings by both Yaku Perez and Xavier Hervas, both pushing environmental and LBGTQ+ agendas, even if they were ultimately beaten by Andres Arauz, whose mentor Rafael Correa often clashed with environmentalists. The more “modern” Left in Peru under Veronika Mendoza was easily bested by Castillo, a radical leftist in the economic sphere but a staunch social conservative. In Mexico, AMLO has no truck with environmentalism. Chile’s more radical Left is also in the ascendant against the traditional Center-Left. However, its presidential candidate Gabriel Boric has assimilated a more progressive agenda encompassing issues such as gender equality. In Brazil, the Left should remain divided ahead of the October 2022 elections among those that favor Ciro Gomes or Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and those that favor neither. Argentina may be the outlier – assuming the awkwardly-glued-together governing Peronist alliance can remain bonded after the November mid-terms.
Indigenous votes : Indigenous representatives have gained new prominence and power in Ecuador and Chile. In Mexico, where some indigenous groups oppose AMLO’s Mayan Train project, the situation is more complex. In Ecuador, President Guillermo Lasso was nearly defeated by the indigenous presidential candidate Perez, who succeeded in broadening his appeal beyond the indigenous population. Lasso now depends on the Pachakutik (PK) party for support in the National Assembly. In Chile, where a Mapuche representative, Elisa Loncon, leads the constituent assembly, the new constitution is likely to embed the recognition and rights of historically marginalized indigenous peoples, which is likely to spell increased environmental regulation while simultaneously improving the quality of democracy. In both cases, indigenous groups must transition from social movements whose principal power has tended to be their capacity to mobilize on the streets to become more formalized political actors.