Next year will be a big election year for Latin America, a region where democracy in many nations is only decades young, and where the shadow of corruption stretches wide and long. Over half the region’s population will be called to cast ballots, with presidential elections set to be held in Costa Rica (February 4), Paraguay (April 22), Colombia (May 27), Mexico (July 1), Brazil (October 7) and Venezuela (October 28). Naturally, some of the elections will be more closely watched than others, with eyes drawn toward the regional economic heavyweights Brazil and Mexico, as well newly pacified Colombia and troubled, crisisstricken Venezuela.
The Odebrecht scandal, an affair of tentacular graft involving a Brazilian construction firm that is alleged to have paid millions of dollars in bribes to Latin American government officials to secure juicy public contracts, has rocked the region. It has led to Ecuador’s then-vice-president Jorge Glas being imprisoned for six years, and nearly resulted recently in Peru’s president being impeached. But the scandal is just part of a much bigger picture of corruption, according to Gaspard Estrada, director of an Observatory of Latin America at Paris’s Sciences-Po institute.
“Corruption phenomena are deeply rooted in the region, and persist,” he said. “This will have an impact on the next political cycle,” said Fiona Mackie, in charge of Latin America for The Economist Intelligence Unit. The Odebrecht scandal, she added, “is really shaking up the political scene.” The disheartening multiple cases of embezzlement and personal enrichment by officials in region have engendered “an impatience now in the electors, because they are so fed up,” Mackie said. “Elections in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico will be dominated by voter anger against the political establishment and demand for change, making them hard to predict and opening up room for negative surprises,” the Eurasia consulting firm said in a recent report.
“Candidates that better capture this sentiment will be the most competitive, and the risk of negative surprises is high,” as attested to by the unexpected surge for the left in the recent Chilean presidential election, the report said. That “should serve as a reminder not to underestimate voter frustration,” it said.
The electoral landscape in Latin America in 2018 is dotted with an increasing number of candidates from outside the political system. This can be put down to public disgust over the many instances of graft that has “disqualified the traditional political class,” Estrada said. He deplored a regional “leadership crisis” and feared political outsiders would fuel discourse that undermines democracy, as in Brazil where an extreme- right-wing soldier-turned- politician, Jair Bolsonaro, has emerged as a contender. However, some traditional politicians were presenting themselves as outsiders “because that’s a good thing to do in term of popularity, but they are insiders,” Mackie said. “An outsider needs to ally with a party that has a machinery. You need to have a political movement behind you.”
Eurasia said Mexico “is headed toward its most uncertain and consequential elections in decades on 1 July.” A left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, appears best placed for a win right now, it said. A former mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador is aiming for the presidency after a long political career. He has spurned the traditional left-wing Party of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) party to start the Movement for National Regeneration, known as Morena. The rise of political ‘outsiders’ may be prompted by changing attitudes. One recent report by the Brookings Institution pointed to a worrying fall in regional support for democracy.
“This super electoral cycle occurs at a time when, according to the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), support for democracy has seen a decline in the region (67 percent to 56 percent from 2014 to 2017, a fall of 11 points). This reduction is accompanied by a low level of confidence in elections and in the institutions of representative democracy, particularly political parties,” wrote Daniel Zovatto, a non-resident senior fellow at the institution.
TILT TO THE RIGHT
The victory of conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera as president-elect in Chile after a mid-December runoff has confirmed a general right-leaning tilt to the region, building on the stewardship of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Michel Temer in Brazil and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru. But for Estrada, “it’s not really a question of left or right – it’s just the government that had been in place, on the left, had flagged, which encouraged the parties on the right. What happened was a phenomenon of alternation.” More than political labels, 2018 will be decided by economic issues “because the economy is doing badly,” he said. “With a few notable exceptions, the policy and economic outlook for Latin America looks set to continue improving in 2018,” Eurasia’s report said. But political dynamics could determine whether that “positive trend slows or, in some countries, is derailed,” it said.
Eurasia predicted that in Venezuela, the Latin American country with the most severe economic problems, President Nicolás Maduro “will likely remain in office and win the presidential election in a tightly controlled process.” But, it added: “The government will also likely stumble into default, further complicating an already bleak economic outlook.”
Facebook to combat ‘fake news’ in Brazil ahead of election
Facebook is announcing initiatives in Brazil to counter inaccurate and misleading news reports that are expected to proliferate as the country heads toward October elections. The social media giant says one of the projects is a free online course designed for teens, young adults and educators on how to spot and contain the spread of false stories. It will also create a Messenger bot that will tip users on online information. The initiatives are to be in place by June, when Brazil’s presidential campaign is set to accelerate.
Claudia Gurfinkel, Facebook’s head of news partnerships for Latin America, said Thursday in a statement that the initiatives are the result of discussions with academics, news literacy experts, factchecking agencies and journalism associations.