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Jair Bolosnaro -- a former paratrooper, rabid nationalist, homophobe and misogynist dubbed Brazil's Donald Trump -- is a leading contender in next year's presidential elections. (Photo: Camada dos Deputados, Brasil)
Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Latin America: Getting Political

Latin America faces several key presidential elections.



Latin America is in campaign mode. With the dust settling on the Argentine midterm and Venezuelan gubernatorial elections, all eyes are now on the Chilean presidential race. The first round is scheduled for November 19. Leading the pack is former President Sebastian Piñera. This is a repeat from the previous election, when former President Michelle Bachelet returned to office after having held the presidency between 2006 and 2010. She was replaced by Piñera, and she subsequently replaced him again. Now, it looks like he will follow her one more time. However, the sequencing may be coming to an end, since Bachelet has said that she does not intend to run for the presidency again. Piñera is leading the way, with 32.8 percent of the intended vote. Next up is center-left Senator Alejandro Guillier, which has 13.8 percent of the intended vote. Guillier is a well-known journalist, having had a career in television and radio. Failure of any candidate to secure a clear majority means that the election will move into a second round.



The next presidential election will be in Colombia. It is scheduled for May 2018. Sergio Fajardo is leading the pack, with 21 percent of the vote. A mathematician by training, the center-left former Governor of Antioquia is an ally former Bogota Mayor and former presidential candidate Antanas Mockus. He is closely allied with the Green Party and is well known for his successful tenure as governor. Many important public works were completed, and Medellin is one of the leading cities in the entire region. German Vargas Lleras, who served as President Santos’ Vice President, is a distant second, with 12.5 percent of the intended vote. The rest of the field is populated with a large group of independent and right wing candidates. However, the most notable contender is Rodrigo Londoño. Better known by his nom de guerre, Timonchenko, he was the last leader of the FARC. As part of the peace of agreement, the guerrilla organization was allowed to incorporate itself into the political system. Therefore, expect more of this.



One of the two more controversial elections of the year will be held on July 1st, 2018. This is when Mexicans go to the polls. Leading the field is former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). The leftist leader of MORENA is backed by a group of hard-left followers who admire the economic models of Cuba and Venezuela. However, his strong nationalist rhetoric is what engenders much of his support. President Enrique Peña Nieto has been perceived to be very weak in front of President Donald Trump’s endless tirades and insults. The next contender is Margarita Zavala. She is the wife of former President Felipe Calderon. Charismatic and a lawyer by training, she recently broke away from the right-wing PAN Party to launch her candidacy. Many compare her to Hillary Clinton, but the similarities are superficial. They are limited to her gender and training. She seems to have a much better sense of the country’s pulse.




The second controversial race of the year will be in Brazil. The two leading contenders are former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Rio de Janeiro Congressman Jair Bolsonaro. The former is a convicted criminal and the second is a Carioca reincarnation of Donald Trump. A former paratrooper, Bolsonaro is a rabid nationalist, homophobe and misogynist. Unfortunately, most political pundits are placing their bets on him. Lula’s rejection rate is so high, that he has little chance of winning in a runoff. Even, if he is allowed to run.


Although many of the leading contenders are hailing from the left and the right, the common theme across the presidential contests is the absence of the traditional political parties. After decades of endless corruption and abuse of power, most of the Latin American electorate has had it with the mainstream parties. This has led to the rise of independents.  Advances in technology have also facilitated the process. Social media platforms allow politicians to connect directly with voters, without having to rely on costly advertising budgets.

As a result, the political parties have been disintermediated. Some political scientists could argue that this produces a more representative form of democracy, but it also has its drawbacks. Parties help anchor the political spectrum, producing stable political, social and economic positions and views. They also provide a back bench of experienced technocrats and administrators who are ready to move into government if their party wins. More importantly, direct interaction between the leader and the electorate can lead to demagoguery. By appealing to popular prejudices and desires, leaders can incite the darkest aspects of a society—as is clearly occurring in the United States.


Candidates, such as AMLO and Bolsonaro, could push two of the largest countries in the region in that general direction. Therefore, it is time to become attuned to what is happening in Latin America. The region is about to get very political.


Walter Molano is head of research at BCP Securities and the author of In the Land of Silver: 200 Years of Argentine Political-Economic Development. 


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