2018, a decisive election year in the Americas

2018, a decisive election year in the Americas

Officials from the Supreme Court of Electoral Justice of Paraguay checking the ballot papers to be used in the elections on 22 April 2018.

(Santi Carneri)

The American continent, from north to south, is in the midst of an intense election year. The most conservative options and the parties with a firm grip on power are dominating the upcoming elections in Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Colombia, Venezuela and Paraguay. Elections were also recently held in Costa Rica, where the progressive presidential candidate Carlos Alvarado Quesada defeated conservative evangelical Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz.

Latin America’s economic powerhouses, Mexico and Brazil, are facing presidential elections marked by corruption scandals and violence. Venezuela is set to vote in the midst of a political and social crisis, and Colombia will see the FARC taking part in presidential elections for the first time. In Paraguay, the race for the presidency continues to be between the two hegemonic conservative parties, with the ruling Colorados in the lead. The 2018 election marathon will end in the United States, which will be holding its midterms in November, a test for Donald Trump, who could lose his majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Let’s start with what would appear to be the exception. Costa Rica elected the centre-left candidate from the ruling Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), Carlos Alvarado, who was competing against an evangelical pastor, and won with a substantial lead after the conservative placed “Christian values” at the centre of the political debate – following a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human rights (IACHR), which has its headquarters in the country, that same-sex marriage should be recognised.

Venezuela’s elections will be held amidst a severe economic crisis. The country is suffering from the highest inflation in its history, shortages in basic goods and rising rates of poverty, and leaving the country (for Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Panama, etc.) is becoming the only survival route for many of its citizens. Nicolás Maduro of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won the elections in April 2013 on the programme drawn up in 2012 by his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, prior to his death.

The Venezuelan opposition will be virtually absent on 20 May. The majority of the leaders from the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a broad coalition of opposition parties, which won a majority in parliament in December 2015, has decided not to take part in the electoral process, considering the conditions to be neither “fair nor transparent”.

Cuba will be renewing its parliament on 18 April (the culmination of an electoral process that began last November), and the deputies will elect the new president, in all likelihood Raúl Castros current second-in-command, Miguel Díaz-Canel, which will bring a (symbolic) end to six decades of Castroism.

Former heads of state and government from the Democratic Initiative of Spain and the Americas (IDEA), meeting in Peru last week, called on the current Ibero-American leaders attending the 8th Summit of the Americas to “reject the presidential elections called by the Cuban dictatorship”, arguing that the island’s constitution and electoral system are “designed to prevent effective participation and the free and sovereign expression of its citizens’ will”. The same appeal was made regarding the elections in Venezuela, referred to as “sham presidential elections”, held under conditions preventing them from being recognised as “constitutional, genuine, free, fair, transparent and competitive”.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, where the first round of the presidential election is scheduled for 27 May, is likely to see a second round on 17 June and strong political division. Currently ruled by President Juan Manuel Santos (Social National Unity Party), the country has become polarised since the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla movement, which is standing for the first time in history as a political party in presidential elections.

The peace process is a source of deep division amongst the candidates, Germán Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque from the party of former president Álvaro Uribe, the main opponent to the peace agreement with the FARC, and those on the left, Humberto De la Calle, Sergio Fajardo and Gustavo Petro, who are touting reconciliation as a political slogan.

In Brazil, the October 2018 election looks set to be the most uncertain in many years, in light of the tumultuous political situation, exacerbated by the unprecedented imprisonment of a former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who, according to the polls, would have won a landslide victory in the 7 October elections were he to be a candidate.

Dilma Rousseff, also from the Workers’ Party (PT), was impeached by the Brazilian Congress in 2016 and the country has since then been ruled by right-wing Michel Temer – he and his entourage have also been accused of corruption – who is contemplating standing for election. Second in the polls for the October election is Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army officer who advocates gun ownership, the use of torture against criminals and summary executions. No candidate has as yet emerged on the traditional centre-right, nor is there a clear replacement for Lula on the left.

In Mexico, which will be holding presidential, legislative and regional elections on 1 July (already considered to be the biggest in the country’s history, in terms of their scale, cost and monitoring), the left’s hopes are placed on the representative of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, who has already stood for the presidency twice. He will try for the third (and last, he says) time, to secure the presidency. His main rival is Ricardo Anaya of the Citizens’ Front for Mexico. Thirty-eight-year-old Anaya is the youngest candidate. He is the leader of the conservative Christian democratic National Action Party (PAN) and has joined forces with the centre-left PRD and Citizens’ Movement in a bid to take the presidency. José Antonio Meade, the PRI’s candidate, is third in the polls.

Amongs the factors marking the electoral process in Mexico, officially launched on 30 March, will be the corruption scandals plaguing President Peña Nieto’s ruling centre-right party, the PRI. Others are the rise in violence – Mexico registered the highest number of murders in 20 years in 2017, which cost the country 21 per cent of its GDP, according to the Mexico Peace Index – and the relationship with the United States, especially in the midst of the NAFTA talks.

In the United States, the Republicans and Democrats are competing in legislative elections that will be decisive for the remaining presidential term of Donald Trump, who has already had problems passing his legislative agenda. The Democrats are two seats away from gaining control of the Senate, and to control the House of Representatives one of the two parties needs to win at least 218 seats. The Democrats have not had a majority in this chamber since 2010.

In Paraguay, Mario Abdo Benítez is the candidate for the ruling Colorados, the party with which General Alfredo Stroessner ruled the country with an iron fist between 1954 and 1989. The party has ruled the country almost continually since 1948, having lost the presidency on only one occasion, in 2008, to a coalition between leftist social movements and the conservative Liberal Party. Abdo Benítez is the son of Stroessner’s private secretary, and his defence of the dictatorship has been a constant during the campaign.

The Liberal Party has tried to repeat the winning formula of 2008, in a bid to unseat the Colorados. Its presidential candidate is Efraín Alegre, who was a minister of public works and also the Liberal candidate for the 2013 presidential elections, when he lost against Horacio Cartes.

A key moment in defining the economic path for the next decade

The United States itself, Canada, the European Union and even China are flying over the election fever gripping the Americas, hoping to close free trade deals with countries such as Mexico and regional blocs such as Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.

It was to Paraguay that International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde decided to fly on Tuesday 13 March.

The number of people at the trade union protest occupying the street in front of the Central Bank in Asuncion, where Lagarde was giving a relaxed talk, barely reached thirty. The average age of the demonstrators was substantially higher, and there were more police officers than activists and placards.

Although only an anecdote, the scene provides an illustration of the current dearth of labour movement organisation in certain parts of the Southern Cone. The highest representative of the IMF, which used to be the target of the main labour grievances in Latin America, is no longer confronted with street protests?

“Macri, Temer and Cartes are very similar. Paraguay used to seem like a Central American country within the Southern Cone, but now it’s the same; they are all the same. The governments [of Latin America] have done everything they can to lower the social profile [in their respective countries, to make them appear more attractive to capital, to foreign investment,” economist Lila Molinier, who studied at the Autonomous University of Mexico and teaches at the National University of Asuncion, tells Equal Times.

The European Union and Mercosur have been trying to close a free trade deal since 1992, so far without success. The spokespersons for both sides insist that the current negotiations are coming to a successful conclusion, although Europe’s farming sector and South America’s industrialists do not seem quite as sure.

“It would be regretful if an agreement were reached with the EU at this point, because it is a time when our governments are all much more vulnerable, following years of crisis in foreign trade and the agribusiness sector, the foundation of our economies,” says Molinier.

The economist sees the deal with the EU as “an opening to total liberalisation” that is not reciprocal. “Both South American industrialists and the livestock sector are opposed to the deal and the trade unions and social organisations will not be far behind in voicing their opposition. But there is so much noise surrounding the elections at the moment that they are not aware of what is being signed and they are not reacting,” she concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish.