Last Sunday, 25 October, elections were held in several Latin American countries. Two presidential elections – first round in Argentina and the runoff election in Guatemala – as well as important local elections in Colombia, the result of which should be understood in light of both the ongoing peace process and the 2018 presidential election.
In Argentina, a surprise was in the showing at the polls, where the the Peronista political movement received their lowest result ever. Daniel Scioli, the candidate of the ruling party (Frente para la Victoria), had been predicted as the possible winner in pre-election polls. But instead of the 40 per cent needed to secure victory in the first round Scioli fell far short of that objective, coming away with just 37 per cent of the vote. He surpassed opposition candidate Mauricio Macri of the coalition Cambiemos, by only two-and-a-half percentage points (Macri garnered 34.5 per cent of total votes).
The other surprise in these elections was the historic defeat of the Peronistas in the province of Buenos Aires, after 28 years of hegemony of the Peronista party. In the process sweeping away, in a genuine political earthquake, the so-called “barons” of the Buenos Aires suburbs. The nickname “barons” is used for the powerful mayors of the important towns in Buenos Aires province, many of whom have been in power for decades.
María Eugenia Vidal (the candidate from the opposition Front Cambiemos) beat Aníbal Fernández (Frente para la Victoria) by five points, becoming the new governor of the province of Buenos Aires, the country’s largest electoral district. She will assume the office on 10 December.
As a result of the first-round the second round of elections, scheduled for 22 November, will be historic in Argentina. Despite runoff elections being written into the constitution since 1994 Argentina, as the only country in the region, has never held one.
The key issues of the campaign in the second round—which we anticipate will be intense and marked by negative and dirty campaigning—will revolve around governance and the kind of change most advisable for Argentine society. While Scioli, the ruling party candidate, suggest change within the current policy framework his competitor Macri says more deeper changes are needed, including a power switch (alternancia).
Both candidates have committed to participating in a national debate (on November 15), also unprecedented in Argentina’s political history. They have begun to deploy their respective strategies to attract the almost eight million voters from the first round whose choice did not make it to the second round. For the time being, Macri has the advantage. Even though he was the runner-up in the first round, he is now better positioned politically going into the runoffs.
In Guatemala, the results of the second-round remained within the parameters suggested by the polls. Evangelical comedian Jimmy Morales won by a landslide, gaining 67 per cent while Sandra Torres claimed 33 per cent. The victory of the outsider Morales is explained above all by the current anti-corruption focus in Guatemala. While his political rivals, Manuel Baldizón and Sandra Torre, embodied the old vices, Morales succeeded in channelling the aspirations of political regeneration, greater transparency, and anti-corruption sentiment that citizens were calling for.
Yet if winning the two rounds of the presidential election was relatively simple for Morales, the challenges he must face as president (as of January 14, 2016) are daunting. His promise, set out in the slogan “Neither corrupt nor a thief,” (“Ni corrupto ni ladrón”), points in the right direction, but is insufficient for responding to citizens’ expectations of change and political and institutional transformation.
This year the citizens of Guatemala mobilized their demands and were able to overthrow and send to prison former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and President Otto Pérez Molina. If Morales wishes to preserve the democratic dividend and citizen support he currently enjoys, he needs to respond swiftly and effectively to citizen demands on issues such as education, health, security and anti-corruption efforts.
The fiscal situation is precarious and the state is on the verge of collapse in several areas. Morales’s political resources are too scarce to guarantee governance and give impetus to the reforms that citizens have been demanding. He is not backed by a strong party with unquestionable democratic credentials, he does not yet have a solid government cabinet and his party has an insignificant number of seats in the legislature (11 of a total 158). In these circumstances, Guatemala’s political future appears uncertain and plagued by obstacles.
In Colombia’s local elections the big winners were President Juan Manuel Santos and Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, a strong contender to succeed Santos in 2018. Both were strengthened as several of their political allies won elective office in important government departments and major cities across the country.
These local authorities will play a key role in implementing the future peace accords. The biggest losers were Uribe’s new party Centro Democrático, with adverse results not only in Bogotá, where its candidate Francisco Santos finished a distant fourth, but also in Uribe’s main geographic base, department of Antioquia and its capital, Medellín.
The other big loser in these elections was the left, which after 12 years in power lost its crown jewel, the office of the mayor of Bogotá, which was won by former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa backed by a coalition between Vargas Lleras’s party, Cambio Radical, the Alianza Verde and the Partido Conservador.
Super Sunday confirms the growing importance of the second round for determining the outcomes of presidential elections in Latin America. The two presidential elections this year (Guatemala and Argentina) had to go to a second round, the same trend was observed in the vast majority of the presidential elections held in 2014.
These processes have also been marked by a demand for change, and the surprise factor which, if it plays out in the Argentine case, could usher in a new political cycle in the region. Many countries in the region, including Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador, has had the same ruling party for several consecutive terms which as almost exclusively been centre-left or left.
A power switch in Argentina could well spark similar alternations of power in neighbouring countries in the future.