Winds of change blow across South America


Evo Morales suffered a historical defeat in the referendum held last February. He was seeking the support of the citizens for passing a constitutional reform that would have enabled him to run again in 2019. Had he succeeded he would have remained in office until 2025. Preliminary results released by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal suggest the ‘No’ vote won by a narrow margin (51.30 per cent to 48.70 per cent).

This is the third consecutive defeat for parties in power in South America in recent months. Following the defeat suffered by kirchnerismo/peronismo in the presidential elections in Argentina in November (after 12 years in power), and that of chavismo in Venezuela’s legislative elections on December 6 (after 17 years of absolute control over the National Assembly).

The case of Morales was, in soccer terms, an own-goal. Morales was overly-confident, perhaps influenced by the uninterrupted succession of overwhelming victories he has scored in the last decade. He lost it – as Martin Caparrós just wrote – tempted by his own self.

What is the reasons for the shift, from the landslide in the 2014 presidential elections, where he won 61 per cent of the vote, to the defeat a few days ago? In my opinion it is explained by a combination of factors.

First, a presidential election (where the opposition was divided) is not the same as a referendum, in which the option to vote NO brought together a large plurality of sectors who, for various reasons, opposed Evo being able to seek a new re-election. Second, recent months were not easy for the government. In addition to the bad economic news (fall in oil and gas prices) were various corruption scandals, some of which extended to Evo himself. And third, a sector of the citizenry supporting the NO vote made very intense and intelligent use of the social networks, which were a major factor in defeating YES camp.

Nonetheless, the fact that Morales won nearly 49 per cent of the votes after 10 uninterrupted years in power cannot be underestimated. This process, from which Morales emerges weakened but by no means finished, ushers in a totally unprecedented political scenario heading into the 2019 presidential elections.

To round out an overview of the ALBA countries in South America, one will have to see what happens in Ecuador in the February 2017 presidential elections, where Rafael Correa is currently impeded (as the result of the recent amendment regarding re-election) from seeking a new term.

Everything appears to indicate that the new economic cycle, characterized by a marked economic slowdown, citizens’ weariness with the long administrations (many of which have been in power for more than a decade), and the attrition they have suffered as a result, are giving rise to the beginning of a new political-electoral cycle. In addition there are new demands for more transparency and accountability, repudiation of corruption, and demand for better quality public services. We might well see, in contrast to the recent past, that change and alternation in power is a new theme.  

The combination of these factors had already made victories by parties in power more difficult in numerous elections in South America in 2014. In several cases (Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia) forcing second-round elections. In 2015, the economic situation in the region continued to deteriorate as did social conditions according to ECLAC. The region also saw the first increase in unemployment in five years according to the ILO and there was an increase in corruption scandals which, in the case of Guatemala, forced the resignation of former president Otto Pérez Molina and his vice-president.  

Unlike other analysts, I do not interpret these results as marking a shift in the region from the left to the right, but rather as reflecting citizens’ weariness with presidents who have been in power for many years and who, personally or by means of their parties, would like to continue in power for many more years. I also observe citizen rejection of presidents who are characterized by a high degree of personalization. Who seek to concentrate considerable power in their own hands, who have a very confrontational and polarizing leadership style, and whose administrations are negatively impacted by serious corruption scandals. Moreover, all these regimes share a common problem, which is one of their main weaknesses that is succession in leadership. We are seeing it in Venezuela where the death of Chávez gave way to the disastrous administration of Nicolás Maduro.

In my opinion, what does appear to be clearer and clearer is that the winds of change are beginning to blow more forcefully in the region, especially in South America. And that the age of the hyper-presidents is winding down. A citizenry that is increasingly informed, empowered, and demanding, through the vote, mobilization in the streets, and the use of social networks (Morales blamed them for his defeat) is placing clear limits on the efforts of these presidents to concentrate too much power and attempt to remain in power indefinitely.

Nonetheless, we should be careful in our analysis and not draw hasty conclusions. I do not believe that these results will lead to the imminent end of the political movements that were defeated at the polls in the last three months. Hence the importance of monitoring the next presidential elections very closely, not only those scheduled for 2016 (Peru, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua) but also those to be held in 2017 and 2018, in particular in Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. Assuming the Venezuelan elections are not expedited as the result of the current economic crisis and the clash of branches of government between the executive and the opposition.

Only after these elections and in light of their results will we be in a position to better understand the characteristics and trends of the new political-electoral cycle that is emerging in Latin America.

About the Author

Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
Daniel Zovatto

Daniel Zovatto is Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).