Choosing the lesser of evils – Latin American elections

Paula is a third year IR student from Peru with a strong interest in Latin American politics and economics. She really enjoys writing thought-provoking pieces about current affairs and the future of our world. 

Latin America has been the hardest hit continent by the Covid-19 pandemic. The spread of the coronavirus was not contained despite extensive and strict lockdowns in many countries, particularly in Peru and Argentina. On paper, lockdowns seemed to prioritize citizens’ health above the economies’, yet both sectors have been ravaged. The inarticulate response of governments to Covid-19 has caused a 9.1% contraction in regional GDP for 2020 and “pushed the number of poor people up by 45 million” (United Nations, 2020). Thirty-four million jobs have been lost as a result of lockdowns (Newsroom, 2020). To put that into perspective, Peru’s population is about 32 million. Small and medium businesses have gone bankrupt across the continent, while Peru has become the country with the highest number of deaths per capita in the region. Latin American welfare systems are being exposed by what they are: forgotten areas of public spending budgets. 

The pandemic has not only been devastating, but it also comes at a time of massive political uncertainty across the continent. Many countries will hold presidential or congressional elections in the coming months. Needless to say, the failures of current governments to contain the virus and mitigate its impacts will potentially lead to civil unrest, if left unaddressed. Increasing inequalities, exclusion, and undemocratic developments in the context of Covid-19 may affect the outcome of the continent’s elections, particularly in Venezuela, where shortages prompted waves of protests in 17 out of its 23 states (Rangel & Parkin Daniels, 2020). Political fragmentation and polarization has heightened as tensions increase between incumbent governments and their oppositions. If we pause for a bit and remember the Latin American 2019 protests, not much has changed since then. The never-ending cycle of governments largely failing to deal with increasing inequalities, poverty, insecurity, informality, and unemployment remains, and nothing indicates it will change with these elections. Latin America is facing a prolonged crisis, and the current situation may be brewing more support for populist and military governments. 

In Venezuela, political tensions have been rising for years, as citizens and other world powers question the legitimacy of the current Maduro administration. Last month, Venezuela’s opposition leader Guaidó asked the military to support their election boycott (VOA News, 2020) in an effort to increase international pressure on Maduro and eventually lead to a transition of power. Nevertheless, Guaidó’s momentum has decreased from last year, given that he has not harnessed enough domestic support. Venezuela’s Supreme Court remains in favour of Maduro’s government, and international sanctions have not changed his behavior at all. Even though the US has alleged Venezuela election meddling as the “electoral council is full of Maduro loyalists” (Al Jazeera, 2020), many wonder whether the opposition’s boycott of the elections is the right choice. Either way, the future looks bleak for Venezuela, as the country’s shortages and woes keep getting worse and good governance is far from being achieved. 

Bolivia is facing a similar problem in the sense that political legitimacy is weak. Last year, Evo Morales resigned after 13 years in power amid concerns that his latest election was rigged. He was replaced by opposition senator Jeanine Anez in a fragile political transfer of power, which has polarised the country even further. In August of this year, Evo Morales’ MAS party organized road blockades, and key ministers of Anez’ administration resigned days before the elections which are set to take place on October 18th. This has contributed to the country’s political turmoil, as the Minister of Economy provided no reasons for his resignation. All of this is occurring in the midst of a national controversy, as Anez decided to return some shares in ELFEC (an energy company nationalized by Evo Morales) to private shareholders (Deutsche Welle, 2020); a decision that many politicians decried. The elections will be held amid protests, the coronavirus pandemic, and the nation’s economic crisis. About 59.8% of Bolivians do not approve of the government’s measures to combat the pandemic (Gamba & Serna Duque, 2020). Many still do not trust the electoral authorities to carry out free and fair elections. While the country faces a sanitary and economic crisis, conflicts between politicians and Anez employing the Judiciary to go after her political enemies have been dominating political discourse, leading to further instability and strife. The one thing for sure in these elections is that it will not unite Bolivia in the years to come. 

Finally, in Peru, political challenges to the current administration have been constant, despite already setting elections for April 2021. Failed attempts by congress to get rid of Peru’s Economy Minister Maria Antonieta Alva for ‘mishandling the pandemic’ and President Martin Vizcarra demonstrate the legislative branch’s priorities over the wellbeing of the Peruvian population, while we face one of the worse crisis in our history. This, coupled with the fact that there is no strong contestant for next year’s elections, a “majority of Peruvians do not know for whom they will vote next year” (Murillo, 2020). Candidates for the presidential and congressional elections have small political leverage and remain detached from the struggles many Peruvians face daily. This latter aspect was demonstrated in the government’s policies to fight the pandemic. They imposed strict lockdowns but failed to create contingency plans for those who worked informal jobs, or their tasks could not be completed by teleworking from home. Elected officials remain disengaged from the socioeconomic realities of Peru, which may prompt the rise of a populist leader once again, saying empty promises about making the country a better place. 

Latin America was already facing stringent economic and political crises, and the pandemic has exacerbated these issues even further. Polarization remains deep in the region, making it extremely difficult to build majority coalitions in governments to pass legislation to improve welfare conditions, resulting in poor governance. Candidates for these next elections are now facing each other on opposing ends of the political spectrum, and, unsurprisingly, they all are appealing to the populist vote. Latin Americans have been disappointed in their technocratic governments for almost a decade. Slow growth, increasing inequalities, and inefficient state welfare programmes have not made Latin Americans better off today than ten years ago. The structural issues responsible for the continent’s woes have not been solved. As such, everything points to a rise in populism and even military leadership, where leaders might be more in touch with the country’s realities and may be able to devise public policies that work. But the thing is, this might not even happen. Politicians’ constant search for more power, engaging in corrupt practices, and ignoring sound governance principles has, unfortunately, become the definition of Latin American politics. States are weak, the population remains fragmented, and the outlook on progress looks bleak for the years to come. 

Bibliography

Al Jazeera. (2020, September 04th). US blacklists four people, alleging Venezuela election meddling. Al Jazeerahttps://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2020/09/04/us-blacklists-four-people-alleging-venezuela-election-meddling/

Deutsche Welle. (2020, September 29th). Bolivia: Key ministers resign ahead of presidential elections. Deutsche Wellehttps://www.dw.com/en/bolivia-key-ministers-resign-ahead-of-presidential-elections/a-55086390

Gamba, L., & Serna Duque, S. (2020, September 07th). Bolivia elections being held amid protests, division. Anadolu Agencyhttps://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/bolivia-elections-being-held-amid-protests-division/1965163

Murillo, M. V. (2020, September 08th). Coming Next to Latin America: Even More Political Fragmentation. Americas Quarterlyhttps://americasquarterly.org/article/coming-next-to-latin-america-even-more-political-fragmentation/

Newsroom. (2020, October 02nd). ILO: 34 million jobs lost by the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean.Modern Diplomacyhttps://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/10/02/ilo-34-million-jobs-lost-by-the-covid-19-crisis-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/

Rangel, C., & Parkin Daniels, J. (2020, September 30th). Venezuela shortages prompt wave of protests across country. The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/30/venezuela-shortages-protests

United Nations. (2020, July). Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Latin America and the Caribbean. 1-25. https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/sg_policy_brief_covid_lac.pdf

VOA News. (2020, September 08th). Venezuelan Opposition Leader Urges Military to Back Election Boycott. Voa Newshttps://www.voanews.com/americas/venezuelan-opposition-leader-urges-military-back-election-boycott

Image credits

2018 Latin American Elections: Who, When, What

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