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Will 2018 be Latin America’s Year of Transformation?

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Bristolatino’s political editor, Hermione Greenhalgh, gives a breakdown of the region’s busy electoral schedule.

By November, Costa Rica, Cuba, Colombia, Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela will all have a new president (or will have re-elected the same one). Though Chile and Honduras have both just re-elected a former and incumbent president, (the latter on legally dubious grounds) the other countries will not necessarily stick to the status quo. Growing disillusionment with the established political class could herald a wave of populism, from the left and right. The continent is on the cusp of widespread disruption and root and branch reform. Here are the countries to watch:


Costa Rica: Certainly uncertain


Presidential and legislative election: 4 February
Second-round presidential election, if needed: 1 April 


A steady decline in support for traditional parties, exacerbated by the recent “cementazo” scandal embroiling many of Costa Rica’s top officials, makes it unlikely Partido Acción Ciudadana will be re-elected. Even the chances of any one of the mainstream parties being elected in the first round look slim. Most voters are non-aligned and non-ideological; the many shades of grey are likely to further fragment Congress. 


Cuba: Same difference


Presidential election: TBD


For the first time in nearly 60 years Cuba will not be governed by the Castro family, and yet it is improbable that this marks the beginning of participatory politics in the country. Miguel Díaz-Canel, the vice-president and man tapped to replace Raúl Castro, has expressed his own concern over alternative candidates winning municipal seats, fearful it would “legitimise the counter-revolution”. Castro is expected to remain in charge of the Partido Comunista de Cuba and possibly the armed forces, limiting the power of the presidency. However, confronted with the ever-dwindling economic support from Venezuela, fear of reform may be superseded by necessity. 


Colombia: Can the centre hold?


Legislative election: 11 March 
Presidential election (first round): 27 May 
Presidential election (second round): 17 June 


With the peace process now underway, many voters have grown weary of the polarising figures of Juan Manuel Santos (the current president) and Alvaro Uribe (former president and fierce opponent of the peace deal). Hopeful presidential candidates have leapt to (re)brand themselves as anti-establishment, with over 30 parties and independent candidates in the race. The centre-left Coalición Colombia is increasingly popular, promising to tackle corruption. They will come up against Germán Vergas Lleras, former vice president and leader of the centre-right party, Cambio Radical. To gain significant support, neither party can stray too far from the centre – most Colombians are looking for a fresh but moderate candidate to navigate the post-conflict period, and begin to address some of the country’s other big issues. 


Paraguay: Smells like teen spirit


Presidential and legislative election: 22 April

While the hegemonic Partido Colorado is not forecast to loosen its grip on power, the party will not sail through another term unchallenged. Half the population in Paraguay is under 25, which has led to a millennial groundswell in recent years. The Partido Colorado has received a powerful message from the Paraguayan youth that times are changing; student-led protests in 2015 saw the highest official at the largest university put behind bars for corruption, and protests last year helped thwart President Horacio Cartes’ attempt to relax term limits. The established party will need to be responsive to this demographic’s call for a more transparent government, or they could face an even more explosive confrontation.


Mexico: The year of the outsider


Presidential and legislative election: 1 July


Mexico will be particularly susceptible to populism in 2018. The Economist Intelligence Unit identifies this country as having the highest percentage of voters who are dissatisfied with democracy in Latin America. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the current frontrunner and leader of the leftist Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena), has harnessed this discontent. However, the populist vote may be split between him and the three to six candidates running without a party for the first time in Mexican history. Even the establishment party in power has selected a non-member as their presidential candidate. Factionalism between “outsiders” could mean a president is elected with less than 30% of the vote.


Brazil: An open goal for all sides


Legislative and presidential: 7 October
Second-round presidential: 28 October  


On January 24th, a three-judge panel made the unanimous decision to uphold the conviction of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president, on charges of corruption and money laundering. Although Lula could still make an appeal to the Supreme Court, the conviction, as it stands, means Lula is legally ineligible to run for president under Brazil’s “clean slate” law. This is huge blow to his left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores, and many of the poorer Brazilians who support him. A recent poll by Datafolha showed 36% of the electorate back Lula, double that of his nearest rival, extreme right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro (who hopes to be a ‘Brazilian Donald Trump’). The court ruling has left the race wide open, and unless the Centrists pick up the pace, Brazil could hand power to the extreme right or left.   


Venezuela: The time bomb


Presidential and legislative election: TBD


Though presidential and legislative elections were due in December, the pro-government constituent assembly in Venezuela declared days ago that a snap presidential election must be held by 30 April. The assembly has excluded the most popular opposition leaders from participating, curtailing any hope of a free and fair election. This virtually ensures Nicolás Maduro’s government, (which his opponents consider to be a dictatorship) stays in power. More than 120 people died in four months of anti-government protests last year. Living conditions continue to deteriorate, with shortages of food and medicine compounded by high crime rates and hyperinflation. The members of the opposition who have not been imprisoned or fled to other countries will need to organise quickly and unite behind one candidate if there is any chance of obstructing a landslide by Maduro. Most of the international community will not recognise the result as legitimate in any case. 


In a nutshell:


While little progressive change is anticipated in Cuba and Venezuela, and Paraguay’s ruling party maintains a tight grip, we can expect surprises from Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. More “outsiders” (perceived or real) means more political fragmentation, which will stagnate reform. But though populists exploiting the anti-establishment sentiment may be enjoying a poll-lead at the moment, as campaigning starts to ramp up, centrist parties will begin to garner more support. Whoever is elected will have to prove they offer a serious alternative to the corrupt politicians who have preceded them. Across the region, voters’ patience is wearing thin.  


Header image- The Economist