When a wave of presidential elections befalls Latin America we usually contextualize the moment as a duel between left and right, socialism and neoliberalism, globalization and protectionism. In Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Paraguay and Venezuela in 2018, a combined 350 million Latin American voters, nearly 80% of the region’s population, will head to the poles. The question is whether they will choose to maintain the status quo or elect candidates who promise to change the political tide and break down the current order.
This super-cycle of elections is coming at a time when, according to the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), support for democracy in Latin America is in sharp decline. Mounting social and political conflicts, skyrocketing levels of insecurity among citizens and serious corruption scandals in Mexico and Brazil (riding on the coattails of scandals in Honduras and Guatemala) continue to pose problems to governing in the region. As for the economy, while it is expected to grow more in 2018 than it did in 2017, this growth will still be weak at just 2.2% according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The latest report on corruption in Latin America, People and Corruption: Latin America and the Caribbean, which consolidates the results of Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer survey released in October of last year, found that perceptions of corruption are rising, making the fight against corruption an essential issue of this election cycle. Of the people questioned, 62% believed that corruption had risen in the region in the previous 12 months and only 10% believed that it had decreased.
Corruption in Latin America is perhaps one of the longest lasting endemics in the region with administration after administration failing to eradicate it. The fact that perceptions of corruption are rising could be viewed as positive. The high-level acts of corruption being investigated in the region suggest that institutional structures to expose wrongdoings by public officials are finally working.
All of this indicates a political environment in Latin America that is primed for a tipping point. Will this encourage the election of candidates from less-established platforms who may be viewed as better equipped to combat “business as usual?”
Brazil: President Michel Temer has said he will not run in October's election, while former president and current candidate Lula da Silva is running while facing corruption charges. This leaves Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist and declared supporter of the former military dictatorship, in second place in the opinion polls, behind former president Lula.
Colombia: The most fragmented presidential race of them all. There are three camps vying for the presidency. The first is the conservative coalition led by former presidents Uribe and Pastrana, whose candidate is Iván Duque. The second is a centrist coalition led by Sergio Fajardo (Coalición Colombia) and former Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras of the centre-right - and President Manuel Santos’ pick. The third is a coalition further to the left of former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro (Colombia Humana), the former Chief Negotiator (from the government side) of the Peace Accord with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle (of Partido Liberal); and Rodrigo Londoño “Timochenko” from FARC, which recently became a political party.
Costa Rica: Juan Diego Castro, of the Partido de Integración Nacional (PIN), has a narrow lead in the polls. He is followed by Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN) and Rodolfo Piza of the Partido de la Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC). The small difference separating the three leading candidates coupled with a large number of undecided voters foreshadow an election too close to call.
Cuba: Raul Castro’s hand-picked successor, Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel, is expected to take the throne.
Mexico: Leftist third-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is leading in the polls in what is very likely a nationalist reaction to President Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican sentiments. The ruling PRI party is hoping to attract disenchanted voters with an outsider candidate who portrays himself as a "common man” but the efforts seem to be falling flat and “citizens are not buying José Antonio Meade's technocratic talk,” according to a report in the Guardian.
Paraguay: The country will elect a new leader on the same date as Venezuela - 22 April 2018. The Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA) and the leftist Frente Guasú, with Efraín Alegre of the PLRA as their presidential candidate, have formed an opposition coalition called Gran Alianza Nacional Renovadora (GANAR) to attempt to remove the Partido Colorado (ANR) from power.
Finally, Venezuela remains in political limbo. The opposition has decided to abstain from the upcoming elections and a defecting, former Chavista and former opposition coalition member, Henri Falcon, has decided to run. But uncertainty looms over whether the elections will even occur.
All of this is taking place with an all-but-failed dialogue in the Dominican Republic in the background.
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The tipping point
A tipping point is a moment when a few elements come together to help an idea reach the point of critical mass where its viral effect becomes unstoppable. Latin America seems ready for one as it experiences deep-seeded discontent with the inefficiencies of the past decade’s left turn, growing perceptions of corruption, a lacklustre economy and the volatile nature of the Trump administration in the US.
To turn ideas into movements, people need them to tip them into virality. For the first time, the number of people in the middle class in Latin America has surpassed those living in poverty. This may finally be the moment when the region’s future will be in the hands of a thriving and pragmatic rather than ideological majority. Mostly situated in the political centre, the middle class may finally have the authority to lead from the middle and make ethical leadership the idea that sticks. The decision is theirs to elect more of the same or bring about a dramatic and long overdue shift in Latin American politics.