Chile and Honduras have kicked off an intense electoral period in Latin America that will last until 2019. These upcoming elections should confirm whether or not there is a new regional political trend (‘a turn to the centre-right’). Also present in the upcoming elections will be the trend towards re-election, the appearance of new forces and emerging leaders, along with violence and corruption as central campaign themes.
The election victories of Sebastián Piñera in Chile and Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras marked the beginning of an intense electoral period in Latin America that will define the regional political map well into the next decade. The Honduran and Chilean elections have confirmed the new predominance of the political right and centre-right, while the return of Piñera to La Moneda and the forced continuity of Hernández in Honduras have reinforced the trend across the region towards presidential re-election. Chile and Honduras are also new examples of the ongoing erosion of traditional party systems, the appearance of new political forces and emerging leaders, and the corruption and violence that permeate, directly or indirectly, the electoral processes of the region. Whether or not a new political cycle can be confirmed to have begun, the region emerging from this process is much more diverse and plural than the Latin America of the past. The unanimity and hegemonies of Bolivarian ‘Chavismo’ have come to an end; the region’s actors will need to adapt to the new times, an imperative that some are still resisting.
After the presidential election in Ecuador in April 2017, no further Presidents were elected in Latin America until the last two months of the year, with the elections in Chile (first round, 19 November; second round, 17 December) and Honduras (26 November). The Chilean election was marked by the fragmentation of the vote during the first round and a strong drop in support for the historic coalitions: Fuerza de Mayoría (‘Majority Force’) and Chile Vamos (‘Let’s Go Chile’) in its current version. Although in the first round of the 2013 elections these traditional coalitions gained 71% of the vote, in 2017 their support fell to 59%. The decline of such coalitions occurred as the extremes of the political spectrum attracted votes that historically had gone to centre-right and centre-left coalitions. Meanwhile, on the left there emerged the Frente Amplio (‘Broad Front’), which captured 20.2% of the vote, and on the right, the ‘independent’ José Antonio Kast appeared, taking 7.9%.
In the voting Piñera (of the centre-right Chile Vamos) beat the official candidate, Alejandro Guillier (of the centre-left Fuerza de Mayoría) by far more than expected (more than nine percentage points). Guillier was penalised for his weak campaign and suffered only lukewarm support from the Frente Amplio, which remained reticent to back the old Concertacion formation.
In Honduras, where elections have only one round, it took nearly a month for the official result of the presidential election of 26 November to be known. During those four weeks, the ballot counting brought back memories of other times: accusations of fraud, information blackouts, street disturbances (with 17 deaths), curfews and loss of institutional prestige. The Electoral Supreme Court (ESC) finally proclaimed Hernández –the incumbent President and the candidate of the Partido Nacional (National Party) for re-election– as the winner of the election by a narrow margin of only 1.5 percentage points (42.9% to 41.4%) over Salvador Nasralla, leader of the Alianza Opositora (‘Opposition Alliance’).
The election revealed the poor functioning of Honduran judicial and electoral institutions, and their co-optation by private interests. The slowness of the vote count and the scant transparency of the ESC generated suspicions of fraud. Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS pointed out that ‘it is not possible to be certain of the electoral result’, while the OAS delegation of electoral observers concluded that there were ‘irregularities before, during and after the elections’.
Both electoral processes displayed characteristics linked to their country’s own internal dynamics but, at the same time, they foreshadowed certain traits that will be clearly and increasingly present during the 2018 and 2019 elections (in which 14 of the region’s 18 countries will vote).
Consolidation of a new political juncture
These two elections resulted in victories for the centre-right (Piñera) and the right (Hernández). The victories support the idea of a new regional political juncture. Some even speak of a ‘turn to the right’ (or to the centre-right), although this new trend can only be definitely confirmed by the results of the key elections of Mexico and Brazil. The change in trend began in 2015 with the victories of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Jimmy Morales in Guatemala and Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD, ‘Table of Democratic Unity’) in the Venezuelan legislative elections. It was reinforced by the election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru in 2016, and continued to deepen in 2017 with the return of Piñera to La Moneda and the triumph of Hernández in Honduras.
Nevertheless, the ‘turn to the centre-right’ needs to be nuanced. First, for the moment at least, it remains more a temporary change of juncture than a definitive change in the political cycle. Although the victories of Macri, Kuczynski and Piñera are significant, it is still too early to raise them to the category of a regional phenomenon. Bolivarian populism has lost only in Argentina (with the defeat of Kirchnerism in 2015) and the left in Chile (the heirs in 2017 of the Concertación). Aside from these two cases, national populism retains power in Venezuela, and has been ratified in Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega) and Ecuador (Lenín Moreno).
In order to speak of a new political cycle, one must wait for the election results of 2018 and 2019. The centre-left and the left have real possibilities of winning, and in key countries like Mexico (Andrés Manuel López Obrador), Brazil (Lula da Silva) and Colombia (Sergio Fajardo) they are leading in the polls. However, if the right were to win in these countries, the result would consolidate the change in trend, giving way to a new political cycle at the regional level. Furthermore, this succession of centre-right victories has been heterogenous. Macri, Kuczynski and Piñera do not represent the same things as Hernández and Morales. The inclination towards republican form, content and style among the former group contrasts sharply with the Honduran’s lack of constitutional scruples.
The reasons for the ‘turn to the right’ are rooted in three factors bound up with the new political juncture: (1) the end of the primary product super-cycle in 2013 and the subsequent economic slowdown) that affected each Latin American country in varying degrees, but especially those of South America; (2) the significant deterioration of the image of some governments in the realm of public opinion, common among leaders and parties in power for long periods of time; and (3) the demands of the new middle classes that weigh heavily on the different administrations and which are characterised by their inclusion of demands befitting their status, such as more political participation, access to education and other public services (ie, security, health and transport), heightened transparency and more efficiency in the fight against corruption and violence.
The re-election ‘revival’
Chile and Honduras have shown two kinds of ‘re-electionism’ and two divergent ways of applying it: in the Chilean case, respect for the constitution and national institutions, while in Honduras the limits of both have been stretched.
In Chile, continuous re-election is not allowed; however, a former President can aspire to be a candidate again, but only after a full presidential term has passed. This has been occurring for more than a decade. In 2017 Piñera’s victory created the unprecedented case of two different Presidents (each from different parties) holding power for 16 consecutive years, as each one succeeded the other every four years.
Honduras has also just experienced a re-election, something without precedent during the democratic period, which goes back to 1982. The precedents for presidential continuity go back many years to Tiburcio Carías Andino, who was re-elected without interruption from 1933 to 1949. However, no Honduran leader has sought re-election since the return of democracy (with the exception of the unsuccessful constitutional reform of Manuel Zelaya in 2009, along with the strategy, also unsuccessful, of Roberto Suazo Córdova in 1985 to remain in power). During the democratic period, the Constitution of 1982 (article 239) expressly prohibited the re-election of anyone who had held presidential power.
In 2015 the Partido Nacional of President Hernández successfully promoted the re-election project. At the beginning of 2016, the Supreme Court –controlled by members close to the government– declared that the articles of the Constitution that prohibited presidential re-election did not apply, opening up the possibility that the president might aspire to a consecutive re-election.
This re-election trend –although very different in Chile than in Honduras, in both form and content– continues to be a regional fixture. At times there is a marked lack of renovation while in some countries (Nicaragua, Bolivia and Honduras) there has been a violation of the letter and spirit of the constitution in favour of the incumbent wielding power. This succession of constitutional changes demonstrates that trend to allowing re-election is not the exclusive property of a single ideology or concrete political tendency: it has been pushed by leaders on the right (Hernández in 2017 and Álvaro Uribe during his time) and by Bolivarian populists (Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua and Chaves in Venezuela).
The re-election trend has now become the norm in Latin America. During the 1980s and up to the first half of the 1990s, most of the region’s countries limited presidential re-election. There were no cases in which indefinite or continuous re-election was allowed, and where re-election possibilities did exist they were limited by the required passing of one or two presidential terms before a President could present himself for re-election. But the constitutional reforms that allowed the re-election of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil, and of Carlos Menem in Argentina generalised the phenomenon across the region, and it was replicated by the Bolivarian leaders (Chávez, Morales, Correa and Ortega) and by those leaders labelled strongmen or ‘caudillos’: Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic and Hernández in Honduras.
In contrast to the regional situation at the beginning of the democratic transitions, currently 14 of the 18 Latin American countries allow some type of re-election: ‘alternating’ (Chile, Uruguay, Panama, Peru, Costa Rica and El Salvador), ‘consecutive’ (Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic) and ‘unlimited’ (Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Ecuador). It remains forbidden in Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay and Colombia. Colombia is the only recent case in which re-election has been accepted and then reversed (Uribe introduced it, only for Juan Manuel Santos to prohibit it again). In Brazil, halfway into his second term, Lula was pressured by his followers to pursue a third term, but he rejected this possibility, placing the emphasis on ‘alternation’ as a key characteristic of modern democracies.
In 2017 Piñera returned to La Moneda, while Hernández was re-elected in Honduras. In 2016 Ortega had been re-elected in Nicaragua and Medina in the Dominican Republic. In 2018 and 2019 it is highly possible that there will be new attempts at continuity via ‘consecutive’ (Maduro, Morales and Macri) or ‘alternating’ (Lula) re-election.
A scenario favouring outsiders
In both the Chilean and Honduran elections there appeared outsiders –emerging political leaders who come from the margins of the traditional political parties and view the political class and traditional party system as the enemy and principal antagonist to be defeated–. This happened with Nasralla, a sports journalist and TV presenter who in 2013 created the Partido Anticorrupción (‘Anti-Corruption Party’) and in 2017 led an alliance formed by the Partido Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE, ‘Party of Liberty and Refoundation’, created in 2009 and linked to former President Manuel Zelaya), and the PINU-SD. In Chile, the electorate closest to former President Pinochet (that typically voted for the centre-right Alianza) was captured by Kast, who approached 8% of the vote. The left not linked to the Concertacion tradition supported the Frente Amplio, which received 20% of the vote in the presidential election.
The regional political juncture –characterised by intense dissatisfaction with traditional parties and politicians and a rapid loss of legitimacy of certain governments– along with the economic and social situation –marked by slow growth and frustrated expectations among the empowered middle classes– and the fiscal position –with less state resources for social policies and client networks– creates a political climate that is very favourable to the appearance of surprise candidates (ie, outsiders) but much more difficult for traditional candidates.
In this way ‘Trump-like candidates’ have emerged. They are not linked to the traditional parties (being outsiders), like Nasralla or the Guatemalan Morales, figures that lead movements with high levels of personalism (the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro) that come from the sphere of the media (Morales, Trump and Nasralla) and carry a polarising and demagogic message which is very critical of the politics and system of the traditional parties (the Mexican Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the Costa Rican Juan Diego Castro) and whose principal (and sometimes only) ‘ideological’ argument is the fight against corruption, violence and the political class. They are opportunistic leaders, without solid parties, political teams or structured political programmes. With their charisma and a very simple message they fan social resentment and the frustrated expectations of the middle classes, creating scapegoats (politicians) and channelling disaffection toward the traditional parties and politicians, and bad feeling towards the State and the public administrations that are incapable of implementing policies and providing public services.
The idea that ‘populism’ is on the decline in Latin America should be questioned and nuanced. Rather than the end of populisms, we are witnessing the appearance of new populist phenomena that are not linked to the Bolivarian ‘socialism of the XXI century’ but rather to movements on the right, as in the cases of Morales, Nasralla, Bolsonaro and even Keiko Fujimori.
Heterogenous and ‘unnatural’ coalitions versus hegemonic parties and leaders
The crisis of the party system and the deterioration of traditional political forces now favours the appearance of new players who form electoral coalitions (heterogenous and ‘unnatural’) in order to defeat hegemonic candidates. In 2017 two alliances, Frente Amplio in Chile and Alianza Opositora in Honduras, transformed the political maps of their respective countries. Some of these changes can take on a structural character to become more than merely conjunctural phenomena, although for the phenomenon to be identified it must already be consolidated.
The Chilean example reveals how the decline in support for the two coalitions which have alternated in power since 1990 –and their difficulties in channelling the demands of new generations and social sectors– generates a political environment favourable to the emergence of new options. This was the case of the Frente Amplio, a broad and heterogenous leftist coalition that gained 20% of the vote in the presidential elections with the journalist Beatriz Sánchez as candidate. It formed its own group in Congress with 20 deputies and it also entered the Senate. The Frente Amplio is a decisive force in Congress (like the Christian Democrats), but it remains to be seen whether they will allow the Congress to govern or simply limit themselves to becoming the opposition, as in the case of Spain’s Podemos, their main international point of reference.
Neither Chile Vamos nor Fuerza Mayoria control the Parliament. Under such circumstances, the votes of the Frente Amplio have more possibilities of becoming consolidated than other options (such as the one Marco Enríquez Ominami led in 2009, when he garnered 20% of the presidential vote, a percentage which then continued to decline to the current 5%).
The main challenge facing the Frente Amplio is to bring order to its ranks and to overcome its heterogeneity so that it might become a credible alternative. However, it has captured the vote of the youth without links to Concertación. Some analysts indicate that 78% of the votes for Beatriz Sánchez came from ‘newly registered voters’ (included in the electoral roll through automatic registration since 2012). Nevertheless, a relatively large number of the voters for Frente Amplio chose Piñera in the second round, presenting a serious challenge to the loyalty of the Frente Amplio’s followers.
In the case of Honduras, the predominance of the PN (in power since 2010) and, especially, of the figure of Hernández and his re-election project, deepened the polarisation. During the elections of 2017 the debate developed between two opposite choices: the defenders of the President’s continuity and the detractors of a lengthened mandate. This led to the formation of a heterogenous and unnatural alliance between two emerging minority forces (the liberal dissidents of LIBRE and the leftists of PINU-SD) and the followers of Nasralla (a demagogue and populist leader). They were united only by their rejection of Hernández and of the re-election project. Hence their name: Alianza Opositora contra la Dictadura (‘Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship’).
The results of the Honduran election confirmed the change in the party system. The country’s democratic history since 1980 can be divided into two different epochs by the coup of 2009 and its direct consequences for the party system and political model. From 1982 to 2010 the Partido Liberal occupied the central place in the party system, operating as its most preeminent force. It was the party that won the most elections and maintained power for the longest period of time. The victory of Porfirio Lobo in 2009 –after the profound institutional crisis of that year– opened a new period marked by the dominance of the Partido Nacional (PN). Honduras suffered a weakening of the traditional bi-party system due to the internal problems of the Partido Liberal and the loss of votes for both the PL and the PN, the bi-party system that maintained political hegemony since 2010.
From 1982 to 2009 the two most voted formations were the PL and the PN. Together they made up the majority of votes, and the alternative was always one of them. In 2013 Juan Orlando Hernández, of the PN, won 36.8% of the vote (the lowest figure since 1981). In 2013 the second most voted formation was not a traditional party, but rather the emerging LIBRE. The classic bi-party system broke down that year: Hernández won with an electoral margin of eight points over Xiomara Castro (Zelaya’s wife) of LIBRE who received 28.9%. Mauricio Villeda of the PL came in third with 20.28%, and Nasralla of the Partido Anticorrupción (PAC) came in fourth with 13.52%.
The electoral and party system changes that appeared in 2013 were not just temporary; they have been consolidated in 2017. The bi-party system has been rearticulated: this time between a traditional party (PN) and a newly emerging coalition. Until 2013 the winner always captured 50% of the vote, and together the Partido Liberal and Partido Nacional accounted for more than 94%. In the latest election, the traditional parties barely amassed 60% between them, and the winner got only 40%.
Electoral alliances will also be formed in 2018 in other countries. The Están Por México al Frente (‘For Mexico to the Front’) brings together the PRD, the PAN and the MC. There is also the Paraguayan coalition, the PLRA-Frente Guasú. Both of these coalitions seek to challenge the hegemonic parties in their respective countries (the PRI and the Colorados). In Colombia, three large coalitions will likely compete for the presidency: one, on the right, consists of conservatives and Uribe supporters; another, in the centre, with Sergio Fajardo (Coalición Colombia) backed by Claudia López (the Green Alliance) and Jorge Enrique Robledo (Polo); and the third, of the centre-left, comes together around Humberto de la Calle (Partido Liberal), Gustavo Petro (Colombia Humana), Clara López (ASI) and Carlos Caicedo.
These alliances –unnatural in some cases and heterogenous in others– are the only way for minority forces to challenge the large, incumbent hegemonies. In Paraguay, the former President Fernando Lugo, of the Frente Guasú, is now backing the PLRA’s presidential candidate –his liberal ally in 2008, who was nevertheless responsible for his downfall in 2012– in order to bring the dominance of the Colorados to an end.
Recurring campaign themes
Three recurring themes dominated the Chilean and Honduran election campaigns. These same issues have also been central to other elections in the region: corruption, the need for structural reforms to stimulate economic growth and citizen insecurity. These three problems have also been identified for years now by Latin Barometer as those that most concern the region’s citizens.
The big issue in Latin America has been corruption, especially since the outbreak of the Lava Jato scandal. In Chile and Honduras, corruption scandals undermined the ‘official’ candidates and strengthened the arguments of the opposition: the consequences of the Caval case in Chile (which damaged Michelle Bachelet) and the Seguro Social scandal in Honduras. What has occurred with Nasralla is significant in this regard. In 2013 he founded the Partido Anti Corrupción (‘Anti-Corruption Party’) and in 2017 he made the fight against authoritarianism and corruption the main issues of the Alianza Opositora (‘Opposition Alliance’).
In 2018 corruption will be the central issue of the discourse of López Obrador –with his critique of the ‘mafia of power’ in which he groups together all of his rivals (the PRI, PAN and PRD)– and of Juan Diego Castro in Costa Rica. The Lava Jato scandal will impregnate the elections in Brazil, where the courts must decide if Lula da Silva will be a presidential candidate or not. In Costa Rica the traditional officialism (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC, ‘Citizen Action Party’) has been negatively affected by the cementazo case. In addition to voter fatigue and the low public opinion rating of the government of Luis Guillermo Solís, the cement scandal explains why only 5% of the electorate intends to vote for the PAC.
In the election campaigns of Chile and Honduras the need for reforms to stimulate growth has also been a principal theme. There is a general consensus among the parties regarding the need for reforms, but not with respect to the required direction for change. In Chile both Guillier and Piñera pushed for transformation, but in different directions: more state-driven in the case of Guillier; more liberal in the case of Piñera.
Personal security has been a recurring theme in Latin American elections since the 1990s. Nor is it absent from current debates, both in countries with low crime rates (Chile and Costa Rica) and in countries with high crime rates (Honduras).
The protest vote against the traditional ruling parties
Ever since the change in the economic cycle that came in 2013, there has been a steady rise in the protest vote against the region’s traditional ruling parties. In Chile the official government coalition was clearly defeated at the ballot box. Its candidate had the worst result (only 22%) of a ruling party since 1989 during the first round. In Honduras more than 57% of the vote was against the re-election of Hernández.
The time of election votes in favour of the traditional ruling parties is now history. In 2011 Cristina Kirchner won with 54% of the vote and led her closest rival by 37 percentage points. In 2013 Rafael Correa gained 57% of the vote to Guillermo Lasso’s 35%. But now the protest vote is dominant. The opposition victories have become more frequent in recent years, especially since 2015, and affect, fundamentally but not exclusively, leaders and Presidents within the sphere of Bolivarian populism, as with Kirchnerism in Argentina.
In Costa Rica the ruling PAC of Solís has very little chance of making it to the second round. The polls show its candidate, Carlos Alvarado, with a low percentage of the intended vote –between 5% and 6%–. In Mexico the PRI is now only the third national political force in terms of intended vote; in Colombia the candidate closest to President Juan Manuel Santos (Humberto de la Calle) is very low in the polls, while in Brazil the PMDB (now the MDB) is no longer among the favoured parties.
The voter fatigue that comes with prolonged governments (eight years of the Partido Nacional in Honduras; Concertación dominance in Chile since the 1990s; eight years of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia) –together with an economic context of low growth which does not allow the financing of social policies or even for the maintenance of clientelist networks– explains why a voting citizenry with rising expectations is either voting against the ruling parties, escaping into abstention or supporting innovative alternatives. In Chile abstentions were more than 50% in both the first round (with 46.7% participation) and the second round (49.2%), and in Honduras they were 51%. Despite the diversification of alternatives (Frente Amplio and Kast in Chile and the Alianza Opositora in Honduras), abstention rates continued to be very high.
Close results and minority governments
Honduras and Chile have provided another demonstration of the dominant characteristics of the political moment in Latin America: close results (Honduras) and elections which produce minority governments (Chile). From late 2015 most of the elections in Latin America have been decided not only in the second round but also with only a narrow difference between the two candidates. There are some exceptions. In Nicaragua Daniel Ortega was re-elected in 2016 with 72% of the vote against his rival from the PLC who received only 15%. In the Dominican Republic Danilo Medina won by 25 percentage points over Luis Abinader. And in Chile Piñera beat Guillier by nine points. In the rest of the elections the pre-election uncertainty was extended by the result: Macri defeated Scioli only by three points; Kuczynski beat Keiko Fujimori by less than one percentage point; Lenin Moreno won by less than three points over Guillermo Lasso; and in Honduras Hernández had only a 1.5 percentage point advantage over Nasralla.
These close results, and the fragmentation of the vote, had meant that most of the current Presidents lack a parliamentary majority, making it more complicated to govern. ‘Divided governments’ are emerging in Latin America; increasingly the President lacks sufficient backing and ends up in confrontation with Parliament. In Brazil Dilma Rousseff was removed from office. In Peru Kuczynski managed to save himself only by a handful of votes. In other countries the legislative weaknesses of the President give rise to administrative paralysis (as in Guatemala and Costa Rica) or serious difficulties in undertaking reforms (Argentina and El Salvador).
Chile and Honduras have kicked off a new Latin American electoral season, setting certain political trends that might (or might not) be consolidated and confirmed by the electoral results of 2018 and 2019. The victories of Piñera and Hernández strengthen the trend towards an increasing predominance of the centre-right and right, and of those pushing for more economic liberalisation.
The latest triumphs of ruling party and traditional coalition candidates (Chile Vamos and the Partido Nacional) has been accompanied by a significant loss of historic support, while at the same time, new alternatives, led by outsiders and leaders from beyond the margins of the traditional parties have begun to emerge. This is another sign of the crisis of the political system.
The change in the economic and social context has shaped the results in Chile and Honduras and will continue to affect the upcoming elections. The economic slowdown and the demands of the middle classes have eroded support for governments and favour new alternatives that are reinforced by the corruption or incapacity of some administrations to produce improvements in health, education, transport and personal citizen security.
*About the authors:
Carlos Malamud, Senior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute | @CarlosMalamud
Rogelio Núñez, Lecturer, IELAT, University of Alcalá de Henares