Although Latin America has aspired to democracy for decades, institutions in many countries remain weak, a trend which is brought into high resolution during elections. The 2014 elections in El Salvador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil were marred by weak democratic and electoral institutions, lack of social inclusion, and corruption. The upcoming 2015 elections in Guyana, Haiti, Guatemala, and Argentina seem set to contend with the same challenges.
Last November, Guyanese President Donald Ramotar suspended Parliament via a seldom-used Parliamentary mechanism called prorogation in order to avoid a no-confidence vote brought by opposition parties. Brushing off criticism, President Ramotar maintained that the prorogation was an attempt to avoid further political conflict and seek accommodation between his administration and the opposition. After months of suspension, and severe domestic and international pressure, Ramotar finally announced general elections for May 11th.
Although Ramotar says he is confident that his People’s Progressive Party (PPP-C), which has held power for almost twenty-three years, will win, a new coalition between The Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change parties could create a challenge. This coalition is supposedly multi-ethnic, unlike the PPP-C which is almost exclusively Indo-Guyanese. However, the coalition is shaky as both parties insist on retaining their individual identities. Guyana is a unique case in part because of ethnic identities hold over the political system; the country is 43.4 percent Indo-Guyanese which means that as long as Indo-Guyanese voters remain loyal to the PPP-C the party is guaranteed a strong showing in elections. If a multi-ethnic coalition succeeds it could symbolize a wider change in the country and an end to PPP-C domination.
In Haiti, the legacy of dictator Juan-Claude Duvalier lives on in a constitution drafted to prevent the domination of one leader by establishing a system of checks and balances that allows one branch of the government to block the other from amassing too many powers. However, this system has also been used by presidents to prevent the country’s electoral commission from forming, which enables rule by decree. After two and a half years of delayed legislative and municipal elections, Haiti’s Parliament dissolved in January when the terms of many members in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate expired, leaving them without the quorum needed to pass laws. Following weeks of protests and political uncertainty, President Martelly installed a Provisional Electoral Council and promised to hold elections towards the end of May. It is unclear; however, whether the date will hold and whether Haiti will succeed in holding free and fair elections.
In Guatemala general elections should be held in September. The country suffers from many challenges including corruption, damaged democratic institutions, lack of social inclusion, and high barriers to political entry because wealthy elites make it difficult for new parties and politicians to amass the political and financial capital needed to compete. Freedom of the press is limited by violence perpetrated against journalists; it is the 10th most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which limits the population’s access to information. The judiciary branch is weak, for example when the Attorney General’s office brought genocide charges against former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt the trial was obstructed numerous times, paused for nineteen months, and the prosecuting Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz was forced to step down seven months before her term was due to end. The country also suffers from one of the highest rates of violence in the world, an average of 101 murders are committed per week, and the perpetrators have corrupted much of the police and judiciary leading to widespread impunity.
In this environment holding a free and fair election is challenging. This is compounded by long-standing rumors of front-runner Manuel Baldizon’s corruption. During the 2011 election Baldizon reportedly offered members of congress $61,000 each if they switched to his party. Although a new party that represents the indigenous population in Guatemala was formed last November, their chances of a successful electoral showing are slim unless a dramatic change occurs.
Lastly, in Argentina the upcoming elections mark an end to Kirchnerism. Following the death of her husband, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner stepped into the role of president and was later voted into office. Her administration has faced criticism over the years, on issues ranging from the economy to corruption, for example Vice President Amado Boudou was indicted twice in the past year, once for fraud and once for corruption. However, the most jarring accusation came from Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was mysteriously found dead a day before he was due to appear in court to accuse Cristina of attempting to cover up Iran’s role in the deadly 1994 terrorist bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Though the Kirchner administration has been steadily damaging democratic institutions since taking office, from co-opting the judiciary to trying to silence the press, this episode seems to have shaken the country to its core; over 400,000 Argentines marched in Buenos Aires last week in remembrance of Nisman, and in clear opposition to the President. How this will impact the October elections remains to be seen. Daniel Scioli, of the Frente Para la Victoria, who comes from Nestor Kirchner’s administration, was leading in the polls until recently but his ties to the Kirchner’s may damage him. The other two leading candidates, Sergio Massa and Mauricio Macri come from the opposition; even though Massa also had ties to the Kirchner’s. Hopefully whoever wins dedicates themselves to rebuilding the countries damaged institutions, economy, and faith in the government.
In conclusion, this year is set for some exciting and challenging elections in Latin America which could lead to dramatic changes or enable the continuation of business as usual with government’s that further dissolve democratic institutions.