Last month, the Chilean electorate went to the polls to cast their votes for the members of a new Constitutional Convention, thereby launching a potentially transformative phase of the nation’s ongoing political reckoning. The tumultuous journey was first initiated by the mass protests that began during the Bachelet administration and became, at times, violent over the course of the last year.
The protests were characterized by widespread frustrations with stark structural and economic inequalities as well as perceptions of a disconnected political class. After 12 months of continued calls for change, in October 2020, more than 78% of voters (of the 51% of the electorate who went to the polls) voted to rewrite the constitution that has guided the country’s political processes since it was first imposed by the Pinochet military dictatorship in 1980.
On May 15-16, just over six months since the last vote and with only another six months to go until the general election, Chileans selected the 155 representatives who will hold the pen and draft the new constitution. Unlike previous elections where voters generally backed the prominent parties of the left and right, this election showed something deeper than the typical divisions that have garnered attention in Chile. Voter turnout was low, particularly in working-class neighborhoods, with just over 40% of the eligible electorate making their way to the polls. Of that 40%, the vast majority appeared to vote in favor of specific political proposals rather than traditional party platforms. This would suggest a weariness with traditional politicians and perhaps a rejection of politics in general.
Earlier this week on June 6, Mexico and Peru also held elections that demonstrate the region’s complicated and fractured political environment. In Peru, voters sought to select the country’s fourth president in under a year, following the political crisis of November 2020 when power changed hands three times in a week after a series of corruption scandals. However, 4 days after ballots were cast, the election remains closely contested. As of the morning of June 10, candidate Pedro Castillo had received 50.19% of the votes and Keiko Fujimori had received 49.8% with 99.8% of the votes counted. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the close election demonstrates the perilous schism between urbanites in Lima and those living in the rural hinterlands. This fracture will likely hinder the country’s ability to embark on a critically important economic recovery as the new President will be limited by a weak mandate and a fragmented Congress with no clear majority.
In Mexico, the legislative mid-terms offered an opportunity for MORENA, the party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to maintain or expand its simple majority (253/500) in Mexico’s lower house of congress. Throughout the first half of his six-year term, the majority allowed AMLO to pass broad policy changes, but the electorate remained frustrated with his inability to effectively overhaul Mexico’s security policies and reduce violence, poverty, and corruption. Polling results indicate that MORENA will keep its majority in the lower house but will lose more than 50 seats, thereby failing to achieve the two-thirds majority it was hoping to garner to make major changes. However, MORENA also appears set to win the governorship in 11 of 15 states with open seats—an impressive claim for a non-traditional party. The Mexican electorate is clearly engaged in the political environment, with this election seeing the highest voter turnout for a mid-term in Mexican history.
Additionally, in Colombia, demonstrations continue to ricochet across the country, building on the momentum of the November 2019 national strike and reactions to a poorly-communicated attempt at tax reform by the national government. The outcome of Chile’s elections this November may offer a hint of what to expect in Colombia during their presidential election next May.
What is happening in Latin America? Are voters actually against the political parties in power? Or are they voting for something deeper, against the leadership in general?
It is striking to see what has happened in Chile, especially considering it was the model country in the region in terms of political stability and sustained economic development. It is too early to tell whether the new economic and social demands in Chile will arise in other countries, but the previous unrest and changing shape of Chile's political environment add to the feeling of uncertainty growing across the region.
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the challenges of the region, including its struggle with limited economic growth, devastatingly high poverty levels, world-record social inequality, and low levels of education. But the implications of the pandemic extend beyond just raising the stakes of these challenges. Rather, COVID-19 has brought these challenges to the public’s attention in a new way. The manner in which many of the governments have sought to address them has angered their populations and most countries continue to present only low levels of vaccination while battling high levels of transmission and fatalities.
As of June 9, Chile presented the highest rates of vaccinations in the region (51.8% at least partially vaccinated), while Mexico (13.6%), Colombia (11.7%), and Peru (6.8%) fall much farther behind. Notably, Chile, Mexico, and Peru have all secured or optioned enough vaccine doses to cover well over 100% of their populations, while Colombia has only secured or optioned enough vaccines for 51.7% of the population. Peru far outpaces the rest of the group in COVID-19 deaths (574.45 per 100,000 individuals), followed by Colombia (184.59), Mexico (179.58), and Chile (158.81).
The response to the recent elections in Mexico and Peru may offer further insight into the changing regional attitudes in the coming months. However, it is clear that as they face this situation, governments must lead to enact reforms that promote economic growth with equity, trade integration, and improved and more accessible education.