Can the ballot box renew Latin America?

In a year of big elections, Latin Americans will demand political renewal and an end to corruption

The Americas

Can Latin America come up with the political leaders it needs to boost economic growth and satisfy its restless citizens? That question will hover over the region in a year that features a crop of important elections, including polls in both Brazil and Mexico, the area’s two giants. (Presidential elections in the two countries coincide only once every 12 years.) The long hegemony of the left in South America, in particular, has given way to a tentative swing to the right. A populist revival cannot be ruled out. 

The ill-humour of electorates is partly to do with the economy. A modest rebound in Latin America in 2017 has not erased the memory of six years of economic deceleration and a recession in 2016. The recovery owes much to renewed growth in Brazil and Argentina. There is always a chance that political uncertainty might deter investment. However, the region’s economies should build on their recent stuttering success. 

The issue of corruption will also dominate many election campaigns. Latin America’s middle class has grown and is becoming more informed. With that has come pressure for better public services and an intolerance of graft. This was brought home by the scandal centred on Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, which admitted paying huge bribes in ten Latin American countries. 

The political fallout is still being felt across the region. On October 7th Brazilians will vote in an election that is more open than any since 1989 because corruption allegations, including those about Odebrecht, have discredited much of the country’s political class. According to early opinion polls, the front-runners are Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president from the left-wing Workers’ Party, and Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army officer. Neither is likely to win. Lula, who faces several court cases, may not even run. Expect other candidates to emerge in the centre. One possibility is Geraldo Alckmin, the governor of São Paulo, though as a figure of the establishment he would not offer the promise of political renewal. Another is João Doria, the newish mayor of São Paulo city, a former reality-tv host and protégé of Mr Alckmin. A third is Marina Silva, an environmentalist, who has twice run for the presidency and fallen short. 

Questions about corruption will also come to the fore in Mexico’s presidential election on July 1st. The outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is widely seen as having done too little to fight palm-greasing. That could benefit Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran left-wing nationalist. Having lost the past two elections (very narrowly so in 2006), this one will be a referendum on Mr López Obrador’s brand of populism. He will be helped by Donald Trump’s tub-thumping over Mexico. But his claim that corruption can be beaten by political will alone, rather than stronger institutions, is not convincing. And his mistrust of private investment worries businesses. The centre-right and moderate left have forged an alliance. If they can come up with a plausible candidate, such as Javier Corral, the governor of Chihuahua, Mr López Obrador is likely to lose again. Mexico does not hold a run-off election, just a single round of voting. The winner will probably get little more than 35% of the vote and may struggle to forge a majority in Congress.

In May Colombians will vote in a contest that looks almost as open as Brazil’s. Whichever candidate receives the backing of Álvaro Uribe, a right-wing former president, will have a chance. So does Germán Vargas Lleras, an effective machine politician who was vice-president in the outgoing government of Juan Manuel Santos. There are contenders on the left, too. Humberto de la Calle, a centrist who led talks with the farc guerrillas, will hope that Colombians start looking more favourably on the peace agreement reached in 2016. Whoever wins the inevitable run-off in June is unlikely to try to reverse the accord. 

In elections elsewhere, Costa Rica and El Salvador may see a turn away from the left. In Paraguay the ruling Colorado Party is expected to win. 

Before any of these polls, Latin America’s electoral marathon will have begun in Chile, where Seb­astián Piñera, the centre-right former president, will win a probable run-off in December 2017 against Alejandro Guillier of the ruling New Majority coalition. Mr Piñera, a billionaire businessman, is not loved by Chileans but they recall his successful management of a now med­iocre economy. 

Madurability test

At least they have a choice. If Venezuela were still a democracy, Latin America would be hailing the certain victory of an opposition candidate in a presidential election due before December 2018. Instead, Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship will do everything possible to cling to power. Though some kind of vote may be held, any contest will not be free and fair. 

With luck Mercosur, the trade group that includes Argentina and Brazil, will conclude in December 2017 a long talked-of, and probably modest, trade agreement with the European Union. It is a sign of the times that the official agenda of the 34-country Summit of the Americas to be held in Lima in April will focus on corruption. But in practice the talks will be dominated by what to do about Venezuela’s dictatorship—the long shadow over a year of democracy.

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