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Latin America’s Elections in 2012: The Dominican Republic

In Dominican Republic, Elections, Mexico, Venezuela on May 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Latin Americans head to the polls in 2012 to elect presidents in the Dominican Republic (Sunday, May 20), Mexico (Sunday, July 1) and Venezuela (Sunday, October 7). Voters in the United States do the same on Tuesday, November 6.

The Dominican Republic. In a partial replay of the 2000 contest, the 2012 presidential election in the D.R. pits former President Rafael Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004) against incumbent party nominee Danilo Medina of the PLD (Dominican Liberation Party). One of the more remarkable aspects of the election is who is not running. After contemplating a new round of constitutional changes to enable his re-election, current and three-time President Leonel Fernandez (1996-2000; 2004-2012) declined to seek a fourth term (though he will be eligible to run again in 2016). Fernandez’s wife, first lady Margarita Cedeño, followed suit, declining a presidential bid. She opted instead to run as Danilo Medina’s vice-presidential running mate on the PLD ticket. Danilo’s challenger Hipólito Mejía (whose presidency was marred by a severe economic crisis) trails by a small margin in recent polls. Like the 2000 contest, the 2012 election is likely to be seen as a referendum on the market-friendly policies pursued by President Leonel Fernandez; under his tenure, the Dominican Republic has experienced positive economic growth but unemployment, poverty and inequality remain stubbornly high.

Rise of the Transnational Voter? The other remarkable feature of the election is that it could be decided by (Dominican) voters in the United States. In recent decades a growing number of Latin American countries have extended the right to vote to citizens living abroad. In 2012, lawmakers in the Dominican Republic went a step further, enacting new legislation which enables foreign residents to choose seven overseas representatives (three from the United States and Canada), in addition to casting their vote for President and (under the new legislation) Vice-President as well. Historically, Latin American voters living abroad have not had much of an impact on election outcomes. This election could be different for two reasons. First, the size of the D.R.’s foreign electorate is relatively large (recent numbers compiled by the Observatorio Politico Dominicano indicate that one in twenty Dominican voters resides abroad, most of them in the United States; out of a total of 6.5 million eligible voters, more than 223,000 reside in the United States). Second, the presidential election is relatively close. Then again, as blogger James Bosworth points out, if Dominicans living abroad do not hold a strong partisan preference (in contrast to, say, Venezuelans abroad), or do not turn out in high numbers (turnout is generally low among foreign voters), their impact on the 2012 election may yet be inconsequential.


Polarization in Peru: The 2011 Presidential Elections

In Elections, Human Rights, Peru on May 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm

When Peruvians return to the polls on Sunday, June 5, they will confront a stark choice as to who should be their next president. The presidential run-off election pits the left-leaning nationalist and former military officer Ollanta Humala against the right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori (daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori) in what Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called, “a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer.”

Both candidates are indeed controversial. On the one hand, in his 2006 bid for the president, Ollanta Humala embraced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and continues to advocate a Chavez-style constitutional overhaul, media controls, and the redistribution of mineral wealth in Peru. Furthermore, Ollanta has been accused of serious human rights crimes, including murder, sedition and torture; his younger brother, Antauro, was sentenced to jail for leading a violent revolt against the government in 2005.  On the other hand, Keiko Fujimori draws a large base of her support from the followers of her father and former dictator Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) who is currently serving a 25-year sentence for various abuses of power including ordering assassinations and kidnappings. Keiko maintains that her father is innocent of such charges. A few years ago, she pledged to pardon her father if she was elected (more recently she has backed away from this pledge, just as Humala has tried to distance himself from the more extreme views of his family members).

The Peruvian Paradox 

Considering Peru’s recent economic success and relative political stability, the country’s sudden political polarization is something of a paradox. How do we explain the collapse of the moderate political center in Peru? At least three explanations merit consideration. First, in what former U.S. ambassador Dennis Jett describes as “Peru’s political suicide“, the centrist vote was split between three relatively strong candidates in the first round of voting, including economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, former President Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) and former Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda. Although they collectively captured 44 percent of the vote, they trailed Humala (31%) and Fujimori (23%) individually. Still, this explanation cannot account for the widespread appeal of Humala and Fujimori who garnered more than half of the first round vote. A second explanation, in turn, suggests that the benefits of Peru’s economic success have not been widely shared, causing the poor and disenfranchised to vote for more extreme options. A defeated Alejandro Toledo remarked, for instance, that voters, “expressed their rage … at having economic growth without the distribution of the benefits of that growth” (he made the same point five years ago). A third explanation suggests that it is the weakness of the Peruvian political system more generally that is to blame. For example, the collapse of Peru’s traditional political parties has enabled political outsiders such as Humala to gain increasing political clout. Similarly the failure of the political center to unite behind a single candidate suggests that politics in Peru continues to be personality-driven, with ex-presidents and their kin exerting a notable influence.

Peru 2011-2016: What Kind of Presidency?

Although both candidates have increasingly campaigned toward the center, many remain worried that Peru could be headed toward a more authoritarian and populist future, be it left-wing and nationalist (Humala) or right-wing and security-oriented (Fujimori).

Humala, for his part, has tried to distance himself from his previous association with Hugo Chavez and instead pointed to the Brazilian experience which, he noted, “has combined economic growth with social inclusion.” At the level of foreign policy, Humala has also expressed his desire to strengthen relations with the United States rather than the Venezuelan-led regional bloc ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas). Still, because of his past associations with Chavez and his status as an inexperienced political outsider, an Humala presidency would likely encounter stiff resistance from the business community, the news media and the traditional political establishment in Peru.

Keiko, for her part, has made fighting crime one of her key electoral pledges. T0 underscore the tough approach she would take on criminals (“mano dura”), she hired former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a campaign consultant and had him join her on the campaign trail. If elected Keiko would enter office with at least some political experience (she was elected to Congress in 2006) yet would have trouble overcoming the shadow of her father.

Pre-election polls suggested that the two candidates were in a virtual tie.

Postscript: Victory for Humala

According to official returns, Humala won the election with 51.5% of the vote. Why did he win and what are the implications of his victory for the future of Peru? According to available data, Humala won with strong support from southern and eastern Peru, especially the rural interior — areas that have not benefited from Peru’s economic boom as much as the country’s urban coast. (He was also the preferred candidate among men and those over forty). Humala also succeeded in convincing many voters in the political center, including former presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo, that he would (broadly speaking) maintain free market policies and respect the democratic rules of the game.

Although the Peruvian stock market initially sank over fears that Humala’s victory could lead to radical changes in the country, seasoned observers are predicting that Humala will follow a more moderate and pragmatic course of action. Michael Shifter, for one, notes that Humala’s narrow victory represents “a mandate for moderate change” and “better distribution of the fruits of development,” but not a Venezuelan-style makeover. In a similar vein, Andres Oppenheimer, argues that Humala faces a number of constraints, especially an opposition-controlled Congress, that make radical changes unlikely–at least in the near term. Still others, such as the Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana, see Humala’s victory as signaling the demise of the hard-core left in Latin America and its replacement with a new consensus model favoring growth with equity.

My take: I agree that there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that President Humala will eschew the failed policies of the hard-core left in Latin America. As I noted in an interview with Florida’s El Sentinel, Humala (and Peru) has little to gain from a strong alliance with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez–and much to lose.

Latin America’s Elections in 2011: Political Outsiders versus Former First Ladies

In Argentina, Elections, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru on April 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

There are many important elections in 2011 as Haitians (March 20),  Peruvians (April 10; June 5), Guatemalans (September 11; November 6), Argentines (October 23), and Nicaraguans (November 6) head to the polls to pick new presidents.

The Haitian and Peruvian elections shared a common feature: in both, the first round eliminated the presumed front-runner(s) and the second round pitted political outsiders (singer Michel Martelly and x-lieutenant colonel Ollanta Humala) against former first ladies (Mirlande Manigat and Keiko Fujimori). In both cases, the political outsiders carried the day. Guatemala’s election in September likewise featured an x-military honcho, General Otto Perez Molina, though (recently divorced) former first lady, Sandra Torres was deemed ineligible to run. In Argentina, another former first lady, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner easily claimed victory.

Haiti. The Haitian election has been decided: singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly won the controversial presidential runoff election in a landslide, earning 68 percent of the vote.

Peru. The winner of Peru’s divisive presidential runoff is Ollanta Humala. (For a deeper analysis, see my blogpost: “Polarization in Peru: The 2011 Presidential Elections“).

Latin America’s Elections in 2010

In Elections on February 1, 2010 at 10:35 am

There were a variety of important elections in Latin America in 2010:

Costa Rica (Feb. 7, 2010). The winner of Costa Rica’s presidential election is the ridiculously named but no nonsense former VP Laura Chinchilla (picture below). She defeated rivals Otto Guevara and Otton Solis.

Colombia (May 30 and June 20, 2010): Uribism without Uribe? Manuel Zelaya’s attempts to remold the Honduran constitution appear amateurish when contrasted with President Alvaro Uribe’s drive to (again) amend the constitution and seek a third consecutive term. However, in a surprising development, Colombia’s Constitutional Court rejected Uribe’s bid to hold a constitutional referendum, leaving Colombia’s presidential elections wide open. Former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, an Uribe ally, quickly emerged as the front-runner – though he faced a challenge from Green Party nominee Antanas Mockus. Santos easily won the run-off on June 20 garnering 69% of the vote.

Venezuela (Sept. 26, 2010). What’s remaining of Venezuela’s “democracy” was on display during legislative elections in September. Before the election even occurred, Chavez sycophants such as actor Sean Penn and analyst Mark Weisbrot were already upset that the international media would use the occasion to highlight the government’s lack of democratic legitimacy. As Chavez’s support at home continued to dwindle, others worried he would seek to cancel the elections altogether. In the end, Chavez’s party lost the popular vote but maintained a majority of the legislative seats through gerrymandering.

Brazil (Oct. 3 and Oct. 31, 2010). Who will replace Brazil’s beloved Lula? The contenders included Lula’s chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, former Sao Paulo state governor Jose Serra, and environmentalist Sen. Marina Silva. In the first round of voting, Rousseff claimed 47% of the vote, compared to 33% for Serra and 19% for Marina Silva. A run-off election pitting Rousseff and Serra took place on October 31st; Rousseff won 56% of the vote. She was inaugurated as Brazil’s first female president on January 1st, 2011.

Haiti (Nov. 28, 2010). In light of the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake (what remains of the country’s electoral council headquarters is pictured below), Haiti’s legislative elections (originally scheduled for February 28th) were postponed until November 28th (also the date of the country’s presidential elections). Prior to the earthquake, the legislative elections were already generating controversy after the country’s presidentially-appointed electoral council banned more than a dozen parties (including ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas) from participating. Critics alleged that election officials were stacking the deck in favor of President Preval’s newly created Unity party in a bid to change the constitution and boost executive power.

In 2011, Haitians (March 20),  Peruvians (April 20), Guatemalans (September), Argentines (October 23), and Nicaraguans (November 6) will head to the polls to pick new presidents.

Elections in South America in 2009: Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay

In Bolivia, Chile, Elections, Human Rights, Uruguay on January 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

Chile Votes  (Dec. 11, 2009; Jan. 17, 2010). The Chilean election pitted moderate conservative businessman–and self-made billionaire–Sebastián Piñera against the Concertación candidate and former president (1994-2000) Eduardo Frei. Chile’s wildly popular incumbent, Michelle Bachelet, was ineligible for immediate re-election. Piñera led the way in the first round of voting (Dec. 11th) but failed to secure an outright majority. A united left might have posed a challenge for Piñera, but Enriquez-Ominami (MEO), a charismatic socialist who finished in third place in the first round of voting, was slow to endorse Frei, stating “Eduardo Frei and Sebastian Piñera are too much alike.” Piñera went on to defeat Frei with 52% of the vote in the run-off election on January 17th.

Chile: Human Rights in the Spotlight. As in Uruguay (see below), human rights issues have  come to the fore during the election. On the eve of the first round vote, a Chilean court charged several Pinochet-era officials with the murder of former president (1964-1970) Eduardo Frei Montalva, father of the current candidate of the same name (Piñera’s campaign questioned the timing of the indictment). Piñera is expected to favor reconciliation over prosecution. It remains to be seen if Piñera will uphold Chile’s “post-Pinochet moral legacy.”

Bolivia Votes (Dec. 6, 2009). By virtue of Bolivia’s new constitution (approved in Jan. 2009 after a bitter internal struggle), President Evo Morales became eligible for a second five-year term (he was elected to his first term in 2005).  Morales easily won re-election  with 63% of the vote. Furthermore his party, Movement Toward Socialism, won a strong majority in both houses of Congress.

Uruguay Votes (Oct. 25, 2009; Nov. 29, 2009). The first round of Uruguay’s presidential election featured three main candidates: Pedro Bordaberry of the Colorado Party (and son of a former Uruguayan dictator), former President (1990-1995) Luis Alberto Lacalle of the center-right National Party and ex-Tupamaru guerrilla José “Pepe” Mujica of the ruling and left-leaning Broad Front coalition. In the first round of voting, the mercurial Mr Mujica got about 48 percent of the votes compared to 30 percent for Lacalle.

Mujica wins. The second round of voting took place on Nov. 29. Mujica carried the day with over 50 percent of the vote. He is expected to continue the moderate left policies of current President Tabare Vazquez. He will take office on March 1, 2010.

Uruguay: Human Rights in the Spotlight. The Uruguayan election takes place amid a series of landmark prosecutions for human rights abuses that occurred during the 1973-1985 military regime. Gregorio Alvarez, the last of Uruguay’s dictators, was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for his participation in the murderous “Operation Condor.” Candidate Pedro Bordaberry’s father, Juan Maria Bordaberry, is currently under house arrest on similar charges (the 81-year old Bordaberry was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison). Furthermore, the Supreme Court recently ruled that an amnesty law passed in 1986 (and reaffirmed by plebiscite in 1989) is unconstitutional. Voters went to the polls in October to decide if the amnesty should be rescinded, but only 42 percent supported the measure.

Elections in Honduras (2009)

In Democratic Crisis, Elections, Honduras, Inter-American Relations, United States Government on November 26, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Who will succeed Manuel Zelaya/Roberto Micheletti and will their election to power be viewed as legitimate? The controversial Honduran election pits Zelaya’s would-be successor and Liberal Party rival, Elvin Santos, against Zelaya’s 2005 challenger Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the conservative National Party.

Lobo carried the day–in part because of his promise to return Honduras to normalcy. His rival, Elvin Santos, once led the polls but was weakened by a rift in the Liberal Party provoked by Zelaya’s ouster. Lobo promised to launch a national dialogue to ameliorate political polarization in the country and called for an amnesty for all those involved in the coup (both Zelaya and the military leadership faced charges for abuse of power). Lobo furthermore indicated he was willing to meet with Zelaya.

The Election Controversy: Can Honduras Vote Itself Out of a Coup?

The controversy surrounding Honduras’ elections stems from the illegal ouster of incumbent President Manuel Zelaya some five months ago (see my blogpost: Coup in Honduras). After months of failed negotiations Zelaya remains out of power, holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Many countries have vowed not to recognize the outcome of the country’s elections in protest of the president’s ouster. Zelaya’s supporters in Honduras promised to boycott the election. The leading candidates for their part backed a negotiated solution to the crisis but appeared to be opposed to Zelaya being reinstated before the election. They urged the international community not to punish the next government.

A strong case can be made for not recognizing Honduras’ elections. As Christopher Sabatini and Daniel Altschuler recently argued, “acceptance of the elections results would [reveal] a troubling willingness to allow elected leaders to be removed as long as reasonably fair elections follow” and “would [signal] to would-be coup plotters in the region that election years offer opportune moments to overthrow democratically-elected presidents.” Brazilian President Lula concurred, stating “We can’t pretend nothing happened…If this state of affairs is allowed to remain, democracy will be at serious risk in Latin and Central America.” (See also  the critical commentaries by Laura Carlsen, Dana Frank, Sarah Stephens, Calvin Tucker, and Mark Weisbrot, among others). Still others see the elections as a viable solution to the months-old crisis including Honduras’ de facto leader Roberto Micheletti. (See also  the supportive commentaries by former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Eric Farnsworth, Mary O’Grady, and Edward Schumacher-Matos).

My take: The claims by Christopher Sabatini, Daniel Altschuler and President Lula are probably overstated. While there are principled grounds for not recognizing the election, it is less obvious that doing so will place democracy in the region at serious risk. Although one could claim that the de facto government in effect “got away” with a coup, the reality is that Honduras has paid a heavy price for the illegal ouster of Zelaya. The strong and largely unified reaction of the international community will surely deter all but the most radical coup plotters from kidnapping their president and shipping them out of the country any time in the future. The uncomfortable reality is that the coup conspirators in Honduras–distressed by Zelaya’s actions and weary of his alliance with Hugo Chavez–calculated that it was worth the risk of becoming an international pariah to remove Zelaya. On the other hand, Sabatini and Altschuler are correct to warn of the type of negative precedent that is being set.

The election itself appears to have exhibited a turnout rate more or less consistent with past elections (though the exact numbers remain disputed and arguably under-scrutinized). Furthermore, the election appeared to be free and fair–at least as reported by mainstream media (there were, however, a few reports of voter intimidation in rural areas–mostly at the hands of Zelaya’s supporters). An irregular patchwork of not-so-impartial election observers were on hand to observe the election after the OAS and Carter Center, among other organizations, chose not to send observers.

The Ambiguous Stance of the United States

The United States has taken an ambiguous position which has placed it at odds with much of Latin America. In September, the United States threatened not to recognize the outcome of Honduras’ presidential elections unless a political settlement was first reached. Then, in late October, the United States helped to broker a power-sharing deal to end the crisis. Although Zelaya soon declared the accord “totally dead“, the United States startled many when it indicated that it would be willing to recognize the results of the upcoming election–with or without Zelaya–as long as the key elements of the accord itself were upheld and the elections were deemed to meet international standards. In recent statements, the U.S. indicated the elections were satisfactory but encouraged further steps be taken toward reconciliation (e.g., the accord calls for the establishment of a truth commission on Zelaya’s ouster)–see the comments by Asst. Sec. of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Arturo Valenzuela here. Zelaya, for his part, maintained that his quick restoration to power was a key element of the accord and lambasted the United States for its ambiguous posture. He indicated he would not accept the outcome of the elections nor return to the presidency after the election.

Congress Votes Against Zelaya’s Return – Zelaya in Limbo

As part of the U.S.-backed accord, the Honduran Congress, after a long delay, convened on Dec. 2nd and voted 111-14 not to reinstate the ousted president–in spite of substantial international pressure to do so. The vote followed a damaging ruling by the Supreme Court that said Zelaya cannot be legally returned to the presidency. The United States and European Union expressed disappointment with the Congressional vote.

The road ahead for Zelaya remains unknown. The Mexican Foreign Ministry indicated it would receive Zelaya but negotiations in Honduras broke down over the terms of his exile. After Zelaya refused to sign a letter dropping his demand to be reinstated, the de facto government withdrew its offer to grant the deposed president safe passage to Mexico, demanding that he leave Honduras only as a private citizen (i.e., not as president). In a laughable follow up, Micheletti subsequently explained that Zelaya would only be allowed exile oustide of Central America because he might “attack” Honduras from a neighboring country. Zelaya declared he will leave the Brazilian Embassy by January 27th–the end of his presidential term.

Will Latin America Recognize Lobo’s Election?

Regional heavywieghts Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela along with most others in the region (with the exceptions of Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Canada) have vowed not to recognize the election results. Indeed, one analyst predicted that, “The winner of the elections will remain an international pariah.” Still, in a recent New York Times article, analyst Shelley McConnell noted that the “pragmatic middle ground” may be to work with the O.A.S. to recognize the elections “under protest of how they came about.” It remains to be seen whether the rest of Latin America will follow the United States’ lead, whether a new compromise will be reached in Honduras or whether a deeper rift will develop. In a recent meeting, Brazil and the United States found common ground, requesting that Micheletti step down and Zelaya be granted free passage out of the country–though U.S.-Brazilian relations arguably remain desafinado (out of tune).

Postscript: Did the United States and the International Community Fail Honduras?

In a recent opinion piece, Andres Oppenheimer excoriated Brazil, the U.S., and the OAS for their mishandling of the Honduran crisis. Brazil, he noted, exhibited blatant hypocrisy by defending democracy in Honduras while extending recognition and legitimacy to the autocratic leaders of Cuba and Iran. The United States, for its part, flip-flopped  so much between condemnation and accommodation of the de facto government that the result was utter confusion (the New York Times  and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs similarly criticized the United States for “a disturbing lack of diplomatic skill” if not sheer “ineptitude“). Finally, the OAS was so one-sided in its support of Zelaya that it lost credibility as an honest broker in the crisis. In short, Brazil, the U.S., and the OAS “flunked the Honduras test.”