Elections, Crisis, and What to Expect in the Year Ahead
January 30, 2019
The Issue2019 will be another pivotal year across the map in the Western Hemisphere. The region continues to battle several ongoing challenges: the Venezuelan crisis, the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship under new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the rapid deterioration of Nicaragua, the fight for transparency in the Northern Triangle, and an uncertain economic horizon. Seven countries will hold national elections—Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, and Uruguay—each of which has the potential to affect domestic politics as well as geopolitical relations within the region.
IntroductionExactly 60 years ago on New Year’s Eve, Fidel Castro marched into Havana and brought the Cold War into the Western Hemisphere, altering the geopolitical relationships of the region in fundamental ways that continue to reverberate today. While the region continues to face ongoing threats to traditional democratic values and U.S. national interests, they also face acute threats to the lives and prosperity of the region’s citizens—mass forced migration, populism on the rise, xenophobia, rampant corruption, and violence, among other factors. These are some of the concerns on the minds of citizens as they make their voices heard. Citizens of seven Western Hemisphere countries will do this by heading to the ballot box for national elections in 2019, in what will be a round of crucial elections across the map, while citizens of other countries continue to protest in the street or decide to flee their country altogether.
Ongoing Regional and Domestic Crises Coming into 2019The year ahead is an uncertain time for the Western Hemisphere as a number of ongoing regional and domestic crises could very well either remain in “status quo” or reach an inflection point—for better or worse.
One of these uncertainties is the ongoing political, humanitarian, and security crisis in Venezuela. The humanitarian disaster is clear and immediate, with 3 million already having fled the economic debacle and the political challenge to hemispheric norms is increasing— with the U.S. and a majority of the Organization of American States (OAS) declaring Nicolas Maduro to be entirely illegitimate as of January 10. The fate of National Assembly President Juan Guaido’s efforts to establish his own legitimacy as interim president of Venezuela remains unclear, but it will surely result in political confrontation at a minimum.
A second uncertainty is what the domestic and international policies of the new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) will look like. While AMLO’s policy strategies remain vague, some of his initial decisions and actions have been promising. By offering temporary sanctuary to Central American and other migrants seeking asylum in the United States while their cases are under review, AMLO has diminished fears of a hostile bilateral relationship with the United States. He also clearly understands the strategic response to illegal migration must be the development of the Northern Triangle countries (NTC) of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which will reduce the push factors that propel migrants north. Furthermore, his acceptance of the NAFTA modifications in the USMCA also register as mature and a key to relations with the Trump administration. However, Mexico under AMLO has shown reluctance to support Lima Group sanctions and statements condemning Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, which puts into question his overall approach to international and regional policy.
A third uncertainty is the day-by-day deterioration of a functioning state in Nicaragua as the Ortega dictatorship digs in its heels in the second-poorest nation in the region.
A fourth uncertainty is whether the Northern Triangle will be able to achieve anything like steady progress toward the rule of law and accountability in government and citizen security. This poses a direct risk to the United States. From President Clinton to President Trump, U.S. administrations have offered rhetorical but practically inconsistent support for expanding economic opportunities and strengthening institutions in Central America. This includes not only helping those countries on smart security investments like Plan El Salvador Seguro, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) in Honduras, but also pressuring politicians not to undermine those anti-corruption efforts or move backward by politicizing police and security forces.
A fifth uncertainty is the economic horizon. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) released their annual look at the new year which anticipates that global uncertainty that will feed regional uncertainty. It predicts 1.7 percent growth overall in the region, with sharp differences between Venezuela’s economy that is expected to plunge another 10 percent, Argentina dropping 1.8 percent, and Panama growing close to 6 percent. Canada is expected to have similar growth with an estimated 1.8 percent growth. The United States’ trade confrontation with China poses risks to global prospects, and any Chinese economic downturn will echo with force in the Western Hemisphere.
Upcoming Elections to WatchThe politics of the region and the lives of many citizens in the Western Hemisphere region will be further affected by the uncertainties that lie in the number of national elections slated to take place in 2019. Below is a breakdown of some of the most important elections coming up this year, and how they could affect the country and the region.
ArgentinaArgentina will hold presidential elections in October of this year. Although current president Mauricio Macri has yet to announce his re- election bid formally, he is the presumed candidate for the center-right Cambiemos coalition. While Macri’s valiant efforts to open Argentine markets globally and cut spending to reduce a stubbornly-high federal government deficit have made him well-respected on the global stage, the resulting austerity measures and steep increase in the cost of utilities have seriously undermined his domestic support. Argentina came uncomfortably close to another financial default in 2018, with a run on the Argentine peso feeding a currency depreciation of almost 100 percent and inflation that reached an estimated 48 percent by the end of the year. The country was saved largely by a record loan from the International Monetary Fund and goodwill among G7 nations. Macri hit an all-time low public approval rating in November of last year at 37 percent. All this sets him up for a tough reelection campaign.
The opposition to Macri, a collection of Peronist groupings, remains divided between moderate and more leftist factions. Many leftists appear open to a new presidential bid from former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), while moderates completely oppose the idea. Fernández is in the middle of several legal cases involving charges of corruption and illicit association, as well as
an alleged cover-up of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. However, the ex-president is polling at 26 percent, behind only Macri at 30 percent as of early January. There are many Peronist moderates who would like to earn the collective support of the Peronist coalition, although none have been successful in standing out from the others. The only moderate candidate polling over 10 percent is Sergio Mazza, but he is divisive and is rejected by most other Peronists. If, as expected, growth returns to Argentina in the second half of the year—based in part on an expected good harvest in 2019 and the competitive value of the peso—Macri is expected to pull through with a slim victory, but uncertainty is still very much the watchword.
BoliviaThe October 2019 presidential elections in Bolivia will prove to be a crucial inflection point for the state of the country’s democracy. The biggest question for Bolivia is whether Morales will allow the country to have truly free and fair elections this year. Current president Evo Morales was allowed to submit his re-election bid for a fourth consecutive 5-year term, despite a constitutional limit of only two terms. Morales held a failed referendum in February 2016 that would have eliminated term limits. Despite the fact that the majority of the Bolivian population rejected the referendum, Morales’ supporter-packed court overruled the referendum. This ruling and the president’s successful submission of his re-election bid have resulted in widespread protests.
With the opposition divided, Morales’ support remains moderately strong, in part due to a number of successful domestic policies. Under his presidency since 2005, Morales has instituted a number of successful and popular social programs, and Bolivia has seen improvements in economic growth, literacy, public health, and education. That being said, Morales has continued to open up the country to funding from the Chinese, which has exploited Bolivia’s land and resources, including indigenous territories within Bolivia—a move that has been damaging for a candidate who has built his popularity on a pro-indigenous, pro- environment platform.
Looking ahead to this year’s elections, Bolivia has seemingly avoided the worldwide tendency of favoring political outsiders. The top six candidates for president have all
been president or vice president of Bolivia in the past. The current top contender to replace Morales is Carlos Mesa, a 65-year-old filmmaker, journalist, and former Bolivian president from 2003-2005. He leads Morales by 5 points in a recent poll, despite not being represented by a major political party.
Justin Trudeau must call national elections by October 21, 2019. The crucial question facing Canada is whether the populist wave that has swept through Europe, the United States, and Latin America will come to Canada. Going into 2019, Trudeau’s Liberal Party remains strong in the provinces with the most seats. Although national polling in early December shows the Liberals only 5 points ahead
of Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party, there are two other parties that will split the anti-Liberal vote.
Nevertheless, some indicators show warning signs of a potential populist revolt in Canada. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of Canadians who self-identify as middle- class has declined from 70 percent to 43 percent, and only 1 in 8 Canadians believe they are better off than a year ago. Economic displacement, driven by perceived Canadian losses on the new North American trade agreement (and continuing U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum) may give rise to a hardening of attitudes towards unrestricted immigration and the United States itself.
Even if a populist wave develops, it would not necessarily benefit the Conservative Party. Scheer is running on a straightforward platform of economic growth in Canada’s energy sector, specifically pledging to reverse Trudeau’s ban on pipelines, eliminate the carbon tax, and end the shipping ban in British Colombia. On immigration, the Conservative Party opposes signing on to the UN Global Compact for Migration, but from a sovereignty perspective. Otherwise, no significant changes are proposed to Canada’s relatively generous immigration policies.
So far, Trudeau is campaigning on the environment and inequality. If the Conservatives start rising in the polls, Trudeau could pivot to issues that resonate more with blue- collar workers and their collective sense of economic and social vulnerability.
El SalvadorEl Salvadorans will hold the first round of presidential elections on February 3, 2019, in what will be the country’s sixth presidential election since the end of its civil conflict. The election will feature three major candidates vying to replace current president Salvador Sanchez Ceren from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party: Nayib Bukele, Carlos Calleja, and Hugo Martinez. Given public outcry over continued high levels of violence, corruption, and minimal economic growth, it seems highly possible an “outside” candidate could win for the first time and in the first round.
In the latest poll, “outsider” Nayib Bukele received more than 50 percent support, some 20 points ahead of his closest competitor, Carlos Calleja. Calleja comes from the country’s traditional business elite, holds an MBA from NYU, and easily won the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party primary. Bukele’s other major opponent Hugo Martinez, the former foreign minister of the past two FMLN administrations, is even further behind. However, Bukele, who was seen as a strong mayor of San Salvador, was expelled from the leftist party for bucking party leadership and thus forced to run on the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) ticket. GANA, a spin-off from ARENA, is widely linked with corruption since its former leader, Elias Antonio Saca, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term in September after pleading guilty to stealing hundreds of millions of dollars while president.
Bukele, Calleja, and Martinez all are running on anti- corruption platforms. With an ARENA-controlled majority in the unicameral national assembly, Bukele or Martinez would have great difficulty in moving their legislative agenda forward.
GuatemalaGuatemalans will go to the polls on June 16, 2019, to elect a new president, Congress, and local authorities. The elections of 2019 might also prove to be a referendum on CICIG, the UN-backed initiative to combat widespread corruption in Guatemala.
Since its institution in 2007, CICIG has implicated more than 600 people in corruption cases, including former president Otto Perez Molina, and has supported the attorney general in attempting to bring a case of illegal campaign finance again current president Jimmy Morales. Morales is immune from prosecution until his term ends (unless Congress reverses its position and votes to lift his immunity, as requested by the Supreme Court), and is constitutionally barred from running for president in 2019. He has been a vocal critic of CICIG, has banned the Colombian CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez from re- entering Guatemala, has revoked the diplomatic credentials of foreign CICIG workers, and this month has ordered the expulsion of CICIG (only to have that order suspended by the Constitutional Court). Five parties have officially presented candidates for president and vice president, with more announcements to come at the beginning of 2019.
Several of the presidential and vice presidential candidates are lawyers and have shown more support for CICIG, and one of the presumed candidates is Thelma Aldana, the former attorney general of Guatemala and staunch supporter of CICIG and other anti-corruption efforts. Finally, 2019 is the first election in which Guatemalan citizens living in the United States will be eligible to vote for both president and vice president, which could add an additional 155,000 voters to the roster.
PanamaThe upcoming Panamanian elections on May 5, 2019, will decide the presidency and vice presidency, new legislators, mayors, and district representatives. The race for the presidency is down to three serious candidates from the three major political parties—all of which are considered “traditional” and “neoliberal.” Although it is set up to be a close election, the current favorite to win is Laurentino Cortizo, former president of the National Assembly, who is backed by the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and is polling at 36 percent as of early January. Cortizo is followed in the polls by Rómulo Roux, the Democratic Change (CD) candidate with 23 percent, and José Blandón, the Panameñista Party (PP) candidate with 13 percent.
In addition to the impact from the 100,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees that have arrived in the country in the last few years, key election issues will include: the
increasingly close relationship between Panama and China under current president Juan Carlos Varela, corruption scandals involving former president Ricardo Martinelli, social issues such as gay marriage, and the country’s economic slowdown. Young voters between the age of 18-25 are expected to make up 20 percent of the electorate this year, a considerably high percentage of the overall portion, which very well could make or break any candidate. This year will also be the first election under new campaign finance laws, which intend to control private contributions to campaigns and monitor campaign spending.
UruguayCandidates for Uruguay’s October general presidential election will be determined through primary elections being held in June of this year. The current president Tabaré Vázquez is ineligible for reelection due to term limits, leaving open the door to a number of new candidates.
While it is still too soon to predict likely outcomes of the primary and general elections, current poll data indicate that the closest contest will be between the Partido Nacional and Frente Amplio candidates. In a recent poll, the top pick for Frente Amplio voters is Daniel Martínez, Montevideo’s mayor, with 49 percent of the party’s supporters, trailed by Minister of Industry, Energy, and Mining Carolina Cosse with 27 percent of support. From the Partido Nacional, the likely candidate is Luis Lacalle Pou, a senator and son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle. Fifty-nine percent of Partido Nacional voters expressed a preference for him over the other candidates, while 28 percent preferred senator Jorge Larrañaga.
Uruguayans will be primarily casting their vote based on the issues of crime and violence, corruption, and the economy. Rates of all types of violent crime increased in 2018, and some indicators show it was the most violent year in the past decade. Also last year, there was a series of high-profile corruption scandals featuring members of the ruling Frente Amplio party, including the resignation of Vice President Raúl Sendic in September 2017 following accusations of using public funds for personal use. On the economic side, the economic anxiety of slowing wage growth (only 0.5 percent in 2018) will certainly be felt in the elections, where issues such as potential austerity measures and levels of government spending are sure to be contentious.
ConclusionThe political and electoral uncertainty facing the Western Hemisphere in 2019 reflects broader trends being felt throughout the globe. Democratic norms and institutional structures are being tested in Bolivia, faith in a liberal international order is questioned in Guatemala and Panama, while citizens in Canada, Argentina, El Salvador, and Uruguay are facing tough questions about what their country stands for and who gets to represent those values. While the Western Hemisphere may not see a single, transformative event this year, like Fidel Castro’s march into Havana, the region still may well see significant changes in 2019 brought about by these elections and by the collective impact of the social protests, popular uncertainty, and policy debates that continue to rumble throughout the
region. International governing bodies and the international community more broadly will have to be vigilant in monitoring the many moving pieces of the Western Hemisphere this year in order to help to sustain the process of pushing the region toward prosperity.
Sarah Baumunk is a research associate for the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Richard Miles is a senior fellow with the CSIS Americas Program. Linnea Sandin is program manager and research associate with the CSIS Americas Program. Mark Schneider is a senior adviser with the CSIS Americas Program. Mia Kazman is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.
This brief is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.
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