Feb 27 2014

The Latest from LAPOP: Democratic Legitimacy Put to the Test in Upcoming Presidential Elections in Latin America

Published by chelsea at 8:32 pm under Spring 2014 Newsletter

Contributed by Matthew Layton of LAPOP (Latin American Public Opinion Project)

Nine Latin American countries will hold presidential elections during the twelve-month period that began in November 2013 (see Table 1). Early news reports suggest that voters will likely re-elect incumbent parties or candidates in Costa Rica, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, and Uruguay, but there are some cases where there is no clear frontrunner and elections should be highly competitive (Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama) or where elections will likely result in an opposition victory (Chile). Thus, even if on average, the elections yield few seismic changes in the region’s politics, some of them will be contentious and will raise important questions about the legitimacy of democracy in their respective countries.

Table 1. Latin American Countries with Presidential Elections between Nov. 1, 2013 and Nov. 1, 2014

Country Election Date Trust in Elections

Chile November 17, 2013 64.2

Honduras November 24, 2013 35.5

El Salvador February 2, 2014 54.1

Costa Rica February 2, 2014 54.9

Panama May 4, 2014 48.0

Colombia May 25, 2014 46.4

Bolivia October 5, 2014 47.3

Brazil October 5, 2014 47.7

Uruguay October 26, 2014 76.9

Note: The point estimate of average trust in elections is scored on a 0–100 scale based on data from the 2012 AmericasBarometer survey conducted by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP).

Questions of democratic legitimacy were prominent in the elections that have already occurred in Chile and Honduras. After Chile’s second round of voting on December 15, Chilean voters elected former President Michelle Bachelet for her second tenure as president. This election is the first held in Chile after extensive electoral rules changes, which included a transition from voluntary registration and compulsory voting to automatic registration and voluntary voting. With these changes, voter turnout in the first round fell below 50 percent of the eligible population. This figure highlights the extent to which all of the major Chilean parties will need to find ways to bolster their legitimacy and ability to represent and mobilize this large unorganized body of the electorate in future elections.

Also as expected, the Honduran election was highly contentious. Honduras is still emerging from the disruptions that occurred during the 2009 overthrow of former President Manuel Zelaya. Presidential candidates in the recent election represented the entire partisan spectrum from pro-coup to anti-coup, including Romeo Vásquez, the general who led the Honduran military during the coup, and Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro. The first uncertified results from the election showed that the incumbent conservative party candidate, Juan Hernández, had a relatively large electoral lead; however, Castro’s supporters also claimed victory, which has fed the underlying tension in the country. No matter which candidate ultimately prevails, this election is unlikely to produce a government that can claim broad legitimacy in part because overall trust in the elections is exceptionally low in Honduras (see Table 1). Consequently, instability will likely continue to characterize Honduran politics for some time.

In the other countries where elections have yet to occur, there is still considerable uncertainty about voter sentiment; indeed, some countries’ parties have yet to fully finalize their selections for presidential candidates. Nevertheless, it is likely that political elites in some of these countries will also face challenges to their democratic legitimacy that are similar to those seen in Chile or Honduras. Overall, this next round of Latin American elections will highlight the region’s widespread commitment to the formal trappings of electoral democracy, but it will also draw attention to the significant variation in deeper democratic consolidation within the region. Citizens across these nine Latin American countries will have the opportunity to voice their opinion on who should rule their countries through their ballots, but, as important as elections are for democracy, these elections alone will be unable to resolve deep social and political problems without the subsequent implementation of effective democratic governance.

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