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03/01/2006 | 2006: Latin America’s Year of the Voter

Michael Reid

As chance would have it, no fewer than nine Latin American countries will hold presidential elections in the 12 months beginning in December 2005. They include Brazil and Mexico, the region’s two giants, and four medium-sized countries: Chile, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.


This voting frenzy underlines the fact that democratic elections have become routine in the region: only in Venezuela and perhaps Mexico will there be many cries of fraud from the losers.

In recent years the left has been in the ascendant in Latin America, not least in the contrasting figures of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a pragmatic former trade unionist, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, an aggressive nationalist and populist. The region could now nudge towards the centre. But that is by no means certain. Behind the left’s rise to power lay disillusion with free-market reforms brought on by several years of economic stagnation or worse in 1998-2002. Economic recovery, plus continuing frustration over lack of jobs, may help the left. But which left? A moderate, reformist one in some countries and radical populists in others.

When all the votes are counted, the dominant feature of the new landscape will be weak governments facing hostile or fragmented legislatures. That may not bode particularly well for the reforms—of taxes, the state, the judiciary and the business environment—that Latin America needs if it is to start catching up with competitors in Asia and elsewhere. But as democracy becomes a habit, politicians in some countries are starting to show a greater willingness to compromise (a word which has no precise translation in either Spanish or Portuguese).

Barring accidents in the rest of the world, Latin America will see economic growth of around 4% in 2006 (enough to make life a little better, if not to make a big dent in poverty). That will be built on strongish commodity prices, relatively cheap money and the usual pre-election spending splurges. Should the world economy stutter, there will be worries about the public debt in countries such as Brazil and Colombia.

Brazil’s election is far harder to predict than the likelihood that the country’s football team will retain the World Cup in the finals in Germany. In early 2005 the centre-left government of Lula da Silva seemed certain to be re-elected. By adopting the orthodox policies and reform agenda of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula seemed to have set Brazil on a path of accelerating economic growth and democratic consolidation. But scandals have sent his leftish Workers’ Party reeling, its reputation for ethical politics in tatters. Lula could still win a second term, though he would find it hard to put together a strong reformist coalition.

On paper, Mr Cardoso’s Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) has a strong chance of winning back the presidency. But its best candidate, José Serra, who lost to Lula in 2002, has promised not to step down early from his job as mayor of São Paulo. Gerardo Alckmin, the PSDB governor of São Paulo, is a worthy technocrat but a colourless campaigner. A PSDB victory would keep Brazil on its reformist track. Anthony Garotinho, a former governor of Rio de Janeiro, will raise the banner of retrograde populism but is unlikely to win.

The tone for Latin America’s election year will be set in two contests in the final days of 2005. Chile is likely to elect its first female president. Michelle Bachelet, a paediatrician and single mother, may even win outright, avoiding a run-off in early January and marking a fourth consecutive term for the centre-left Concertación coalition that has governed Chile since the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. Ms Bachelet will win thanks to the opposition’s divisions, her own rapport with Chileans, a strong economy and the successes of Ricardo Lagos, the outgoing president.

After the toppling of two presidents in as many years, Bolivia desperately needs Chile’s stability, but is unlikely to get it. A presidential election brought forward to December 2005 (but which could yet be postponed again) may well see Evo Morales, the leftist leader of the coca-workers, topping the poll, but he will be strongly challenged by Samuel Doria Medina, a centrist cement baron, and Jorge Quiroga, a moderate conservative. Since no candidate is likely to get 50%, Bolivia’s Congress will choose between the top two contenders. The election of Mr Morales, an erratic figure, would be viewed with dismay in Washington.

Two more of Latin America’s elections look fairly predictable. Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe, the United States’ closest ally in Latin America, looks certain to win a second term now that the way is virtually clear for an incumbent to stand for re-election. In Venezuela Hugo Chávez, the self-declared standard-bearer of “21st-century socialism”, will win another term.

Two other elections are wide open. Whoever wins in Peru will inherit a stable and growing economy. In Ecuador, which rivals Bolivia for instability, Paco Moncayo, the social democratic mayor of Quito, will face two candidates from the coast, Álvaro Noboa, a banana magnate, and Jaime Nebot, the governor of Guayas.

Mr Chávez will gain another ally if Daniel Ortega returns to power in Nicaragua, which he ruled at the head of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s. But moderate centrists may finally manage to break the Liberal-Sandinista duopoly. In Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, winner of the Nobel prize for his peace efforts in Central America in the 1980s, will win the presidency again.

Hacer - Washington DC (Estados Unidos)


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