Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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What to Watch in 2012: Two Elections That Could Transform Latin America

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 10, 2012

Venezuela's opposition Democratic Unity coalition potential presidential candidates attend a second debate in Caracas (Jorge Silva/Courtesy Reuters). Venezuela's opposition Democratic Unity coalition potential presidential candidates attend a second debate in Caracas (Jorge Silva/Courtesy Reuters).

Though fewer in number than in 2011, the two Presidential elections on the docket for 2012 will make up for it in terms of their importance in the region.

The first will happen in July in Mexico. Leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are already talking about not only winning Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, but taking the “carro completo” – gaining a majority in the House and Senate. Recent trends favor the PRI – they won four out of six governorships in the 2011 midterm elections, now control almost half of the 500 seats in Congress, and have united behind Enrique Peña Nieto, the young, handsome former Governor of the State of Mexico. The National Action Party’s (PAN) close association with rising violence – as Calderón made the war on drug traffickers his signature issue – will likely hurt the incumbent party’s chances, whomever wins their presidential nomination in February. And the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) choice of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) –who lost to Calderón in 2006 by a razor thin margin (he claims the election was rigged) – suggests this party too is stuck in the last sexenio, which should also benefit an energized PRI.

Though many see the race as locked up, there are still six long months to go. The PAN has yet to choose its hopeful, and current front-runner Josefina Vázquez Mota could shake up the race as the first female presidential candidate from one of the main political parties (and due to her distance from President Calderón). AMLO too has been working to revamp his image away from the combativeness of the last five years, talking to the media about “love and peace,” and saying recently, “I want to be the Mexican Lula,” the market friendly former president of Brazil. His poll numbers have risen, and even some business leaders have switched over to AMLO’s camp. Peña Nieto has stumbled a few times in unscripted moments, for instance when he couldn’t name his favorite books (even as he hawked his own campaign book) at the Guadalajara International Book Fair.  Some wonder if he can hold his own in a debate.

If the PRI does triumph, domestic and international observers alike will be watching to see if Peña Nieto is in fact the epitome of the much heralded and marketed “new PRI” – a modern, democratic, grassroots party — or if he is just a young face for the “old PRI,” one more used to back room deals, corruption, and opaque governance.

Venezuela too heads into Presidential elections in October, with Hugo Chávez now running for his third six-year term. Many things seem the same – already the opposition is denouncing the regime’s electoral machinations (such as moving up the election date from December to October 2012) and repression of anti-Chávez media.

Some things, though, are different, making the elections interesting for observers and for Venezuela’s future. First, the opposition has finally come together [learning its lesson in 2005 when it boycotted  legislative elections and was left out in the cold, allowing Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to govern unchallenged]. It will hold a February primary, where voters will choose between six candidates, including front-runners Henrique Capriles Radonski, Governor of Miranda state, and Pablo Pérez, Governor of Zulia state.  This early on, the opposition holds a much stronger position in opinion polls as well. Recently released data place Capriles Radonski just two percentage points below Chávez in the general election.

The biggest difference though is Chávez – and his health. Though he claims to have beaten cancer, others, including his former doctor, believe he may not live more than two years. Worries of succession continue to plague PSUV, as all recognize none can replace the charismatic (if erratic) leader. This 2012 election lead up will be one to watch – for Chávez’s health and his ability to campaign, for ever increasing electoral shenanigans and repressive measures (particularly if the ruling party feels their candidate is flagging, either in his health or the polls), and for the broader actions and reactions of Venezuela’s society, and its international neighbors.

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