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 2013: Latin America’s Presidential Elections

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 3, 2013

Nicaraguan police carry ballot boxes, which will be used for the upcoming presidential election, in Managua Nicaraguan police carry ballot boxes, which will be used for the upcoming presidential election, in Managua (Oswaldo Rivas/Courtesy Reuters).

Last year Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic held presidential elections, leading to some of the region’s biggest news stories of the year: the PRI’s return to power and the strong second place showing from Venezuela’s opposition. With four scheduled presidential elections (and a possible fifth) in 2013, along with congressional and municipal elections in Argentina and Venezuela respectively, here is what you should be watching.

Ecuador will hold its presidential election first on February 17. Current President Rafael Correa recently announced that he will hand over the day to day reigns of governing to his Vice President Lenín Moreno on January 15, dedicating himself for the next month full time to his reelection campaign. Bolstered by strong approval ratings and a divided opposition, odds are that he will win a second term.

Paraguay will hold presidential elections next on April 21 to officially elect a successor to former President Fernando Lugo (who was impeached in June 2012 over his handling of deadly clashes between police and farmers). With the current interim president Federico Franco not running, most expect the long-ruling Colorado Party to return through the election of former businessman Horacio Cartes.

Honduras too will hold presidential elections in November, choosing a successor to President Porfirio Lobo Sosa (as the country’s political rules prohibit reelection). The wife of deposed former President Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro, is running as the new Liberty and Refoundation Party’s (more commonly known as the Libre party) candidate. Hoping to upset the traditional two party system, she will face Juan Orlando Hernández of the National party and Mauricio Villeda of the Liberal party. The campaign, which officially begins ninety days before voters head to the polls, is likely to be dominated by concerns over violence and political instability more generally.

Chile will close out the year with presidential elections on December 13. While popular abroad, at home current President Sebastián Piñera struggled with low approval ratings (hovering between 20 and 40 percent), suggesting an uphill battle for the Rightist candidates (former ministers Laurence Golborne and Andrés Allamand Zavala). The big question will be whether former President Michelle Bachelet runs for a second term. (Immediate reelection is not allowed in Chile, but Bachelet will be eligible to run for another four year term in 2013.) So far she has remained silent, but preliminary polls show her to be wildly popular. The traditional party coalition candidates could also again face an outside opponent, such as Marco Enríquez Ominami, who won 20 percent of the vote in the 2009 election.

Venezuelans may also head back to the ballot boxes in 2012, as the country’s Constitution states that, “When the President of the Republic becomes permanently unavailable to serve during the first four years of this constitutional term of office, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within thirty consecutive days.” With Chávez’s fragile health, and public statements questioning Chávez’s attendance at his own inauguration (which the Constitution stipulates should occur on January 10), many are beginning to consider a political future without the president. Chávez’s chosen successor Vice President Nicolás Maduro might be able to ride the momentum from the recent presidential and regional elections, as well as the widespread sympathy for Chávez, to victory, but he will face a reenergized opposition led by Henrique Capriles and others.

For many of these countries, this electoral cycle provides an opportunity to move beyond recent confrontations and real challenges to electoral democracy itself. In others, the alternation of power is more a chance to reengage voters and citizens, and define and refine policies for the coming months and years. So watch for the new faces in many of the region’s executive branches.

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