Category Archives: Latin America

Brazil – One Third of the Cabinet to be Investigated for Corruption

Everybody was waiting for this. I have written before on this blog about the long tentacles of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal, which has engulfed the Brazilian, and increasingly the regional, political establishment. The whole scandal centres upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in return for a whole gamut of favours. Odebrecht has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

Well, now in Brazil, a federal judge, Edson Fachin, has released a list of prominent politicians that are to be investigated for allegedly receiving payments from Odebrecht. This list is based on information provided to federal investigators in Brazil by 77 former Odebrecht executives as part of a larger plea bargain. It was due to be released earlier, but the former federal judge responsible for the investigation, Teori Zavascki, was killed in a plane crash in January.

The list was part of a ruling that allows federal prosecutors to begin investigating politicians named by the Odebrecht executives and for the somewhat beleaguered government of Michel Temer, it is particularly damaging. It may also have consequences for the 2018 presidential elections. At least eight government ministers, nearly a third of the cabinet, will now be under investigation for allegations of bribery and corruption. It includes Michel Temer’s chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, and his foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira. It also includes the Speaker of the lower house and the head of the Senate, not to mention a large chunk of sitting senators (24), 40 federal deputies and 3 governors.

This comes at a moment when Temer is trying to push an important pension bill through Congress, which would introduce a mandatory retirement age and reduce death benefits. This legislation is deemed crucial in order to deal with Brazil’s very large primary budget deficit. The deputy responsible for its introduction to the Chamber of Deputies has also been named on this list.

Potential candidates for the 2018 election have also been implicated, including Aécio Neves and José Serra (both from the PSDB). It is difficult to see how Temer’s party, the PMDB, could realistically contest the election given the incumbency curse they will face, and it remains to be seen whether the PT can shrug off its own involvement in the corruption scandal. Given that nearly the entire upper echelons of Brazilian politics have been caught up in this scandal, a cynical and downtrodden electorate might end up turning to an outsider like Marina Silva, or a populist, like the right-leaning Jair Bolsonaro.

One thing is for sure. There is more to come with this scandal. It has already spread across Latin America and its tentacles have thus far enveloped the sons of former Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), the current president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, and in Colombia, a former senator who admitted receiving bribes from Odebrecht has accused current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, of receiving illegal campaign donations from the Brazilian firm. In Peru, Odebrecht’s chief executive there has supposedly told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, has also received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht, in return for a lucrative infrastructure project.

We have not seen the end of Lavo Jato by a long shot.

Chris O’Connell – Presidential Election in Ecuador: Government Candidate Profits from Divisions

This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

The run-off vote for the presidency of Ecuador has been characterised by some as a crucial indicator of the political tendencies in Latin America. According to this logic, the victory of government candidate and former vice-president Lenin Moreno over banker Guillermo Lasso is proof of the continued relevance of the left in the region following a series of setbacks. Beyond this notional left/right divide, however, the results of the election highlight interesting dynamics and divisions in what is often referred to as a ‘weather-vane’ country.

Firstly, to the results. With all votes counted, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced victory for Moreno by a mere two per cent – a difference of just over two hundred thousand votes. In the previous blog I wrote that after the first round Lasso supporters made accusations of vote tampering and fraud. As Moreno’s vote approached the forty per cent mark which would have given him outright victory at that stage, members of CREO set up ‘electoral vigils’ outside CNE offices to pressure Moreno into agreeing to a run-off.

This time around, however, such tactics have proved less successful. Several thousand CREO supporters again congregated outside election centres in Quito and Guayaquil on the night of the election, with Lasso travelling between the country’s major cities to address the crowds. While there were some skirmishes between the protesters and police, overall the government appeared better prepared this time around. Nor were the crowds as large as previously, with spirits perhaps dampened by the results of pre-election polls.

As noted previously, a feature of this election has been the politicised nature of opinion polling. This trend appeared to have been overcome in the days before the run-off when polling firm Cedatos gave Moreno a four-point lead, having one month earlier reported a similar lead for Lasso. New controversy erupted over the results of exit polls, however, with Cedatos giving Lasso a six-point lead and prompting conservative newspaper ‘El Universo’ to briefly declare him president.

As a result of the huge gap between that projection and the official results, along with a mysterious eighteen minutes during which the CNE website went offline, Lasso has alleged fraud and stated that government forces had “crossed a line”. CREO supporters have attempted to sustain a popular campaign outside CNE, but participants have numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Nonetheless, the government has agreed to a partial recount of the votes from five provinces, in response to a formal appeal by CREO. While this count is taking place, however, police raided the offices of Cedatos, apparently in response to allegations by Correa that the polling firm was contracted by CREO to sow confusion with its exit poll. The recount is not expected to yield any change to the results of an election that has been ratified by the United Nations and OAS.

Thus an underwhelming election cycle, dominated by negative tactics on both sides, and featuring two largely uninspiring candidates, appears likely to end with the status quo intact.

In fact an election that should have been about Ecuador’s future – this was the first campaign not to feature outgoing President Rafael Correa in fifteen years – ended up hinging to a significant extent on visions of the country’s past. More specifically, the campaign focussed attention on differing visions of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ led by Correa, and of the preceding ‘neoliberal’ period characterised by political and economic instability.

The Lasso campaign focussed on the economic and democratic problems allegedly wrought under Correa. In particular the candidate pointed to the country’s level of indebtedness, and to the concentration of power that he compared unfavourably to Venezuela. Members of CREO also alleged that the Moreno campaign made use of state funds and public media to gain an unfair advantage.

In turn Moreno’s team, with the support of Telesur, reminded voters of Lasso’s past involvement in the banking crisis of 1999, and in several administrations during the neoliberal era. Many of the attacks were led by Correa, who dedicated much of his ‘Enlace Ciudadano’ (‘Citizens’ Link’) television show to allegations that Lasso enriched himself from the crisis and transferred funds to offshore accounts.

Moreno’s victory was certainly due in part to the identity of his rival. While opinion polls in advance of the first round of voting had shown a generalised desire for change, Lasso’s professional and political past meant that he was unable to convincingly project that image. Instead he found himself compared unfavourably to other wealthy heads of state, including Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and even Donald Trump.

Nor should the track record of the government be discounted. While the opposition alleged that achievements in the provision of healthcare, education and (in particular) infrastructure have been funded by excessive borrowing, for the moment these benefits are there to be seen. Furthermore, the Correa government has achieved significant reductions in levels of poverty and inequality, even if similar figures in neighbouring Peru would suggest a considerable ‘growth effect’[i].

The results of this election also throw light on a number of interesting internal political dynamics.

In the first place, the results highlighted the re-establishment of regional cleavages within Ecuador’s polity. The divisions between the mountainous Sierra, Amazon and coastal regions have been largely replicated in voting preferences throughout the country’s history. This provincialism led to the prioritisation of local incentives and militated against projects with national scope[ii]. This dynamic was altered with the elections for the national constituent assembly in 2007, and continued through to Correa’s first-round victory in the 2013 presidential election[iii].

The results in 2017, in both first and second rounds, reveal a return to a regionalised voting pattern. First of all, while Moreno won the popular vote, he carried a minority of voting districts (twelve to Lasso’s fifteen)[iv]. Secondly, it is striking the extent to which the government’s main base of support has shifted since its emergence in 2006 from the Sierra to the coast. Particularly notable was Lasso’s triumph in the province of Pichincha, home to capital city Quito – once considered the government’s heartland. Also of interest was Moreno’s failure to win more than a single province in the Amazon region.

There are several possible explanations for these changes, but many of them are rooted not in the campaign, but in government policy over the past decade. For example, the Amazon region has been particularly impacted by the government’s expansion of extractive activities like oil and mining, many involving Chinese companies. These projects have led to a notable rise in socio-environmental conflicts, resulting in violence and repression[v].

Agrarian policies have been a particular source of disappointment for peasant farmers in the Sierra. Despite enshrining the concept of food sovereignty in the Constitution of 2008, the trajectory of agriculture under Correa has favoured agri-business interests and exporters that are concentrated almost exclusively in the coastal region[vi]. Also of note in the coastal region is the government’s adoption of local political ‘bosses’ to bring in votes.

Nevertheless, these dynamics cannot entirely account for Moreno’s victory in the populous province of Guayas. Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil is traditionally conservative, and is further home to all of the major right-wing opposition figures, including Lasso, first-round candidates Cynthia Viteri and ‘Dalo’ Bucaram, and Mayor Jaime Nebot. Lasso’s failure there is instead explained by fractures within the right: not one of those influential figures actively campaigned for his candidacy.

While divisions on the right helped Moreno, divisions on the left between and within social movements were also beneficial. While indigenous and social movements may have paved the way for Correa’s victory in 2006 and provided crucial support through the turbulent constituent assembly process, relations between them soured as the government sought to exercise its authority over these so-called ‘corporatist’ bodies[vii].

As with previous elections, the leadership of these movements were unable to properly define a position, with most simply refusing to support Moreno, thereby creating a tacit alliance with Lasso. Meanwhile the government cultivated relations with ‘second-tier’ local organisations, resulting in around 1,200 of them declaring support for the Moreno candidacy and isolating the leadership of once-powerful national movements.

Finally, the election in Ecuador raises questions about some core analytical concepts in Latin American politics. In the first place, while Moreno’s victory is widely described as a triumph of the ‘left,’ for many the Correa project is one of the modernisation of capitalism rather than socialism[viii]. Thus rather than a right/left divide, this election could more accurately be said to have pitted the neoliberal outlook of Lasso against a ‘post-neoliberal’ government that promotes a strong state that seeks to regulate the market and redistribute income[ix].

The Moreno candidacy also raises new questions about the contested concept of ‘populism’. Correa neatly fit the bill with his personal charisma, Manichaean discourse, and redistributive economic and social policies[x]. The mild-mannered and diffident Moreno is harder to classify in those terms, however. Thus discussion has turned to the ‘populist’ nature of his policy offering, evoking an economic rather than political or discursive definition[xi].

To conclude, Moreno has promised to be a president for “all Ecuadorians”, but a review of the electoral map would appear to make that aspiration unlikely and potentially undesirable. Ten years of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ has yielded a segmented country, with both winners and losers from government policy. If Moreno has aspirations of emulating Correa’s longevity, it would appear that division would serve him far better than unity.

Notes

[i] See figures from ECLAC in its annual Social Panorama of Latin America: www.cepal.org.

[ii] For more see: Simon Pachano, 2006. ‘Ecuador: The Provincialisation of Representation,’ in Scott Mainwaring, Ana Maria Bejarano, and Eduardo Pizarro Leongomez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[iii] Correa won a plurality in 23 of the 24 voting districts in 2013, according to the election report by Jason Eichorst and John Polga-Hecimovich, 2014. Electoral Studies Vol. 34.

[iv] Three additional districts have been added since 2013 to allow for Ecuadorians abroad to vote.

[v] A conflict over a Chinese-backed mining project in the Amazon region of the Cordillera del Condor in late 2016 led to clashes with indigenous Shuar peoples that resulted in the death of a policeman, numerous arrests, and the militarisation of the region.

[vi] For more see: Patrick Clark, 2016. “Can the State Foster Food Sovereignty? Insights from the Case of Ecuador.” Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 16(2); Isabella Giunta, 2014. “Food Sovereignty in Ecuador: Peasant Struggles and the Challenge of Institutionalisation.” Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 41(6).

[vii] See: Carlos de la Torre, 2013. “El tecnopopulismo de Rafael Correa.” Latin American Research Review 48(1); Mark Becker, 2013. “The Stormy Relations between Rafael Correa and Social Movements in Ecuador.” Latin American Perspectives 40(3).

[viii] Former government minister turned opponent Alberto Acosta is a leading advocate of this analysis.

[ix] For more see: Franklin Ramirez Gallegos, 2015. “Political Change, State Autonomy, and Post-Neoliberalism in Ecuador, 2007-2012.” Latin American Perspectives.

[x] For more see: Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson (eds.), 2013. Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Johns Hopkins University Press; George Philip and Francisco Panizza, 2011. The Triumph of Politics. John Wiley & Sons; Kurt Weyland, 2013. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy Vol. 24(3);

[xi] See: Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, 1991. The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Venezuela – Executive and Legislative Branch in Open Conflict

In Venezuela, the executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. The Venezuelan Supreme Court announced late on Wednesday that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. The Court alleges that the National Assembly are in contempt of court over a case involving three opposition legislators. The opposition claim that this move is simply a coup. In fact, some have compared it to the autogolpe (self-coup) of President Alberto Fujimori in Peru in 1992.

Executive-legislative relations in Venezuela have been smoldering since the legislative elections of December 2015. As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political shenanigans managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election, revolving around accusations of vote buying.  To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

Although this denied the opposition the magic two thirds majority required to change the constitution, they have nonetheless placed President Maduro on the back foot, both in and out of the Assembly. However, President Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court. The Venezuelan constitution does not grant President Maduro veto power, but presidents are allowed to refer a bill to the Supreme Court, who can rule on the legitimacy of the legislation. So far, in the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of the opposition initiatives.  In this case, the Court accuses the leaders of Congress of not handling the case of the expelled legislators according to legal procedures.

This all comes amid a debilitating economic crisis for Venezuela. The Maduro administration has been seeking investment in the state oil company PDVSA in order to raise much-needed income. Some of this mooted investment was to come from Russia. The opposition led-Congress was looking set to oppose these type of joint ventures and foreign investment in Venezuela’s oil industry. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also authorized Maduro to negotiate such ventures without Congressional approval.

Venezuela’s actions have been condemned by governments across the region and by the Organization of American States, but it looks as if Maduro’s administration are now being forced to go for all or nothing. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

In Venezuela, it doesn’t even look like much of that façade remains any more.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Fernando Meireles – Latin American presidents and their oversized government coalitions

This is a guest post by Fernando Meireles, Ph.D candidate in Political Science at Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil). E-mail: fmeireles@ufmg.br

In many countries, presidents have a difficult time governing because their parties lack a legislative majority. In fact, because of the combination of separate elections for executive and legislative branches with multiparty systems, this situation is far from uncommon: during the last two decades in all 18 Latin American countries with presidential systems, only 26% of the time has the president’s party had a majority in the lower house. Due to this constraint, as a vast amount of research now highlights, minority presidents usually form multiparty government coalitions by including other parties in their cabinets. Again, only four Latin American presidential countries in the last twenty years were not governed by a multiparty coalition at some point since the 1980s.

However, the need to craft a legislative majority alone does not explain why presidents frequently include more parties in their governments than necessary to obtain a minimum winning coalition – forming what I call an oversized government coalition. The distribution of this type of coalition in Latin America is shown in the graph below. As can be seen, it is not a rare phenomenon.

If government coalitions are costly to maintain, as presidents have to keep tabs on their coalition partners to ensure they are not exploiting their portfolios to their own advantage – not to mention the fact that by splitting spoils and resources between coalition partners, the president’s own party is worse off – then why are these oversized coalitions prevalent in some Latin American countries?

In a recent article in Brazilian Political Science Review, I tackled this puzzle by analyzing the emergence of oversized government coalitions in all 18 presidential countries in Latin America[1], followed by a case study focusing on Brazil, spanning from 1979 to 2012. To this end, I gathered data on cabinet composition[2] from several sources to calculate the size of each government coalition in the sample: if a coalition had at least one party that could be removed without hampering the majority status of the government in the lower house in a given year, I classified it as an oversized coalition.

Specifically, I examined three main factors that, according to previous research, should incentivize presidents to include more parties in their coalitions than necessary to ensure majority support: 1) the motivation party leaders have to maximize votes, which would make joining the government attractive to opposition parties (vote-seeking); 2) the motivation presidents have to avoid coalition defections to implement their policy agendas (policy-seeking); and 3) the institutional context, considering the effects of bicameralism, qualified majority rules, and party system format on government coalition size.

The results support some of the hypothesis suggested by the literature. First, presidents are more prone to form oversized coalitions at the beginning of their terms, which shows that the proximity to the election affects Latin American presidents’ decision to form, and opposition parties to accept being part of, large coalitions – as others studies argue, this is mainly due to parties defecting from a coalition to present themselves as opposition when elections are approaching. Second, party fragmentation also has a positive effect on the emergence of oversized coalitions, consistent with the hypothesis that presidents might include additional parties in their coalitions anticipating legislative defections. Yet on the other hand, presidential approval, party discipline, and ideological polarization do not have the same positive effects on the probability of an oversized coalition being formed.

The factor that has the most impact on the occurrence of oversized coalitions, however, is the legislative powers of the president. As the literature points out, legislative decrees and urgency bills could be used by skilled presidents to coordinate their coalitions, facilitating horizontal bargaining between coalition partners. The comparative results show that this is the case in Latin America: the difference in the predicted probability of a president with maximum legislative powers in the sample forming an oversized coalition and another with minimum powers is about 32 percent points.

By exploring the Brazilian case in more depth, I also found that bicameralism dynamics and qualified majority rules impact the emergence of oversized coalitions. With two chambers elected through different electoral rules, parties in Brazil are often unable to secure the same seat share in both houses; to make things worse for presidents, party switching is still widespread in the country. In this context, as my results uncovered, differences in the number of seats controlled by the government in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate positively affect the emergence of oversized coalitions. Finally, as some bills require supermajorities to be approved, such as constitutional amendments, reformist presidents also tend to form and maintain larger coalitions: the maximum value in this variable predicts increases by up to 10 percentage points on the probability of an oversized coalition being formed.

Taken together, these results show a more nuanced picture of why and how presidents form multiparty government coalitions in Latin America: often, obtaining a legislative majority is not enough to implement their legislative agendas, and so they might resort to a complementary strategy: to form larger coalitions. And presidents with greater legislative power, at the beginning of their terms or facing fragmented party systems, are in the best position to pursue such a strategy. In this way, both electoral and programmatic factors, as well as the institutional context, become key to understand variations in the size and the composition of government coalitions in presidential countries.

Notes

[1] These countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

[2] The criteria employed to identify a government coalition is the party affiliation of the ministers of the principal ministerial portfolios in each country – taking into account that ministers are not always recruited due to their connections or their congressional influence, and that in some cases they are not recognized by their parties as legitimate representatives of the same.

Guatemala – Minister of Social Welfare Arrested

In mid-January, the neophyte politician and President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, completed his first year in office. In the two months since then, Morales has faced mounting pressure on a number of different fronts, including a horrific fire that saw the death of forty girls, the forced resignation and arrest of one of his ministers, the investigation of a special advisor and an ongoing corruption scandal involving members of his own family.  All of this amidst a number of public protests calling for his resignation.

Morales was always going to face difficulties. Elected in October 2015 as a prototypical outsider riding a growing wave of the ‘politics of anti-politics’, Morales, of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación), a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother. Although a social conservative, his policy platform was always something of a mystery given his election manifesto was only six pages long. During the campaign, Morales railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. But his party won only 11 of 158 seats in the house, and it seemed likely that this outsider was going to face problems governing effectively.

Last Wednesday, these problems began to come to a head with a fire in a government-run children’s care home near Guatemala City, which has resulted in the death of 40 teenage girls so far. Amidst allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the care home, together with overcrowding, the Minister for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, resigned on Monday, but was then promptly arrested, along with the director of the shelter and a ministry official on charges of negligent homicide.

Morales replaced Rodas with Candida Rabanales, but this has not stemmed public anger. The socialist political party, Convergencia CPO-CRD, yesterday formally asked Congress to withdraw the immunity of President Morales, so that he can be charged in relation to the disaster. Although this is highly unlikely, there have been a number of public demonstrations and protests in response to the fire and the government’s response. These can be added to a number of other demonstrations in Guatemala city since mid-January, including a large agricultural protest that called President Morales ‘incapable’ of governing and demanded his resignation.

This has not been helped by an ongoing corruption scandal involving the president’s brother Samuel (Sammy) Everardo Morales and his son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, both of whom have been placed under investigation by the UN-supported International Commission on Corruption in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office. They allegedly fabricated invoices and contracts for goods and services that were never actually supplied and concerns Fulanos y Menganos, a restaurant in Guatemala city, owned by Congressman Gilmar Othmar Sánchez, who is a representative for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), Morales’ party.

And today, Guatemala’s Supreme Court removed the immunity of Edgar Justino Ovalle, a former military officer and currently a member of congress for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional. Ovalle, one of the co-founders of the President’s party, and a close adviser to Morales, is accused of human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war, including forced kidnapping and murder.

All of this must worry the President. Since the return to democracy across Latin America, large sustained street protests, often in response to allegations of corruption, have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Guatemala is not witnessing widespread protests akin to Brazil last year, for example. Far from it and what is more, although protests played a role in the downfall of many presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive. But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office.[1]

With so few seats in Congress, and beset on all sides, Morales’ position is precarious. If noting else, it goes to show the difficulties that these outsiders will face when trying to govern with little institutional knowledge or support.

Notes

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

Latin America – Odebrecht Scandal Expands across the Region

In my last post, I discussed the fallout from the Lavo Jato corruption scandal, which was partly responsible for forcing Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil, out of office last year. Parts of this scandal involved allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former worker party president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011). The scandal spread to Peru, where former president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), has been accused of receiving US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for granting them the contract to build a large road and infrastructure project. This led to the Peruvian government offering a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to Toledo’s arrest.

Well, the scandal rumbles on. And rumbles across the region, dragging into its orbit current and former presidents across Latin America.

In Panama, prosecutors are now seeking to detain the sons of former president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014). Ricardo Alberto and Luis Enrique Martinelli are accused of depositing part of a US$22 million bribe that Odebrecht paid in return for lucrative state contracts in Panama. And current Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela, has been accused by a former advisor of receiving political donations from Odebrecht. In Colombia, a former senator who admitted receiving bribes from Odebrecht has accused current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, of receiving illegal campaign donations from the Brazilian firm.

In Argentina, members of Mauricio Macri’s centre-right organization have been accused of ties with Odebrecht, and in the case of Gustavo Arribas, of accepting a direct bribe from the firm. All of this comes amid a controversy over a government plan to settle a fifteen year debt incurred by Macri’s father when he owned the Argentine postal service. In the Dominican Republic, the Brazilian firm admitted that it payed US$92 million in bribes to Dominican government officials to secure large and lucrative infrastructure projects. And on Wednesday, prosecutors in Chile raided the Santiago offices of Odebrecht as part of a larger 10 country investigation into the political links and acitivies of the construction company.

So is there an explanation for such an encompassing and massive scandal? Part of the problem clearly lies with norms and regulations governing campaign financing across Latin America. There are few public subsidies to political parties and most campaigns are paid for by corporate donors, while repeated attempts to regulate donations have fallen short, given the lack of an incentive structure for doing so among the political classes.[1] The lack of strict regulations governing campaign financing is surely compounded by the rise of populist outsiders who appeal to “the masses” via television. Kurt Weyland has argued that “over the past 15 years, such personalistic leaders have sought to bypass established political parties and interest groups in order to reach “the people” through direct, most often televised, appeals aimed at building up a loyal following from scratch. Because its methods are costly, the new media-based politics has given ambitious politicians much higher incentives to resort to corruption.”[2]

Political donation kick-back schemes therefore like the one operated by Odebrecht are simply too difficult for many Latin American politicians to turn down, given the spiraling cost of electoral campaigns across the region. Expect more revelations to emerge.

Notes

[1] See the recent Economist article on campaign financing across the region: http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21717985-unavoidable-trade-offs-paying-democracy-how-latin-america-deals-campaign-finance.

[2] Kurt Weyland. 1998. The Politics of Corruption in Latin America. Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 108-121.

Chris O’Connell – Ecuador: Run-Off Election Announced Amid Scenes of Chaos

This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Following one of the most low-key campaigns in recent memory, Ecuador’s presidential election exploded into the controversy, protest, and rumours of fraud and military intervention. Following three days of chaos and contradiction, the final outcome is a run-off vote between front-runners Lenin Moreno of the government party Alianza PAIS (AP), and Guillermo Lasso of the right-wing CREO movement. While this outcome was widely predicted, the manner in which it played out has been dramatic, and points to problems for the government.

While the lack of both accuracy and impartiality has been a prominent feature of opinion polling throughout the election campaign, all the major pollsters were agreed that Moreno would obtain the most votes in the first round. The inevitability of a Moreno ‘win’ was sealed when the two major right-wing opposition parties – CREO and the Social Christian Party (PSC) – failed to agree on a shared candidate. With the PSC’s Cynthia Viteri also on the ballot, the right-wing vote was split.

The important question was therefore not whether Moreno would win, but by how much. While no polls gave Moreno more than fifty per cent, under Ecuador’s electoral rules a run-off can be avoided if a candidate gains forty per cent and exceeds the vote share of the runner-up by at least ten per cent. This rule became the focus of a battle that was much more intense than the campaign which preceded it.

With ninety-eight per cent of votes counted, figures released by the National Electoral Council (CNE) give Lasso 28.4% of the votes, and Moreno 39.3%. With votes slow to come in from Ecuadorian emigrants abroad, along with some of the country’s remote districts, CNE head Juan Pablo Pozo had announced on Monday that it would take three days to finalise the count, and appealed for calm.

Those appeals fell on deaf ears, however. Instead supporters of Lasso, led by his running-mate Andres Paez, occupied the space outside the offices of the CNE on election night. There they remained, ensuring that all eyes were on an institution believed by the opposition to be under government control. Belatedly groups of AP supporters followed suit, leading to a tense stand-off on the streets of capital city Quito. Meanwhile similar ‘electoral vigils’ sprang up outside CNE branches in major cities like Guayaquil and Cuenca.

Lasso, a former banker who was part of the truncated government of Lucio Gutierrez, continued pressuring the CNE, talking openly of electoral fraud and demanding the finalisation of the count. Unsurprisingly in such a febrile atmosphere, rumours flew of dumped ballot boxes and even military intervention – forcing the military high command to issue a statement denying “false rumours” and pledging to protect the electoral process.

Moreno remained outwardly calm, eventually accepting the need for a run-off having initially celebrated an outright victory. Secretly, however, he and others at AP must be extremely frustrated at missing out on what could well be their best chance of success by less than one per cent of the vote. Rumours of the absolute dominance of AP over Ecuador’s institutions would appear to have been exaggerated.

The results must be considered in the light of the regional political situation. Following the changes of president in both Argentina and Brazil – albeit the latter by way of a dubious impeachment process – questions are being asked as whether the ‘pink tide’ that swept South America during the past decade is going out. These results – along with setbacks for left-wing governments in Venezuela and Bolivia – has seen increasing attention paid to the apparent return of the right in Latin America[i].

In that context, the Ecuadorian elections represent the latest test of the durability of the left in South America. In particular, the 2017 presidential vote is viewed as an indicator of the sustainability of the so-called ‘Citizens’ Revolution’ driven by AP and its leader, President Rafael Correa, who is stepping down after a decade in office. This year’s slate of candidates is the first to not feature Correa in fifteen years.

As David Doyle has written about previously in this blog, AP used its super-majority in the national assembly to amend the constitution to allow for unlimited re-election. Nevertheless, in the face of opinion polls indicating overwhelming public opposition and a faltering economy, Correa opted against putting himself forward as a candidate.

Instead the AP candidate would be Lenin Moreno, Correa’s vice-president during his first six years in power. According to some accounts Correa’s preferred candidate was current vice-president Jorge Glas, but polling gave him little chance of victory. The mantle thus fell to Moreno, with Glas reprising his role as running-mate. Moreno is a popular if diffident figure who is most renowned for his work as a disability campaigner, having been confined to a wheelchair since being shot in an attempted robbery.

Nevertheless, the problems facing the governing party were not limited to the absence of Correa from the ballot paper. The most commonly cited issues are the slowdown in the economy since oil prices began to fall in 2014, and a series of corruption controversies. While not confined to the ruling party, these allegations have served to undermine the public legitimacy that has provided the foundations for its decade-long rule.

In spite of the promise of Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution to institute a regime of ‘Sumak kawsay’ or ‘good living’, the economy remains heavily dependent on crude exports. Further adding to Ecuador’s economic difficulties has been the strengthening of the US dollar[ii], which has pushed up the price of Ecuador’s exports. In spite of these serious drawbacks the economy has contracted but has not entered recession, and doomsday scenarios have thus far failed to materialise.

For some this is evidence of the success of the economic management of governing party. It is certainly the case the under Correa has collected more taxes than previous regimes. However many suspect that the government’s high levels of public spending are supported mainly by large-scale borrowing from China. In return for credit, it is alleged that the government has given China first option on its crude output for years to come. The government’s cancellation in 2013 of its innovative Yasuni-ITT initiative may have been designed to placate Chinese interests, but the move cost AP in terms of popularity among the urban middle-classes[iii].

Oil and public spending have also been at the centre of a series of corruption scandals that have weakened the government further. The massive Odebrecht bribery scandal has implicated legions of politicians across the region. In the case of Ecuador, the scandal has lent credence to widely held suspicions about overpayments on public infrastructure contracts – suspicions that are only strengthened by government reticence to investigate the matter.

Furthermore, a corruption case involving state oil company Petroecuador has tarnished political actors from across the ideological spectrum. Specific allegations made by former Petroecuador head Carlos Pareja against Glas, however, have been particularly damaging to the government.

In what could be considered a classic AP move, the government sought to outflank its opponents on this very issue by including a referendum on tax havens on the ballot paper. The referendum proposed a prohibition on public servants holding assets or capital in tax havens. The measure forced opponents to take a position on the issue[iv], while simultaneously presenting the government as progressive. The effect of such moves has diminished over time, however, as highlighted by the fact that the proposal was carried by an underwhelming fifty-five per cent.

Perhaps of most concern to AP amid the fallout from this election is the way in which its right-wing opponents have taken effective control of street politics. When Correa rose to power ten years ago, it was on the back of a sustained period of mobilisation by social actors. Correa in turn harnessed this power to force through a plebiscite on the convening of a constituent assembly against fierce opposition[v].

Following the ratification of a new constitution in 2008, however, the government’s attitude to mobilisation altered dramatically. As a number of scholars have noted, the government introduced a series of measures designed to regulate civil society and to criminalise protest[vi]. The strategy seemed to revolve around controlling the social movements through state power while dominating the right-wing opposition electorally.

The first signs that this strategy might be failing came in July 2015, when government proposals to introduce a capital gains tax encountered strident opposition. The protests outside the AP headquarters by members of the middle and upper-middle classes made the government appear vulnerable for the first time. The proposed measures were withdrawn, but it would appear that AP learned little from the incident.

The protest at the CNE – which included a mix of businesspeople linked to chambers of commerce, PSC and CREO supporters, and members of the middle class – is the kind of manoeuvre traditionally associated with social movements and the left. As Ecuadorian sociologist Carlos de la Torre has outlined, the occupation of public spaces has long been fundamental to ‘populist’ visions of democracy in Ecuador[vii]. To see that tactic utilised by the right so effectively that Correa was reduced to tweeting impotently about electoral fraud indicates a tidal shift in Ecuadorian politics.

That is not to say that AP is spent as a political force in Ecuador, far from it. Along with Moreno’s ‘victory’, AP is also projected to hold a majority in the national assembly. But this is a party that has governed without political compromise, and in doing so has made few friends. The right has already coalesced around Lasso, with the PSC putting aside misgivings to pledge its support to the former banker. This combined vote share totals roughly forty-six per cent.

Under normal circumstances Moreno would command a similar vote share by harnessing the seven per cent that went to Democratic Left candidate Paco Moncayo. But these are not normal circumstances, and the strong ‘anti-correismo’ current is not confined to the right. Moncayo has thus far refused to endorse either candidate, while members of the traditionally leftist Pachakutik party have publicly refused to back Moreno. Under such circumstances, AP faces a stiff challenge to win the additional support it requires from an electorate in which opinion polls indicate that seventy per cent of voters favour “significant change”.

Notes

[i] For more on this, see: Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.), 2014. The Resilience of the Latin American Right. John Hopkins University Press; Barry Cannon, 2016. The Right in Latin America, Routledge.

[ii] Following a huge financial crisis in 1999, Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its currency in 2000.

[iii] Catherine Conaghan, 2016. “Ecuador under Correa,” Journal of Democracy Vol. 27(3).

[iv] Lasso, a former banker, campaigned against the measure on grounds of personal freedom.

[v] See Eduardo Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. Cambridge University Press.

[vi] For more, see: Carlos de la Torre and Andrés Ortiz Lemos, 2015. “Populist Polarisation and the Slow Death of Democracy in Ecuador.” Democratization Vol. 23(2); Catherine Conaghan, 2015. “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Vol. 98.

[vii] Carlos de la Torre, 2015. De Velasco a Correa: Insurrecciones, populismos y elecciones en Ecuador, 1944-2013. Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar/Corporación Editora Nacional.

Peru – Peru Offers Reward for Arrest of Former President Toledo

One of the topics I return to most on this blog is probably corruption and specifically, corruption in the president’s office. The last number of years has witnessed a veritable landslide of corruption cases by those occupying the highest political office across Latin America. Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. Another former Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, is currently in Matamoros prison in Guatemala City, serving a sentence for receiving bribes from importers. In El Salvador, evidence emerged linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, has appeared in court to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in. In Mexico, Angélica Rivera, the wife of president Enrqiue Peña Nieto, has become embroiled in a scandal concerning a mansion she purchased in 2012, and Grupo Higa, a government contractor. In Peru, questions have been raised about the manner in which former president, Ollanta Humala, funded his presidential election campaigns in 2006 and 2011. And of course most famously, only last year, Dilma Rousseff, the embattled former President of Brazil was forced out of office partly as a consequence of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal which engulfed the Brazilian political establishment, which has also involved allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Well now it seems the fallout from that crisis is spreading. Apparently, Odebrecht’s chief executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for granting them the contract to build a large road and infrastructure project. Toledo has been under investigation in Peru since 2013, after his mother-in-law supposedly bought a number of expensive houses via offshore companies that seemed to extend significantly beyond the family’s means.

Somewhat ironically, Toledo came to power in 2001 in the tumultuous aftermath of the resignation of Alberto Fujimori, partly by railing against the corruption scandal engulfing Peru at that time following the discovery of videos of Peru’s head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing TV network executives. Toledo was in France when this news broke and is now thought to be in California, where he currently holds a visiting professorship at Stanford University. Peru has now offered a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to his arrest and current Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has asked Donald Trump to arrest and extradite Toledo back to Peru.

But this scandal looks set to explode to other presidencies. Apparently, Obebrecht had a designated department to bribe governments across the world in return for state building contracts. The presidency of Alan García (2006-2011) is now also falling under suspicion, given that Odebrecht won a record number of contracts in Peru during his tenure and allegations have also surfaced that Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, received illegal campaign donations from Obebrecht.

But why such persistent and prevalent cases of corruption in the very highest political offices? Explanations range from the historical development of the state and Guillermo O’Donnell’s infamous ‘brown areas’, to the lack of transparency during the economic reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, to the combination of presidentialism and the PR electoral system, a variant of which most Latin American countries employ.[1] Of course, while this type of graft is a problem in most other regions of the world, what makes the Latin American case particularly interesting is the often very public judicial and legislative battles to bring this wrongdoing to heel. It seems likely that the Obebrecht case is only going to inspire more of these.

[1] See For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

Bolivia – Evo Morales Contemplates Fourth Term

Last March, I wrote about the defeated referendum in Bolivia to overturn the existing restrictions on term limits. President Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum. This would have enabled Morales to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. However, with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate. Although Morales had significant popular support and the overwhelming support of the legislature to hold the referendum, the defeat appeared to signal a definitive limit to his presidential aspirations and that seemed to be the end of that.

Rumblings from Evo Morales and his government appear to suggest however, that this is not the end of that. At a rally for supporters of his MAS party, at which Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz spoke, Morales announced his intention, contrary to the results of the referendum and Bolivian law, to seek a fourth term as president and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

Although Morales highlighted his economic success during the referendum campaign (with growth rates of nearly 7 per cent per annum), he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with Gabriela Zapata. Zapata held a position with the Chinese construction firm, CAMC, which had been awarded state contracts worth over US$576 million. Zapata has since been charged with corruption. When all this emerged during the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. President Morales however, now states that the Bolivian electoral court should nullify the results of the referendum because it was overshadowed and unduly tainted by these allegations. The government even released a documentary in cinemas, El Cártel de la Mentira (Cartel of Lies), which challenges the veracity of these allegations and attacked the president’s critics.

It is difficult to see how Morales and the MAS will get around the current legal restrictions. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Term limits have frequently been challenged in Latin America, particularly in those countries in the Andes that Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes.[1] In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term. The Colombian Constitutional Court however, thwarted his efforts. Rafael Correa in Ecuador initiated a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term and Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.

If Morales does succeed in reversing the referendum result and running for office in 2019, this would suggest Bolivia is dangerously close to a form of competitive authoritarian, regimes described as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety. Nicaragua and Venezuela are both already viewed as exemplars of these hybrid regime types. Watch this space to see if Bolivia will join them.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Presidents, Policy Compromise and Legislative Success

This post is based on a paper by Christian Arnold, David Doyle and Nina Wiesehomeier that is forthcoming in the Journal of Politics.

Presidents play a central role in legislative activity in Latin America. Previous research highlights that some form of ideological compromise on behalf of the president is vital to sustain successful legislative coalitions. Yet, primarily due to the lack of a firm empirical basis on which to measure such presidential give-and-take, the extent to which presidents make use of such policy compromise, and under what conditions this is a viable strategy, remains unknown.

One of the primary obstacles towards a better understanding of these dynamics has been – to date – the difficulty of deriving reliable comparable estimates of the policy compromise of presidents over time. We collected ‘State of the Union’ addresses for 73 Latin American presidents between 1980 and 2014 and we used the Wordfish algorithm (Slapin and Proksch 2008) to provide a position for each one of these presidents, for each year, on the main latent political dimension. The heatmap below illustrates these positions. Each country’s time series reports standardized z-scores and progresses from the earliest speech available in our sample on the left to the most recent observation on the right. The shading of the cells reflect the estimated ideal-point; more negative values are shown in darker shading, increasingly becoming lighter with more positive values. Note that absolute positions can only be compared within a country. Cross country comparisons are only possible for presidential movements, because standardisation per country expresses movements relative to the stretching of the respective main political dimension.

Executives in Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay and also Venezuela all display consistent and stable political views. In contrast, in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, the presidents’ movements appear to trend over time. The remaining countries demonstrate a high mobility of presidents along the latent issue dimension.

With this cross-national time-series, we can explore to what extent presidents engage in policy compromise, and under what conditions this is a viable strategy. Our central finding is relatively straightforward. We show that the president does not adopt a static policy position across her term. Rather, the president, if she wishes to pursue a statutory legislative agenda, will respond to shifting dynamics in the house. Specifically, we suggest that when the position of the median party changes, the president will shift her policy position in the same direction. Of course, the degree to which a president is willing to compromise will depend on a number of conditioning variables; specifically, the president’s non-statutory power, her government status and her ability to offset the need for compromise with increased material transfers (see the figure below). At high levels of executive power, and when the president has access to large amounts of discretionary funds to use as pork, she will compromise less in response to changes in the median party position. We also demonstrate that when the president compromises her position in response to the median party in this manner, a president will enjoy a higher rate of success for her legislative initiatives than were she not to do so.

We think our results have some important implications.  Presidents in Latin America are not always the inflexible and imperial leaders as previously characterized by Juan Linz. However, they also show that under certain circumstances they can be, in particular, in minority situations. In short, institutional variation among separation of power systems will condition the degree of harmony between the executive and legislative branch. The flip side of the coin is of course that presidents are willing to compromise given the right institutional incentives. Our results show that a president can influence the interbranch relationship with signals of policy compromise. Our results on policy compromise are indicative of this inter-branch legislative dynamic that helps the president to build and maintain coalitions, and pass legislation in the house.