Category Archives: Latin America

Peru – House of Cards Continues to Fall

One year ago a New York Times op-ed piece likened the political chaos in Peru to an ‘Inca-style Game of Thrones’. But the dramatic events of the past months indicate that ‘House of Cards’ may provide a better cultural reference, as former presidents and presidential candidates continue to tumble. In a referendum on December 9th the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of reducing corruption, at a time when every Peruvian president elected since 1985 was either in prison or under investigation.

As reported previously in this blog, fallout from the Odebrecht bribery scandal contributed to the resignation in March 2018 of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, saw the preventative detention of former president Ollanta Humala (2011-16), and led another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-06), to flee to the US.

Following this upheaval, the expectation in many circles was that the appointment of Kuczynski’s Vice-President, Martin Vizcarra, would herald a return to the political status quo. In other words, to dominance by the two most powerful political forces in the country: the Fuerza Popular party led by Keiko Fujimori (fujimorismo); and the APRA party of two-time president Alan Garcia (aprismo).

According to political scientist Martin Tanaka, Vizcarra’s ‘accidental’ presidency appeared unlikely to alter this situation given his “weak and precarious” position. An engineer and former Governor of the low-profile Department of Moquegua, Vizcarra took power under the worst possible circumstances, with his party leader discredited, and facing a Congress controlled by those responsible for ousting him. Vizcarra’s first three months in office saw his approval ratings fall from 57 to 35 per cent, appearing to confirm a trend of declining legitimacy for Peruvian presidents[i].

Instead events have taken a hand, transforming Vizcarra from lame-duck president to the last president left standing. With exit polls indicating that three of the four questions posed by Sunday’s referendum will pass by a huge majority (Vizcarra had distanced himself from the fourth proposal), an unlikely turnaround has been consolidated.

First, back to those events. Following Kuczynski’s resignation, Peru appeared set for several years of de facto co-governance by ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’, with Fuerza Popular commanding a majority in Congress, while APRA exercised unofficial control over many of Peru’s democratic institutions.

Then came the explosive revelations contained in what have become known as the “CNM audio tapes”[ii]. These recordings featured a group of corrupt judges and prosecutors known as the ‘white collars’ discussing the outcomes of trials, and appeared to implicate Keiko Fujimori[iii]. The scandal saw an eruption of public indignation, leading to large protests across the country during July.

The scandal seemed to energise Vizcarra, who presented proposals for a referendum to reform both politics and the judiciary on July 28th. When Fuerza Popular attempted to obstruct the referendum in Congress, Vizcarra threatened to dissolve the legislature if the measure was not passed. Congress blinked first and voted the measure through, albeit with some changes.

Emboldened, Vizcarra has taken the fight to Fuerza Popular. The referendum proposed four reforms. The first related to the judiciary, abolishing the CNM and replacing it with a new, restructured National Judicial Board that will halve judicial terms and involve civil society oversight.

The other three questions involved political reforms and, according to social scientist Sinesio Lopez, are aimed at ridding Peruvian politics of its most “backward” elements, i.e. ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’.

The first measure seeks to regulate the financing of political parties; the second prohibits immediate re-election of all congressional deputies (a measure Tanaka views as a “mistake”); and finally, a proposal to reinstitute a bicameral legislature. Due to changes made by Fuerza Popular, Vizcarra disowned this proposal as he claimed it would allow parties a means to bypass the ban on immediate re-election. Exit polls indicate that the first three measures received around 85% support, with the final question rejected by a similar margin.

Vizcarra could not have timed his second-coming as the new broom in Peruvian politics any better. No sooner had his referendum law been passed than the bane of presidents in Latin America – the Odebrecht corruption scandal – returned to claim more victims.

As the Financial Times recently noted, Peru has been particularly impacted by the scandal. This is not surprising given the well-documented influence of corporations on Peruvian politics[iv]. Sociologist Francisco Durand’s recently published book[v] on Odebrecht’s operations in Peru traces the evolution of Peru as an “operational hub” for the Brazilian construction company to the ‘competitive authoritarian’ rule of Alberto Fujimori[vi].

But while the scandal has involved three presidents to date (Toledo, Humala and Kuczynski), until recently ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ had remained unscathed. No longer.

First to fall was Keiko Fujimori, who is being investigated by prosecutor Jose Domingo Perez for allegedly receiving US$1.2 million in campaign contributions from Odebrecht. Former executives of the company are co-operating with Perez’s investigation. Already damaged by the CNM tapes, leaked online messages from within Fuerza Popular point to coordinated efforts to obstruct the investigation and intimidate Perez.

The revelations have led to Keiko Fujimori and others within Fuerza Popular being charged with running a criminal organisation, a charge that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Furthermore, Fujimori has been placed in preventative detention for up to three 3 years, on the basis that she might interfere with the case.

Viewed alongside the decision by a Peruvian court in October to revoke the highly questionable pardon granted to Keiko’s father Alberto – the former president immediately checked into a clinic, claiming poor health – some have asked whether these events represent the end of ‘fujimorismo’.[vii]

Following on the heels of those dramatic events came the investigation of Alan Garcia on charges of receiving illegal donations from Odebrecht. After returning from Madrid to address the charges, Garcia was ordered by a court to remain in Peru indefinitely.

Having agreed to abide by the court order, on November 17th Garcia presented himself at the Uruguayan Embassy in Lima seeking to claim asylum. Protesters took up a vigil outside the Embassy, and after weeks of consideration, President of Uruguay Tabare Vasquez announced on December 3rd that Garcia’s petition had been refused.

Where does all this turmoil leave Peruvian politics? It may be too soon to say that the influence of ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ has been eliminated – their clientelistic networks, and links to influential business and media sectors remain. But these groupings have rarely been weaker since Peru’s return to democracy.

The question remains as to who or what will fill this power vacuum? Lopez has publicly urged Vizcarra to deepen his reforms by way of a Constituent Assembly to re-write Peru’s Constitution. While the caretaker president enjoys extremely high public legitimacy – his approval ratings have risen to 65% – it is far from clear where he would find the political or social support for more fundamental reform. Nevertheless, the referendum results provide a powerful endorsement of his new direction, and may induce him to seek further reforms.

As this overview of former presidents and prominent presidential candidates reveals, what can be said with certainty is that Peruvian politics is entering entirely uncharted territory.

Peru’s Presidents: Where are they now?

Alan Garcia: President from 1985-90, and 2006-11. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht; under court order to remain in Peru.

Alberto Fujimori: President from 1990 to 2000. Imprisoned in 2009 on human rights and corruption charges. Pardoned under dubious circumstances in December 2017, a court ordered his return to prison in October 2018. Currently in a health clinic while appealing against this order.

Keiko Fujimori: Daughter of Alberto, twice-defeated presidential candidate and leader of the largest party in Congress. Placed in preventative detention for 3 years while under investigation for corruption and running a criminal organisation.

Alejandro Toledo: President from 2001-06. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht, currently in the US from where he is contesting extradition to Peru.

Ollanta Humala: President from 2011-2016. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht. Spent eight months in preventative detention in 2017-18.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski: President from 2016-18. Resigned in March 2018 following vote-buying and corruption scandal. Under investigation for corruption relating to Odebrecht, under court order to remain in Peru.

[i]Melendez, Carlos, and Paolo Sosa Villagarcia, 2013. Peru 2012: Atrapados por la Historia? Revista de Ciencia Social Vol. 33(1).

[ii]“CNM” refers to the Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura, or National Judicial Council.

[iii]The recordings contained references to a meeting with a “Sra. K.”

[iv]See for example Crabtree and Durand’s recent book, “Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture” (2017).

[v]Durand, Francisco, 2018. “Odebrecht: La Empresa que Capturaba Gobiernos”. Fondo Editorial PUCP.

[vi]Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan Way, 2002. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2).

[vii]Fowks, Jacqueline, 2018. El fin del Fujimorismo? Nueva Sociedad Vol. 277.

Chile – The Piñera administration faces its most serious challenge yet

At the beginning of last week, one of President Sebastián Piñera’s major preoccupations was the underperforming economy. Even though Finance Minister Felipe Larraín assured that Chile’s economy would grow by twice as much in 2018 as it had in 2017, the truth is that unemployment figures are far from ideal (7.1% for the period July-September 2018). Furthermore, a surprising and intense hailstorm that took place ten days ago prompted the Minister of Agriculture Antonio Walter to suggest that a significant share of further jobs were in jeopardy as a result. Despite this causing some concern on the basis that Piñera ran on an electoral platform of economic prosperity, it was not a serious threat to La Moneda’s overall popular support.

On the other hand, the fragmented left-of-centre opposition was still struggling to find a shared goal around which to organize and deal with its own drawbacks. Deputies Gabriel Boric and Maite Orsini, both members of the leftist Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front) conglomerate, were widely criticised for secretly meeting in Paris with Ricardo Palma Salamanca, a former revolutionary who was convicted for the assassination of UDI party founder and Senator Jaime Guzmán in 1992 (Palma Salamanca escaped from jail in 1996 and days ago was granted asylum in France). Meanwhile, the Partido Socialista (PS), Partido Por la Democracia (PPD) and Partido Radical (PR), all of which were former members of the left-of-centre government coalition Concertación (1990-2010) and then Nueva Mayoría (2013-2018), toyed with the idea of forming one “mega-party” built on social-democratic ideas in a motion that is still on the table.

How things changed

Those were the issues that dominated the political agenda until last week. Nevertheless, the political landscape made an unexpected turn on November 15th when Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old Mapuche community member, was killed in the Araucanía region by members of the Carabineros’ Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOPE, Police Special Operation Group), popularly known as “Comando Jungla” (Jungle Command). This special force unit was formed upon Piñera’s decision to deal with violent acts in Araucanía. Its members received specialist training in Colombia and the United States to deal with organised terrorist groups. This initiative was received with disapproval, especially from the Left and human rights organisations, as it appeared to increase the militarisation of the so-called conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people.  More importantly, the account of the death of Camilo Catrillanca was surrounded in controversy over inconsistencies about how the GOPE reacted to the theft of a vehicle during the afternoon of November 15th. Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick and Luis Mayol, Intendant of the Araucanía region[i], quickly backed the police special force’s version of events, which indicated that Catrillanca was killed during a crossfire. Chadwick even suggested that Catrillanca had police records, although he had not been convicted of any crimes, which was seen as an attempt to support the initial police version of the incident.

While President Piñera was abroad to attend the APEC summit and visit New Zealand, the incident took a serious toll on his administration when it became public that the special police forces had not carried their personal cameras during the procedure. Even worse, the ongoing investigation shows that one of the “Comando Jungla” members had in fact carried his camera but deleted its memory card afterwards, which cast further doubt on the versions initially supported by Minister Chadwick and Intendant Mayol. Different actors have asked for Chadwick and Mayol’s resignations. The Left, which have craved for unity in recent months, rapidly agreed to interpellate Minister Chadwick, a procedure by which a minister is asked to come forward at the Chamber of Deputies to answer questions. Moreover, Luis Mayol offered his resignation on Tuesday night upon the Christian Democrats’ announcement that they will seek to initiate a constitutional accusation against Mayol for the death of Camilo Carrillanca.

La Moneda’s mistakes

The Piñera administration’s political errors can be summarised as follows. First, the formation of an elite militarised special unit seemed largely inappropriate to deal with a public problem that has more to do with socio-political issues rather than with terrorism, as some in the Right have argued. Second, the way in which the police special forces were introduced five months ago, in a ceremony led by Piñera himself and in which all the weaponry at the Comando’s disposal was presented, was clearly an exaggerated show of force. Finally, there was no need for Minister Chadwick and Intendant Mayol to almost immediately back the police special forces’ version of the incident. Carabineros de Chile, the national police force, is currently going through its deepest crisis yet in the post Pinochet period. Dozens of top-ranking Carabineros officials, including a former general, are under investigation for a US$ 40 million fraud. Yet, more importantly, the Carabineros of the Araucanía region face another more worrying probe about “Operation Hurricane,” a scandal that saw several police officers accused of falsifying and tampering with evidence, which led to some Mapuche community members being sent to jail. Therefore, Chadwick’s and Mayol’s hurried remarks about the incident itself, and the backing of the Carabineros’ version of it, were unnecessary and unwarranted.

Notwithstanding Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick explaining himself during a special session summoned by the Human Rights and Public Security legislative commissions on Monday 19th and Intendant Mayol’s resignation on Tuesday 20th, the damage to the Piñera administration’s image and credibility was already done. It remains to be seen whether (and how) President Piñera might turn things around and if the opposition may finally become a united front. A different and more fundamental question asks whether the public trust and effective political control of police in the Araucanía region can be regained any time soon.

[i]The intendant is the equivalent of a regional governor, who is directly appointed by the president.

New publications

Special Issue, Leaders, Crisis Behavior, and International Conflict, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 62 Issue 10, November 2018.

Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: A Special Issue, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2018.

Kaitlen J. Cassell, John A. Booth, and Mitchell A. Seligson, ‘Support for Coups in the Americas: Mass Norms and Democratization’, Latin American, Politics and Society, Volume 60, Number 4, pp. 1-25.

Hamid Akin Unver, ‘The fog of leadership: How Turkish and Russian presidents manage information constraints and uncertainty in crisis decision-making’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 18:3, 325-344, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2018.1510207

Trump – Causes and Consequences, series of articles in Perspectives on Politics, available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/information/trump-causes-and-consequences#

Andrea Schneiker, ‘ Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’, Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807712

Ebenezer Obadare and Adebanwi Wale (eds.). Governance and the crisis of rule in Africa: Leadership in transformation, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Sergey Aleksashenko, Putin’s Counterrevolution, The Brookings Institution Press, located in Washington, D.C, 2018.

Karel Kouba and Tomáš Došek – Fragmentation of presidential elections and governability crises in Latin America: a curvilinear relationship?

This is a guest post by Karel Kouba and Tomáš Došek. It is based on their article in Democratization and is available here.

While full reversals of democratic order have been rare in Latin American countries since their transitions to democracy, other, less pernicious, forms of political instability have become common. Challenges to sitting presidents through the threat of impeachment or coups are the primary manifestations of governability crises (Valenzuela 2004), although others consider it as a flexibilization of the presidential regimes and thus a way of ousting unpopular presidents without a democratic regime breakdown (Marsteintredet and Berntzen 2008). We understand governability crises in a broader sense which also includes other forms of conflictive relationships between the president and the congress (Pérez-Liñán 2006).

Existing literature holds that the probability of a governability crisis or an interrupted presidency is higher in more fragmented party systems. In our recent article in Democratization, we depart from this argument in two ways. We argue that we need to focus on the level of fragmentation of presidential elections (and not only the party system itself) and that the relationship between presidential election fragmentation and governability crises is not linear but actually curvilinear (with both the least and the most fragmented elections being most conducive to political crises).

This conclusion permits the reconciliation of two apparently conflicting arguments present in the literature. The academic debate has revolved particularly around the choice of presidential electoral systems (runoff or plurality) and about how these shape the patterns of electoral competition. On the one hand, the use of runoff electoral rules, and especially the fact that the second round had taken place, is associated with higher legislative fragmentation and ideological polarization, which in turn correlates with the occurrence of presidential breakdowns making the absolute majority rule “extremely damaging to democracy” (Chasquetti 2001). On the other hand, however, the opponents of the plurality rule suggest that runoff elections promote democratic consolidation and their introduction in Latin American countries has been a positive institutional innovation (McClintock 2018). Opening up the political competition to political actors that challenge the traditional (and often undemocratic or post-authoritarian) parties as well as greater ideological moderation and wider popular acceptance of the winning candidate are among the principal mechanisms linking runoff rules to better democratic governance.

We tested the implications of our theoretical argument on a sample of 102 Latin American presidencies that have originated in competitive and direct elections between 1978 and 2013. To operationalize governability crises, we used an ordinal index developed by Pérez-Liñán (2006) creating a four-point scale between normal politics on one side and military interventions to oust the president or disband the congress at the other extreme. Running five ordered logistic regression models we show how the curvilinear relationship between presidential election fragmentation and the incidence of governability crises holds under different model specifications. In short, the quadratic term both increases the explanatory power of the model and points in the expected direction as both low and high levels of fragmentation are associated with an increased probability of crisis. The intermediate values of presidential election fragmentation, or around 3 to 4 effective presidential parties contesting the election, are most conducive to political stability. We display this relationship graphically across the range of values of the effective number of presidential candidates. This coding scheme used for the dependent variable indicating the extent of a political crisis assigns a value between 1 (i.e. stable “normal politics”) and 4 (the most extreme instability in the form military intervention).

In the article, we also posit that the causal mechanisms at both extremes are different, as suggested by the notion of equifinality (different causal paths leading to the same result, that is in this case, a governability crisis). In fact, causal mechanisms are context-specific, that is their explanations for how the same phenomenon can vary in time and space. The causal mechanism that translates high levels of party/presidential fragmentation to governability crises has been thoroughly studied and demonstrated in various cases of interrupted presidencies. Extreme fragmentation prevented presidents from having a sufficient “legislative shield” and functional government coalitions (Pérez-Liñán 2007). In combination with social mobilization (Hochstetler 2006), this weakened presidents’ positions and eventually contributed to presidential instability. This was, for example, the case of interrupted presidencies in Ecuador and Bolivia (Mejía Acosta and Polga-Hecimovich 2010; Buitrago 2010, among others).

However, the overconcentration of the presidential contest is almost as likely to destabilize politics. We identify three analytically different mechanisms that describe such processes and use short case studies to illustrate them. First, we focus on refoundationalist politics as a consequence of previous crises of representation that could trigger a governability crisis. Second, we argue that overinstitutionalized parties and party systems often maintained by plurality electoral rules prevent alternative leaders from entering the competition, and that this petrification of politics is unhealthy for democratic stability. Third, we focus on the internal conflicts within the traditional parties whose leaders are encouraged to abandon their party and form a personalist vehicle of their own to contest elections. We illustrate these scenarios with the cases of Venezuela (which combines to a certain degree the first two paths) and Honduras (which exemplifies the last two paths).

We conclude in line with McClintock’s recent work that there are risks associated with an extreme overconcentration of the party system. Thus, to the extent that concentrating the presidential contest has been advocated to avoid further legislative fragmentation and governability crises, this advice cannot be generalized across the board without caveats. Both runoff and plurality rule have their advantages supported by some formidable theoretical arguments. Consequently, the institutional advice that is consistent with our theoretical argument is the preference for a runoff rule with a reduced threshold in the first round. This middle-of-the-road rule might avoid the overconcentration of the contest between two competing blocs by facilitating access of challenger parties to the presidency, while at the same time safeguarding against the proliferation of weak candidates.

Karel Kouba is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Philosophical Faculty, University of Hradec Králové, Czech Republic. He specializes in voting behaviour and electoral institutions in Latin American and post-communist countries. He can be reached at karel.kouba@uhk.cz. Website: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Karel_Kouba

Tomáš Došek is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Instituto de Ciencia Política, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile. His research focuses on political parties, electoral reforms and subnational politics in Latin America. He can be reached at tdosek@uc.cl. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/tomasdoseklatam/

Magna Inácio – The 2018 Presidential Elections in Brazil: A Turning Point?

A far-right president, Bolsonaro, was elected in Brazil, propelling the most radical political shift in Brazilian politics since the redemocratization. In the runoff election, Bolsonaro secured 55.8 million votes (or 55%), a 10% margin of victory ahead the leftist candidate, Haddad.

The former army captain, Bolsonaro, successfully turned himself into the mouthpiece of the politically dissatisfied. Under the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”, his strident rhetoric echoed nationalistic, conservative and identity-based issues against corruption, crime, and moral crisis. To broaden his electoral appeal, he won over markets by pledging a deep policy shift toward market-friendly reforms under the charge of his ultra-liberal economic advisor, the would-be minister of finance. Even without clear proposals, and by means of contradictory signs, he successfully packaged all the issues into a promise of an alternative government, expressing not only a rejection of leftist administrations headed by PT, the presidential party for 13 years, but of the whole political system. Branding himself an outsider, Bolsonaro spiced up his anti-establishment appeals with controversial remarks about basic democratic tenets. His statements signalled little tolerance for political opponents and activists, and his proposal to change the Constitution raised concerns of authoritarian threads put forth by his government.

The exceptionality of this presidential election partially explains the electoral success of Bolsonaro, a backbench deputy, nominated as a presidential candidate by a small party and managing limited campaign resources. This election had a frontrunner candidate, former president Lula, deemed ineligible by the electoral courts due to his conviction for corruption crimes. At the same point of the campaign, Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally and campaigned from his hospital bed and from his home until Election Day. The commotion caused by this violent event restrained his rivals’ negative ads against his electoral platform and political discourses. He did not take part in TV debates with other candidates, a contest highly valued by Brazilian voters. Instead, he broadcast himself extensively using social media and, at the same time, he blocked his running mate and economic adviser from taking a public position on sensitive issues of his electoral platform. In addition, the electoral process was heavily poisoned by misinformation, rumors and fake news disseminated through social media by campaigners and extremist supporters.

But, is this only an exceptional election, or a turning point in Brazilian politics? We are probably witnessing a more radical change than occurred with the first victory of a leftist party at the presidential level in 2002. This is signaled not only by Bolsonaro’s profile and his path to the presidential seat. He is the most visible face in this process. Other electoral effects reveal a shift far beyond that.

First, the political polarization has assumed a centrifugal dynamic in this election. The political divide evolved into voter fury against the political establishment, mainly the most presidentialized parties. These anti-system feelings and strong rejection of established parties has spread to legislative and subnational races. Electorally, it boosted the Bolsonaro candidacy, but also changed the face of the legislative branch. The electoral volatility showed a considerable transfer of votes to right-wing parties. Although Bolsonaro´s party was the most rewarded, several small parties also gained seats. The seat-shares of the centrist parties reduced considerably, raising concerns about their pivotal roles in moderating legislative decisions in the next legislature. On the left side, parties maintained their legislative strengths, given the coattail effects of their presidential candidates, ending the presidential race in the second and third positions. However, it shadows the future of a stronger, united opposition to Bolsonaro’s government.

It led to a second consequence, a higher legislative fragmentation. The effective numbers of the parties (EFN) was raised to 16.5 and 13.5, in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, respectively. It showed not only changes in the interparty competition within the congress. The anti-establishment feelings also triggered a tsunami of legislative turnover, skyrocketing to 52% and 48% of legislators in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, respectively. It greatly benefited conservative outsiders and freshmen candidates, mostly affiliated with right-wing parties. The conservative-leaning seat-shares has increased considerably with the election of religious-minded and military deputies. However, it is still not clear how aligned they are with the liberal reforms in the economic policy area. Thus, the next congress will be not only more fragmented, but also populated by cross-pressured legislators.

It raises the cost of forming political majorities, even if the president decides to walk away from coalitional presidentialism and govern through ad hoc coalitions. Thus, the expectations that 2018 elections would foster the conditions to overcome five years of political and economic turmoil in Brazil seems to be unrealistic.

Exploring the Twilight Zone: An account of Mexican politics after the election

A couple of weeks ago at the University of Oxford, when asked for his opinion on the recently elected Mexican government, Luis Almagro, Secretary General to the Organization of American States, said that assessing an administration that has yet to take office would be irresponsible. Since I am not the head of a key international and regional organization, in my second entry to the Presidential Power blog —my first as a regular contributor— I will risk offering an irresponsible but yet informed account of the events that have shaped the Mexican political landscape over the past few months.

For those who have not followed the Mexican scene closely —and even for those who have— it might come as a surprise that even after more than three months of election day, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is still president-elect. With five more weeks until he is sworn in, many in Mexico can closely relate to Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. An overview of Mexican media outlets reveals that public sentiment is split: On the one hand, there are those who say that throughout this waiting period nothing of significance has happened and those who would argue that there have been substantial changes. On the other hand, there is also no consensus on how best to assess either of the two previously described scenarios.

To help you explore the Mexican twilight zone, in what follows I will first address the most salient issues across 5 different arenas: economy, security, domestic politics, international relations and social policy. In the second section, I succinctly explore the upcoming challenges for AMLO and list a few things to look out for in the next couple of months. Lastly, I briefly conclude by reflecting on Enrique Peña Nieto’s (EPN) epilogue.

A Quick Recap by Arena

  1. The Economy — AMLO and his team have placed three key topics on the economic agenda: a) Mexico City’s airport, b) the Tren Maya project and c) Revenue and Wages. Interestingly enough, the two big-scale infrastructure projects will be decided by two separate (semi-formal) referenda. Income-wise, on the one hand, the new government announced that taxes will not be raised, and on the other hand, AMLO agreed to increase to the minimum wage with COPARMEX and CCE—the two largest patronal organizations. That is, come December 1st , the government’s budget is unlikely to significantly increase and Mexican workers are now expecting a long overdue pay raise.
  2. Security — As with the previous arena, López Obrador along with the next Secretary of the Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, have outlined at least three items for the security agenda: a) Legalizing marihuana, b) the Foros de Pacificación and the c) continued militarization of police forces. While the MORENA plurality in Congress awaits the results of the Foros in order to take further steps in terms of public safety, most surprisingly, after meeting with military officials, AMLO announced that for now, the armed forces will continue to police key areas of the country and that ultimately, Mexico needs a Guardia Civil.
  3. Domestic Politics — This is perhaps the most complex arena given the sheer amount of relevant matters raised by MORENA’s victorious candidate. While he tours the country in order to thank voters, AMLO has a) continued to announce the appointment of (future) cabinet members, b) met with several governors who, appalled by the president’s popular support, have quickly found their (lost since 2000) political discipline. The president-elect has also announced c) austerity measures, d) the reallocation of ministries, and has said that he will e) cancel EPN’s education reform while f) leaving the one regulating the energy sector
  4. International Relations — Two issues stand out regarding the international sphere. The first one being the fact that after the elections, a) members of AMLO’s team were included in the negotiation rounds of the free trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico. With support from the new administration, it is highly unlikely then that Mexico will ask for further/significant changes to the agreement. Divergence, however, characterized the second more recent and salient issue, in which, b) on the one hand, EPN used state forces in an attempt to block the Caravana Migrante and on the other hand, López Obrador declared that once he is sworn in, there will be employment for citizens and migrants alike.
  5. Social Policy — In the face of restricted public resources and the promise not to raise taxes, AMLO has announced a redesign and a restructured budget for social programs. While transfers for young and elderly people have been repeatedly advertised, it is still unclear what the incoming government will do, for example, in terms of health (IMSS, ISSSTE and Seguro Popular) and pensions. The expectation is that progressively redistributive policies along with the increase in wages allow Mexico to overcome its alarming levels of poverty and inequality.

What now? Challenges and Expectations

For Andres Manuel, the most excruciating challenge comes exactly from the expectations he has generated. In a recent poll, AMLO’s approval rating reached an outstanding 71%. The survey also revealed, as Figure 1 shows, that around 74% of Mexicans believe that once he is in office, complex topics such as corruption, security, health and poverty will improve. It seems that anything but exceptional is bound to disappoint. The Tabasqueño’s leadership and charisma will surely be put to the test.I have elsewhere talked about the challenge of transforming MORENA into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party. Recent quarrels between fellow Congressmen and the disagreements between MORENA’s leadership and some of the party’s governors, show that achieving internal cohesion is definitely one pending task of the organization.

A lot has been said at rallies and public plazas, but in the midst of le passage à l’acte, there are two vital pieces of legislation to look out for: 1) The (probably) new Ley Orgánica de la Administración Pública Federal (LOAPF) and 2) the Presupuesto de Egresos de la Federación (PEF). The former will define the architecture of the federal administration and shape the responsibilities of the bureaucracy, the latter will set the ‘production possibility frontier’ for the incoming administration. Together, these documents will reveal the true priorities of AMLO’s government and are highly likely to be heavily discussed in the first few months of 2019.

Concluding Remarks…

I hope that a) I have not been so irresponsible in presenting this brief account of the Mexican political scenario, b) that I have not left out key topics or issues and c) that you find that the points that were raised are actually well documented. As a close to my second entry, I would like to highlight that for the past several months —some would say even a year— current president Peña Nieto has been missing in action.

In spite of presenting his last annual Informe and talking at the United Nations, EPN has been unable to set the agenda. When he does manage to make headlines is because he either took a selfie with a phone covered with an AMLO-supporting case or even more damming, when he’s criticized for being Trump’s attack dog in the southern border. Now a lame duck, I can imagine that EPN, as many Mexicans, can’t wait for his show to be over.

El Salvador – Choosing China over Taiwan: Presidential powers and geopolitics in Central America

Last 20th August, the President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, announced that his government was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (herein forth Taiwan or the ROC) to establish them with the People’s Republic of China (China or PRC). This is the latest in a series of diplomatic defeats for the ROC, a country struggling to maintain sovereign state recognition among a few developing small states, against the will of the Chinese government who insists that Taiwan is a renegade province, and countries cannot maintain diplomatic relations with both at the same time. This is also known as the One-China policy. The Salvadoran switch takes place at the time that the PRC gradually seeks to establish itself as a hegemonic power on the international stage, while the current United States government holds a commercial war with the Chinese. Central America is quite in the middle of this game of great powers (and in the Caribbean, in 2017, the Dominican Republic also chose China over Taiwan).

In this post, I focus my analysis on the six presidential polities located in the Central American isthmus (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama), particularly, El Salvador. Besides this country two other states have established diplomatic relations with the PRC: Costa Rica, in 2007, and Panama, in 2017. It has also been speculated that the Honduran government might, in the short term, do the same. In this post I discuss how foreign policy decisions are a presidential power, which is affected by domestic politics and, particularly for small countries in strategic locations, the influence of great international powers.

A convenient way to characterize this situation is as a two-level game model, where domestic politics interact with international politics. I seek to answer, why Central American countries are cutting diplomatic ties with the ROC? Why they had them in the first place? Will more countries in this region do the same? And, does the current US-China trade war have anything to do with all this?

Foreign policy presidential powers in Central America, and the Beijing or Taipei dilemma

The countries of the Central American isthmus, except for Belize, have in common that all of them have a presidential form of government. This is, presidents and members of the legislature are elected for fixed terms, and cabinet members in the executive are not accountable to the legislature. Foreign policy is often characterized as a presidential power, not only in this region of the world but elsewhere, where polities have adopted presidentialism or some sort of semi-presidentialism. Very much like in the United States, in Central American countries foreign policy is a presidential prerogative, subject to checks-and-balances whose limits often fall into grey areas of constitutional interpretation. Yet, it is at the discretion of the president to recognize the sovereignty of other states.

The way presidents handle the international relations of their nations are not free from controversy. After the PRC became one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in the early 1970s, most Latin American states except for the Central American and the Caribbean ones broke diplomatic ties with the ROC to establish them with China. Colin R. Alexander (China and Taiwan in Central America: Engaging Foreign Publics in Diplomacy. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), provides an explanation of why this subgroup of nations in the Americas maintained diplomatic recognition of Taiwan over China. This is partly explained by the close ties between the government in Washington D.C. and the government in Taipei (the capital of the ROC) that was forged during the Cold War. On the one hand, it is well known that the Taiwanese government grants substantial donations for international development to governments of the few states that still recognize it as a state.

On the other hand, much is speculated about some other donations being granted informally, without going through public controls. Less evident is that, according to Alexander, among diplomatic circles in Taiwan there is talk that the United States government also makes informal donations to the governments of the Caribbean and, possibly, some Central American ones as well—i.e. countries within their geographical area of ​​influence—in order to persuade them to keep recognition of the Asian island: “it has long been suspected that the US government provides financial incentives, aid, and development assistance to its neighbors based on informal agreements that they will continue to recognize the ROC” (p. 30).

Therefore, for Central American governments there are strong historical, political and financial incentives to maintain diplomatic ties with the ROC. However, that scenario has been changing due to the PRC’s stronger role in international trade, but also because it is competing with Taiwan with a diplomacy of development aid to extend its own influence—a so-called dollar diplomacy—hence weakening the Taiwanese in Central America. In 1985, due to the ideological context of the time, the Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua gave China diplomatic recognition. Ortega’s policy towards China was abolished by the new Nicaraguan government in the early 1990s, while diplomatic relations with ROC were restored. Years later, when Ortega competed again in the 2006 elections, with clear chances of winning, he hinted to the possibility of reestablishing relations with Beijing. Nonetheless, he did not do it. It was another former president of the 1980s, Óscar Arias (1986-1990, 2006-2010), from Costa Rica, the first in Central America in breaking with Taipei over Beijing, in this new context of international relations.

Arias returned to office in 2006 and a year later, amid great secrecy, his government announced that it was diplomatically recognizing the PRC. While there was controversy at that time about this move, as one observer points out, Costa Rica—a more open economy to international markets, with a higher per capita income than its Central American neighbours—was exporting more to China than to Taiwan, and was less dependent on official development aid than its neighbours. Hence, strategically, it was probably more natural for this country to establish this diplomatic policy which came with additional benefits, such as official aid for infrastructure and investment agreements.

However, Chinese investment in other parts of Central America has increased considerably in recent years. On the one hand, this is the result of the growing investment of that country in different parts of Latin America. The investment of this Asian state is concentrated in the countries of the Southern Cone. Some analysts believe that this behaviour is partly explained by Beijing’s interest to consolidate itself as a global hegemon, although this is also due to its need for raw materials to sustain its economic growth, and the expectation to profit from some of its investments (Constantino Urcuyo, China y EE. UU. Geopolítica y estrategia en el siglo XXI, forthcoming). In Central America, the geostrategic interest of this region for the United States must be taken into account, and that this is one of the few strongholds Taiwan has left.

Political scientist Constantino Urcuyo (see last paragraph) argues that, although China has not invested in this region in the same proportion as it has in the Southern Cone, the Central American isthmus is of great economic importance for Beijing, as it connects through the Panama Canal the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and is a transit area for Chinese trade to North America. He also adds that politically, until 2016, China and Taiwan were experiencing a truce in their diplomatic efforts regarding the One-China policy. However, since Tsai Ing-wen’s rise to the presidency of Taiwan, China has taken a more aggressive diplomatic stance seeking to weaken the former internationally.

Panama has become the largest destination for Chinese investments in Central America. This country is in fact part of the Silk Road strategy that the Chinese government promotes mainly in Asia and Africa. In Honduras, Chinese money builds a dam of strategic importance for development plans in that country. The Honduran government of Juan Orlando Hernández has also sought to attract more investment from that Asian country for other projects such as the establishment of a so-called Zone for Employment and Economic Development. Finally, it has been argued that one reason that could explain El Salvador’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with China was Taiwan’s refusal to build a seaport. The agreement with China includes investment in this regard.

¿Is Donald Trump’s presidency a revival of the Monroe Doctrine?

The Monroe Doctrine, named after the United States President James Monroe in 1823, saw the intervention of Europeans in the Americas as acts of aggression. Years later, it is accentuated under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt who would justify the direct intervention of the United States in the politics of the Latin American states. It is well known the influence that the United States had in countries such as Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico during the first decades of the 20th century.

The United States has been observing with great suspicion the growth of the Chinese presence in the Americas. However, possibly under the Trump administration the verbal confrontations of the United States towards China have grown. Recall that even though he had not assumed, the newly elected president made an official call to the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen’s, in November 2016, breaking protocol in a confrontational attitude against China. Trump has also launched a trade war this year with countries of the European Union, Canada and Mexico. But, possibly it is with China the country with whom this type of confrontation has been more aggressive, due to the tit-for-tat tariff escalation both parts have embraced with. However, this factor may not be related to the diplomatic rupture of El Salvador with Taiwan.

The Obama administration declared the end of the Monroe Doctrine’s era (Urcuyo, forthcoming); however, under Trump’s government the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on one occasion, in reference to the Chinese presence in the American continent, declared that the Monroe Doctrine was a success back in the day, asserting that “I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written”.

The intervention of the United States in Central America is subtler in comparison to what it was even in more recent times, during the Cold War. Faced with the growing Chinese investment in the region, Trump’s government has threatened that will condition its economic support upon their maintenance of diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It did after the breakup of Panama with Taiwan in 2017, and it reiterated this a few days ago after El Salvador did the same last August. Mainly, for the countries of the Northern Triangle, the United States’ aid may be more important, due to their higher levels of poverty compared to their Central American neighbours.

An additional factor that affects the countries of the Northern Triangle in their relationship with the US is that they are expellers of migrants and their economies are very dependent on the remittances they send to their families. This factor has been changing since the Obama administration at the beginning of this decade, among other factors, due to their growing crime rates and political instability, which is why the US has tightened its border control and deportation policies.

The two-level game of the Salvadoran diplomatic switch

For the Salvadoran President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the decision to maintain relations with Taiwan or to establish them with China represents what Robert Putnam characterizes as a two-level game, where the government has to manage a simultaneous strategy to manage the conflict in national politics and international politics.

Sánchez Cerén has been elected president of a leftist party, the former guerrilla in the 1980s, Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). El Salvador is also in a serious fiscal crisis and since the arrival of Trump has sought to relax its position, albeit unsuccessfully, on the policy of mass deportations. Hence, international aid is a significant incentive. However, Trump has been quite derogatory with El Salvador. Recall that in January 2018 Trump called “shitholes” El Salvador, Haiti and other African nations. Obviously, this was very offensive for Salvadorans.

On the other hand, it is known that Taiwan manages its own lobby groups in the countries where it has a diplomatic presence. This explains the secrecy of the negotiation between El Salvador and China.  However, once the government’s decision to recognize China and break with Taiwan was announced, the biggest opposition party, the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) declared that if they return to power after the 2019 elections, they will restore relations with Taiwan. This party has been associated with the Taiwanese lobby. However, it is difficult to know if they will keep this campaign promise, given the irregularity with which the US government is managing its diplomatic relations with El Salvador.

Can we expect more Central American countries breaking off with Taiwan?

Currently, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are the Central American presidential countries that still maintain relations with Taipei. At least in the case of the Guatemalan and Honduran governments, there may be significant incentives for them to remain as allies of the ROC. In spite that it has been speculated that the Honduran government could be the next to recognize the PRC, as the Guatemalan government, Hondurans have proven to be closer to President Trump. For instance, last year Guatemala was the first country to follow the example of the United States and moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Both Guatemala and Honduras, in December 2017, were two of the eight countries to vote against a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly condemning that decision of the US government.

China will possibly continue with its policy of not intervening in the domestic politics of other countries, but it will probably keep investmenting in Central America. The United States, like Taiwan, could increase its aid to the countries that still recognize the ROC. Hence, a plausible scenario is that relations between those countries and the ROC continue.

Conclusions

Sovereign state recognition and, foreign policy in general, is a presidential power. However, for small countries, especially those within the influence zone of great world powers, it is a very relative power.

In this regard, the balance of forces between China and the United States has important repercussions on the domestic policies of the Central American countries. This phenomenon is more relevant due to the personality of the current US president, who has assumed a more aggressive foreign policy than his predecessors.

Trump has revived the Monroe Doctrine and it is possible that in the years to come, if re-elected in 2020, he could seek to increase the US presence in Central America to prevent the remaining nations that still hold diplomatic ties with Taipei to change them over Beijing. Nonetheless, given the pressing needs of Central American governments, unless the US and the ROC increase their aid to their Central American counterparts, the temptation to break off with Taiwan will continue.

 

 

Nicaragua – How Daniel Ortega Became an Extremely Strong President

To end a five-and-a-half-month protest movement against him, on 29 September 2018 Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega decreed protest demonstrations illegal. The protests had been met with vigorous repression by riot police and ‘paramilitaries’, off-duty police and party tough guys—called la turba/the mob—equipped with assault rifles. The government acknowledges that 192 people have died; La Prensa, the opposition daily, counts 450; while cautious commentators note at least 350 fatalities. In all cases the casualties were overwhelmingly protesters. Further, over 20,000 Nicaraguans are reported to have fled to Costa Rica. Efforts by the Catholic Church to mount a National Dialogue to bring the two sides together failed as the protesters demanded that Ortega resign and new elections be held within a year. The president refused.

It’s easy to explain why the protests began. President Ortega issued a decree on 18 April raising social security contributions while reducing the amount paid to pensioners. He did so for a good reason—a growing budget deficit. However, he acted without consulting the pensioners. This brought a loud and large demonstration led by pensioners, supported by university students not aligned with the president’s party, the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front). That Daniel, as he is universally known in Nicaragua, rescinded the decree the day after the protest suggests he recognised his error. Yet he did not modify his response to the protesters. Indeed, as time passed greater force has been used, protesters were charged with terrorism and doctors treating protesters were fired from their hospitals. To understand why, we need to examine Ortega’s political CV.

In 1963, 18-year old Daniel Ortega joined the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) to fight the then 26-year old Somoza family dictatorship. Four years later Ortega was imprisoned for bank robbery—fund-raising for the revolution. He served six years, then returned to revolutionary activities. By1979 the Somozas were deposed and Daniel was one of nine Commanders of the Revolution, hence part of the FSLN’s National Directorate: revolutionary Nicaragua’s policy-making executive. He was also the co-ordinator of the Governing Council for National Reconstruction (JGRN), a five-person, appointed, formal executive representing the various groups who opposed the Somozas.

In 1984 Ortega won the presidency in free elections. The1987 constitution gave him extensive powers, which he enjoyed until 1990 when he lost to Violeta Chamorro of the UNO (National Union of the Opposition). He would lose twice more—in 1996 to Liberal Arnoldo Alemán, and in 2001 to the Liberal-backed Conservative Enrique Bolaños. Ortega, though, used those 16 years to consolidate his control over the FSLN and begin the process of installing Sandinista judges in the judiciary. Ortega also saw the constitution amended to impose a presidential term limit (no immediate re-election and a two-term lifetime limit) in 1995. However, he struck a deal with President Alemán in 2000 to enact amendments that began rolling back constraints on the president, a process that concluded with the constitutional amendments of 2014 that eliminated all limits on presidential re-election.

Critically, during those years, Ortega also changed his politics. The one-time revolutionary leftist now supports Nicaraguan capitalists, a class that now includes him and his family. He and his wife Rosario Murillo, currently his vice-president, also mended fences with the Catholic Church, a determined foe of the FSLN in the 1980s and 1990s, when Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo married them in a church ceremony in 2005. More telling, though, was the FSLN’s support for the criminalisation of abortion shortly before the 2006 elections.

Despite taking just 38 percent of the vote in 2006, Daniel regained the presidency, as two Liberals split 55 percent of the vote nearly equally between them. Since his inauguration in 2007, Ortega has solidified his support by enacting redistributive policies, something not seriously undertaken since 1990. Unfortunately, he has also turned to electoral manipulation to assure his success. There is evidence indicating that electoral manipulation quickly became commonplace– aided greatly by the FSLN’s control of Nicaragua’s Electoral Council. However, it was the 2008 mayoral vote in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, that provoked the strongest protest and brought a violent response from the government, though no deaths were reported.
Assuring electoral victory was only the first step Ortega took. The term limit provisions of the 1995 constitution meant that Daniel would have to leave the presidency in 2011. He could not amend the constitution, as that required the votes of 56 National Assembly deputies, and the FSLN had only 38. He could, however, use his control of the judiciary to produce a work-around. In 2009, the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega’s right to political participation was illegally circumscribed by the constitution’s no immediate re-election clause and declared that it did not apply to him or to similarly affected Sandinista mayors; but no one else. And when protests arose in 2013-2014 over a now abandoned canal project, the Sandinista government responded with harassment and intimidation, but not the violence we see in 2018.

The final step in Ortega’s amassing power in his own hands came in 2014 via amendments to the Military Code and National Police Law that shifted administrative control over both the military and police to the president. Of course, 2014 also saw all limits on presidential re-election removed. Thus in 2018, Daniel Ortega has acquired an effective monopoly over state power. He is a personal ruler and an uncommonly powerful president. Observers of Nicaraguan politics, both supporters and critics of Daniel, believe that Rosario Murillo will succeed him and that their son, Laureano, will succeed her. This was the Somozas’ model from 1936 to 1979 and it bodes ill for Nicaraguan democracy. Similarly, the violence his government currently employs against protesters also echoes the Somoza era. Ortega has been able to make state institutions work for him. In doing so, he has adopted the methods of the very Somoza dictatorship he and the FSLN overthrew in 1979.

Bumps in the road for Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera

In a previous post, I described how in the few months since inauguration day (March 11th, 2018), Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera had been successful at exploiting the weaknesses and political differences of the legislative opposition. A couple of months later, some things have changed.

It seems President Piñera enjoyed a rather short “honeymoon”. In August, he carried out his first cabinet reshuffle in an effort to calm down critiques aimed at some of his ministers. However, Piñera did not foresee that appointing politician and writer Mauricio Rojas as Minister of the Cultures would trigger a brief, yet intense, backlash against the latter. Mauricio Rojas was widely criticized for comments he made years earlier against the History and Human Rights Museum inaugurated by former President Michelle Bachelet in order to honour the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, which the newly appointed minister labelled as a montage and a farce. As a result, Rojas was forced to resign just 96 hours after being appointed.

As expected, the Piñera administration did not come out of the situation looking good. Rojas’s remarks were well known and the reactions against them would not have been hard to anticipate. This was a serious mistake by Piñera and his advisors, whom the President keeps very close. Furthermore, not only did this event fail to silence critics of the cabinet, but in fact steered the public debate toward topics such as human rights and the Pinochet dictatorship, which the right-of-centre ruling coalition has never felt comfortable discussing in public. All of this occurred just weeks before Chile’s September 11th, which remembers the military coup against President Salvador Allende in 1973, and the 30thanniversary of the referendum that voted Pinochet out (October 5th, 1988).

In addition to lower-than-expected economic growth, these events have weakened Piñera’s popularity. More importantly, La Moneda does not seem to control the agenda as it did until last April. Moreover, the President’s bill for the 2019 Public Budget is not off to a smooth start, since the ruling coalition does not hold a majority in Congress. Piñera will have to struggle and bargain a little more than he might have expected in order to get his budget bill approved.

On the other hand, the legislative opposition, although still fragmented and disorganized, has begun to show some signs of recovery. For instance, most of the critiques against ill-fated Minister Rojas came from the left-of-centre, which made Piñera pay for appointing him. Likewise, part of the opposition sought to initiate a constitutional accusation against three Supreme Court justices, who have voted to free several criminals sentenced for human right violations. Some in the Left denounced La Moneda for meddling in the voting and siding with the judges. Even though votes in favour of this initiative ultimately fell short in an apparently small victory for the Piñera administration, it seems that at least part of the opposition have set their political differences aside in order to curb the President’s influence.

Since March 2018, Chile’s Congress has been more diverse and has more legislators who do not belong to the two traditional electoral coalitions. While greater difficulties were expected in the coordination and maintaining of discipline in legislative parties, particularly among new ones, this does not seem to be the case yet. Just days ago, a report by Oñate and Toro (2018) of Demodata came out, which looked at congressional behaviour in the Chamber of Deputies between March and September 2018. The results show that members of the newly-formed leftist conglomerate, Frente Amplio, have higher levels of both party and coalition loyalty than any other group in the legislature. Moreover, these findings suggest that Piñera, in addition to lacking a majority in Congress, has also to deal with a disciplined legislative opposition, even more so than the right-of-centre ruling alliance parties of Chile Vamos.

Notwithstanding this strengthening of the Left, there are still many barriers the legislative opposition need to overcome should they desire to counterbalance La Moneda’s power. The constitutional accusation failed because the Christian Democrats and Radicals did not side with the rest of the opposition. Also, even though the last few months have been harder-than-anticipated for La Moneda, the political scenario is certainly not hostile towards Piñera. The President is relying on improving the country’s economic situation. Having campaigned on “recovering” the economy following the Bachelet administration and emphasizing his business acumen, the hope for a more dynamic economy is perhaps one of the main reasons why Piñera won, and what people are expecting from his presidency. The next few months will tell if Piñera can make good on his promises.

Magna Inácio and Aline Burni – What comes after the storm? Hurricane season in the Brazilian presidential election

Expected as a turning point after five years of political turmoil, the 2018 Brazilian presidential election is heading into ever-increasing uncertainties as to who will win and how she or he will govern. Since the 1990s, strong presidential powers and electoral rules favoring political polarization between large interparty alliances has turned the presidential competition into a structuring vector of the whole political system. Therefore, two presidentialized parties, PSDB and PT, have become the major forces alternating in power, blocking outsiders and newcomers to send themselves to the presidential contest. This bipolarization has made government policy offers more moderate and the Brazilian politics, centripetal. At this time, however, it seems to be challenged in an unprecedented way, and the competition is so far, very uncertain.

The success of coalitional presidentialism has been eroding after two decades of relative stability. Political dissatisfaction has been skyrocketing since the massive street riots in 2013, driving down even more the low levels of institutional confidence in Congress and parties and, recently, citizens’ support for the democratic regime is endangered. Corruption scandals and economic depression tempered the polarized reelection of President Rousseff (PT), in 2014, culminating in her impeachment two years afterward. The initial success of the new government, headed by vice-president Temer, vanished quickly when corruption scandals also reached him and his inner circle. In general, political parties have been strongly hurt and episodic institutional conflicts emerged since party and legislative leaders started to be investigated and arrested, sometimes with the suspension of parliamentary prerogatives of office-holders under investigation.

Generalized feelings that these wrongdoings are systemic has been fueling anti-establishment appeals and a strong pressure for political renovation. Political polarization feeds tension between democratic and authoritarian values, with a significant part of the population appealing for military intervention as a means to solve the political and economic crisis. On recent times, episodes of political violence have happened, such as the killing of Rio de Janeiro councilwomen Marielle Franco (PSOL) and her driver, and the incident in which shots were fired at Lula’s caravan, both in March this year.

Under this political nightmare, will mainstream political parties be able to coordinate this electoral process towards a new equilibrium?

For the first time since 1994, the highly unpopular sitting president has been politically ignored of negotiations of electoral alliances, despite his party, the PMDB, being one of the key actors. The most important left-wing leader and potential candidate, former president Lula (PT), was pushed out due his conviction for money laundry and gang formation, resulting in his arrestment few months before the nomination season. The involvement of leaders of large parties in corruption trials resulted in reputational losses and considerably reduced electability of their potential candidates. This increased, in the eyes of other parties, the cost of joining hands with them. In addition, reforms barring campaign funding from private companies increased the opportunities for self-funded candidates. Overall, these conditions have turned this into an ever more open-seat presidential election, raising the incentives for not-yet presidentialized parties and outsiders.

Given this political landscape, 2018 presidential race has been compared to 1989, the only time when a non-mainstream party won the presidency. Indeed, one of the surprises of this race has been the emergence of a competitive, far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), whose discourse is centered on an anti-corruption, moralization of politics and law-and-order approach. Bolsonaro has been leading the polls since the beginning, in a scenario without former president Lula, oscillating around 20% of vote preferences. He can be considered an “inside-outsider” since has been serving as representative for seven mandates despite his anti-establishment appeals. Although usually compared to Trump, Bolsonaro does not count on a robust party organization sponsoring him. His motto is to “change everything that is in place”, and his brand gesture is the simulation of warm guns with his hands. One of his proposals is to turn the gun regulation more liberalized in Brazil, and he has previously openly defended the military dictatorship. He surfs on the waves of backlash against progressive socio-cultural values and strong anti-system sentiment.

Electoral rules have, however, moderated centrifugal trends in the first stage of this election, the nomination season, closed at the end of July. Under runoff and concurrent elections, in a scenario of reduced campaign funding, established parties sought more conventional alliances. On the center-right, a large alliance among center and right-wing parties, headed by PSDB candidate, Alckmin, was formed to broaden its public funding and free publicity on TV. It inhibited medium and small parties from allying with the “inside-outsider” candidate, Bolsonaro, despite his high-polling position. Furthermore, newcomers, two millionaire businesspeople, are also getting access to the ballot. On the left, the PT worked to block an alternative alliance of center-left parties, since it is working to judicially reverse Lula’s expected ineligibility and keep its pivotal position on its side of the ideological spectrum. This resulted in more fragmentation on the center-left, with the nomination of Marina Silva (Rede) and Ciro Gomes (PDT), two competitive candidates challenging PT dominance. At the end, the presidentialized parties, PT and PSDB, were constrained to build different alliances from when they had won the election and 13 candidates are running for presidency. However, the nomination process has shown more predictable alliance strategies than expected.

Campaigning officially started on August 16th, and the advertising on traditional media took off on the 31st. Television and radio remain the most important sources of information for voters during the campaign, in the shortest period for presidential campaigning in recent decades. Nevertheless, candidates seeking their “campaign momentum” and putting themselves as front-runners are facing more uncertainties that they expected.

First, although most candidates had already been nominated by the end of July, the dispute has been largely undefined since PT kept Lula as its candidate, holding on a strategy that insists on him being a victim of major injustice, until the very last minute. It was expected that Lula would be declared ineligible by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), due the Clean Record Act (“Ficha Limpa”), which forbids the candidacy of anyone who has been convicted by a decision of a collective body. However, PT called on the international community, having received support from famous left-wing leaders worldwide, and a request by the United Nations Human Rights’ Committee not to prevent the former president from standing for the election, until his appeals before the courts have been completed. As expected, the TSE declared Lula ineligible and established September 11th as the deadline for PT to present an alternative candidate. After having run out of appeals, the former mayor of Sao Paulo, Fernando Haddad, was nominated as PT candidate only 26 days before the first round of voting. Whereas Lula’s incomparable popularity seems capable of transferring some support for his designated candidate, this campaign is shorter than previous ones and relative unknown Haddad was nominated late. The underperforming government of the impeached president Rousseff, who was also chose by him, will shadow PT’s attempts to sell Haddad as someone able to rescue the success of Lula’s administrations. Despite PT simply omits Rousseff’s administrations from its announcements, the left-wing challengers are already recalling her failures and promising do better in pushing progressive agendas for attracting non-conservative voters.

Second, an unprecedented event shacked the campaign considerably. The far-right candidate Bolsonaro was stabbed on September 6th, during a rally by a person who alleged political motivation against the candidate’s positions towards minorities, but the act seems to be organized only by himself. A shocking event also happened in 2014, when the third-place on polls Eduardo Campos (PSB), died in a plane crash. This incident had a considerable impact on voters’ preferences for his running mate, Marina Silva, who replaced him and reaching more than 30% of vote intentions on the same point of the presidential campaign in 2014. However, this thread coming from a third-party candidate did not last, after an intense negative campaign from PT candidate. At the end voters turned back to what they see as the most credible options, and the PT-PSDB clash happened for the sixth time. By its turn, the outrage against Bolsonaro raised an expectation of larger impact than in 2014, since he was seen as victim of political violence and intolerance. However, polls have showed that the commotion was limited, while the resistance to vote for the radical and anti-system candidate remains high among voters. The impact of this violence on his campaign is uncertain, but it can reduce the voter mobilization in this last stage of campaign. Bolsonaro is hospitalized and blocked from conducting his personalized campaigns on the streets. Absent from media debates and backed by a less professional campaign staff, his attempt to resort to a massive Internet strategy may be insufficient to expand his appeals towards more heterogeneous audience or, even, keep his current supporters.

These close events, the expected replacement of PT candidate and the unforeseen Bolsonaro’s stabbing, have forced all presidential candidates to change their strategies. While the second round is likely to show the confrontation between right-wing and left-wing candidates, it is unclear how far these candidates are from the center and whether escalation of polarization can occur. Bolsonaro remains stable as front-runner, radicalizing the anti-PT sentiment. As the candidate with the highest rejection rate and facing a remarkable gender gap in voters’ preferences (30% of male and 14% of women), his odds to win the election are unlikely by now. Polls show that is likely to lose for any other candidate of both ideological poles. Other four competitive candidates linger very close in the dispute for the second place, center-right (Alckmin) and three center-left candidates (Ciro, Marina, and Haddad).

Since 1994, this is the first time that a front-runner is an “inside-outsider”, coming from an inexpressive political party. As it happened in previous presidential disputes, there are some tensions challenging the prior bipolar dynamic. However, this time the menace of a third-party breaking the status quo is relatively stronger. Usually the challenger comes from within the system, such as in 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014. A certain level of “insiderness” has been required to gather sufficient strengths in order to disturb the centrifugal dynamic induced by institutions and electoral rules. Even when a convincing challenger emerged with more confidence, voters have hesitated to stick with an alternative at the last minute. Polls on 2014 presidential election showed that voters’ first-round decision was only consolidated on the last 10 days before election day. In its turn, this uncertainty scenario, marked by high fragmentation of candidate supply, particularly on the left, the number of undecided voters remains high and swing vote tend to be a decisive factor. At this point of the campaign, who will benefit of this is still an incognita.

Magna Inácio is an associate professor in the Department of the Political Science at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Brazil. She is currently carrying out research on presidents and presidencies with focus on multiparty cabinets, executive–legislative relations and internal organization of the Executive branch. Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and parliamentary elites in Brazil and Latin America.

Aline Burni is a researcher for the Center for Legislative Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil), where she is a PhD candidate in Political Science. She was a Fulbright grantee at New York University, and previously served as International Advisor for the Minas Gerais state government. Her research interests are comparative and European Politics, Electoral Studies, Political Parties and Radical Right-wing Populism.