Category Archives: Latin America

Navigating the Electoral Tsunami: The aftermath of Mexico’s Presidential Election

This is a guest post from Javier Pérez Sandoval at the University of Oxford.

Among many other things, democracies are systems in which parties lose elections. Early this month, Mexican voters elected a new president and come December, for the third time in a row in the post-transition era, Mexico will have had a relatively peaceful party alternation in government. That is, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have highlighted multiple instances in which cartel related violence threatened electoral integrity at the local level, their preliminary report also commends Mexico for successfully celebrating the largest and most complex elections in its contemporary history.

I have outlined the good, the bad and the ugly about the Mexican 2018 campaigns elsewhere. Here I intend to do three things: First, I will offer a brief account of the Election Day. Second, I will break down the results, aiming not only to summarize them but also to offer highlights and alternative explanations to what is now called the MORENA tsunami. In the third and last section, I present two political challenges faced by Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as well as one key task for Mexico’s political regime. My conclusions ponder what this electoral result could mean for Mexican democracy.

Election Day

There are multiple detailed accounts of the contenders and their coalitions and the National Electoral Institute (INE) has a fine-grained description of the Mexican electoral process. Here, however, I focus on three aspects of Election day that are worth emphasizing:

  1. Citizens’ involvement – This has been perhaps the most transparent and the most effectively watched election. Throughout the day, over 1.4 million citizens in charge of polling stations, along with 2.6 million party representatives and 33 thousand national and international observers shielded voting as a mechanism for decision making. In addition, not only did the vote-from-abroad tripled, but also, and most importantly, 63% of registered citizens voted. It is worth highlighting that the 2018 electoral race had roughly the same turnout that gave Mexico its first alternancia at the turn of the century.
  2. (Relatively) Peaceful Process – Three incidents marked election day: A) Five politically motivated murders were registered, b) Citizens in Mexico City protested ballot insufficiency at “special” (in-transit) polling stations and c) tension through the day culminated in contention in the results in the state of Puebla. Weighing up Mexico’s overall context and considering that roughly 97% of polling stations reported either minor or no incidents at all, it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population voted freely.
  3. Acknowledging the results – Not even 2 hours had passed after polling stations closed and all other candidates —Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade and Jaime Rodríguez Calderón — had publicly recognized AMLO’s victory. While only two out of the three vote-counting stages are over, the presidential election had a clear and certain result before midnight. Mexico’s electoral authority will finish up counting the votes and come month’s end, INE will make the results official.

The Results: Re-Shaping Mexico’s Political Arena

Elsewhere I suggested that the 2018 election had the potential to completely redefine Mexico’s political landscape and looking at the electoral outcomes, it appears that they did. Considering that over 3,400 public officials were elected, a full overview of the results is beyond the scope of this paper. Consequently, I first broadly summarize the main results in Table 1 and then I move on to present three highlights and three alternative explanations for the outcome.

Table 1.- Mexico’s 2018 Results

Not only did López Obrador win by a considerable margin, but the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition (MORENA-PES-PT) also won the majority of congressional seats —at the federal and local level— along with a significant number of Governorships and Mayoralties (not displayed here).  Before presenting the highlights, it is worth noting that for the first time in Mexico’s history a) women will obtain equal participation both in Cabinet and in Congress and that b) unfortunately, the first truly independent candidates at all government levels lost their respective races. Along with these factors, the electoral outcomes have three further implications:

  1. Strong Mandate – Not only is the election an interesting case for exploring coattail effects, but also, it has been almost 4 decades since a Mexican President obtained such an ample electoral support —and it is the first time this happens under competitive elections. This fact should prove fundamental in the implementation of the coalition’s policy platform.
  2. Renewed Legitimacy – The high turnout rate, a clear mandate and the fact that Mexico will have its first left-of-centre government in 80 years, help strengthen democratic legitimacy in two ways: First, contrary to previous experiences (i.e. Mexico in 2006), there is no doubt on the social legitimacy of the newly elected government. Second, and most importantly, the 2018 process boosts the legitimacy of the electoral mechanism itself. It shows that votes —and not guns— are an effective tool for securing and redistributing political power.
  3. Political Geography– Beyond showing that democracy is now the only game in town, this outcome also tackles its uneven spread. Along with the national change, this electoral process opens up a new era of subnational politics. For the first time in Mexico’s contemporary history the majority of Governors will face divided governments, buttressing representation as well as local checks and balances. Moreover, as Map 1 shows, alternancias at the local level should reshape political bargaining across and between governmental levels.

Map 1.- Mexico’s Political 2018 Geography

To explain the results, 3 alternative hypotheses have been offered: First, some analysts suggest that angry and disenchanted voters punished Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for the multiple corruption scandals and for its poor economic performance. A second hypothesis suggests looking at AMLO’s effective campaigning, his distinct policy agenda along with his populist appeal. Closely related, the last alternative that has been offered emphasizes AMLO’s broad social and political coalition. Suffice it to say that there is enough material for social and political scientists to disentangle.

Looking Past Election Day: Upcoming Challenges

In addition to the social, international and economic challenges, in the upcoming months, the newly elected government will face two specifically political dilemmas. At the same time, the flexibility of Mexico’s presidential democratic regime will also be tested. I briefly address each of these issues below:

  1. The Delivery Paradox – It has been suggested that AMLO’s new administration is in a bind. Using his majority in Congress to implement his policy platform will allow his opponents to accuse him of brining Mexican hyper-presidentialism back; if he doesn’t, and consequently fails to comply, he risks losing popular support. Past the honeymoon period, carefully navigating this paradoxical situation will require bargaining and political innovation.
  2. Taming the beast – To secure his victory, AMLO articulated a socio-political movement in which many groups and sectors coalesced for electoral purposes. Successfully dealing with the previous challenge will require, among other things, managing to transform that movement into a somewhat disciplined and coherent party organization.
  3. Checks & Balances – Given the overwhelming support for AMLO’s government, at the regime level, in order to guarantee the survival and consolidation of democracy, finding political counterweights is key. Actors coming from three distinct arenas will play a crucial role in balancing Mexican politics: 1) Civil Society and Media, 2) International and national Markets and 3) Opposition parties. Members of these last group have a difficult task ahead, as they first need to regroup and redefine themselves. Here scholars of Mexican parties will need to be creative in exploring and explaining upcoming changes to the party system.

The night after the election citizens paraded the streets across the country, their message was one of hope and illusion. Latin America and the world also expectantly observe the Mexican political scenario. Ironically, Langston’s book on PRI’s survival was published the year in which the party obtained its worst electoral result. In their new book, Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo, argue that flawed democracies successfully overhaul their elite-biased institutions once the old authoritarian guard passes away. Can the electoral catastrophe of the PRI be interpreted as its (political) death? And if so, will Mexican democracy consolidate? Or will it be fatally injured by this pyrrhic victory? The cards are now on the table, and as the authors clearly suggest, only time will tell.


Javier Pérez Sandoval (javier.perezsandoval@politics.ox.ac.uk) is a DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford based at Wolfson College. He hold a BA in Politics and an MPhil in Comparative Government. He is passionate about regime change, subnational politics, presidentialism and socio-economic development. He teaches the Latin American Politics tutorial to undergrads at the University of Oxford and has worked as an Associate Lecturer at Brookes University for a similar course. Beyond his keen interest in Argentinian, Brazilian and Mexican political dynamics, he is also a sci-fi and cinema aficionado.

Paraguay – President Horacio Cartes Offers Resignation and then Withdraws it

At the end of May, President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay formally submitted his resignation to Congress. This was to enable him to take a seat in the country’s senate. His term was due to officially end in August, but given that incoming senators are to be sworn in on June 30 and the Constitution prohibits officials holding two offices simultaneously, his resignation from the presidency would allow him to assume his senate seat.

On Tuesday however, President Cartes announced that he was withdrawing his resignation. Successive attempts to try and get Congress to accept his resignation were stymied by opposition parties, including the left-leaning alliance led by the former President, Fernando Lugo, together with members of his own Colorado Party. The opposition of these legislators prevented the senate achieving a quorum and so Cartes’ resignation remained formally unapproved.

Paraguayan presidents are limited to one five-year term, but the Constitution allows for former presidents to become senators for life. These are relatively toothless positions however, whereby former presidents are allowed to express their opinion in the senate, but they have no vote or no real capacity for political leadership. Cartes therefore, and with the backing of the Constitutional Court, ran for a full senate seat in the recent elections on April 22nd, which he duly won. An attempt last year by Cartes to reform the Constitution to allow for the extension of the current provision on term limits ultimately ended in failure amidst popular opposition and public demonstrations.

Accession to a full, elected senate seat, as opposed to the largely ceremonial seat he is constitutionally entitled to, would also afford Cartes the complete set of rights and prerogatives available to senators. This includes immunity from prosecution, which some have suggested is the major impetus behind Cartes’ eagerness to leave the presidency and assume a senate seat.

Before he became president, Cartes built up a family empire spanning businesses involved in banking, tobacco, the drinks industry and even soccer. But during his presidency, WikiLeaks published a 2010 US State Department cable alleging that Cartes was the head of a criminal operation involving drug trafficking and money laundering. In 1986, Cartes spent sixty days in jail as a result of an investigation into currency fraud.

The general assumption is that once the term-limited Cartes leaves the presidential office, he will face criminal charges relating to his business activities. Hence the resistance of the opposition and some members of his party to his proposed resignation.

Cartes is not alone in seeking immunity from prosecution in the sanctuary of a senate seat. Most famously, Augusto Pinochet became a senator for life with immunity from prosecution in Chile following his defeat in the 1988 referendum. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is also facing prosecution over the alleged cover-up of Iranian involvement in the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building, a Jewish community centre, in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, but is currently protected by her position as a senator. And given the current legal woes of former Peruvian presidents, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Ollanta Humala, and Alejandro Toledo, in the wake of the Odebrecht affair, I have no doubt they would welcome the protection a senate seat (with immunity) might bring.

A Fragmented Center-Left: Challenges for Chile’s Political Opposition

A time of changes

For some observers, Chile’s political landscape might not have changed that much in recent years. Since 2006, Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera have taken turns to rule the country. However, the 2017 general election brought a series of changes that have important political implications beyond who sits in La Moneda, i.e., Congress’s partisan composition.

The 2017 elections were the first under the new proportional representation voting system (although the former binomial system, a PR in theory, actually prevented small parties from having legislative representation). This long-awaited reform made the elections more competitive and, above all, transformed the composition of Congress. In fact, many emblematic politicians that had occupied legislative seats since 1990 lost re-election last year. Furthermore, the share of legislative seats now held by members of non-traditional parties, those outside of the two traditional electoral coalitions, grew almost five times, from 3% to 17%.

That is, the Nueva Mayoría, the center-left coalition that in 2013 replaced the Concertación(1990-2013), and Chile Vamos, the right-wing alliance led by Piñera, are not alone in Congress for the first time since democracy was restored.This is because Frente Amplio (FA) won a considerable share of the electoral vote and legislative seats. Frente Amplio is a diverse political alliance that is comprised of several — mostly left-wing — small parties, some media personalities, far-left groups and former student leaders. The major differences between Frente Amplio and Nueva Mayoría are not purely ideological, but rather they hinge on their pro or anti-establishment orientation and political style. All these changes, along with worn-down relations within Nueva Mayoría and the defeat of its presidential candidate in the run off, have created a challenging scenario for the center-left opposition.

Opposition at the crossroads

Forming the opposition is not new for the Left, although the part they played during Piñera’s first term (2010-2014) was not a successful one. On the one hand, Concertación had then found itself struggling to maintain its unity and to redefine itself as a key political actor. On the other, this meant that at times they found it difficult to constrainPiñera and his cabinet. One way for the opposition to keep the executive at bay is to resort to interpelaciones(interpellations), a procedure by which ministers are forced to appear before Congress to answer questions, which might entail an important political cost for the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, the number of interpelacioneswas rather small when the left-wing parties were in the opposition (2010-2014). In fact, Piñera’s ministers were interpelados only three times by the Concertación during that period, which is considerably lower than the 14 times Bachelet’s ministers were questioned in Congress — seven secretaries in each of her two administrations — when the center-right parties were in the opposition.

Currently, there is a serious shortage of political leaders behind whom opposition parties and legislators might rally. It is telling that a few weeks ago Michelle Bachelet decided to step up and confront Piñera, who seeks to undo several of her policies. Bachelet met with her previous ministers and they individually criticized Piñera. Interestingly, Bachelet did not team up with the opposition parties or their leaders. As a sign of division in the left in itself, this is not really new. During both Bachelet administrations, relations with parties in her coalition were not entirely constructive. Moreover, she did not groom any important party member as her potential successor which among other factors contributed to handing the presidency over to Piñera twice in less than ten years.

As if this was not enough, the Democracia Cristiana(DC), a pivotal actor along with the Socialist party when the Concertación was in office, finds itself beleaguered by internal splits and power struggles. The DC is facing perhaps its most serious electoral and internal crisis yet, as many of its members debate whether to stay, collaborate with Piñera or move further to the left. Several well-known DC politicians have resigned and some have even decided to work for the Piñera administration.

Piñera and the future of his right-wing coalition

Piñera has attempted to take advantage of the fragmented opposition by resorting to the proverbial “divide and conquer” strategy. Atthe end of March, he asked the opposition to work together on a childhood policy proposal. As expected, divisions quickly arose among the opposition between those that accepted the offer and those that adamantly criticized it, exposing their different political styles and interests even further.

Piñera’s coalition has also witnessed divisions over policy proposals such as homoparental adoption, abortion, and lately between the president and his own party, Renovación Nacional (RN), about partisan appointments. Yet, these differences do not represent a serious threat to the ruling alliance’s stability. While Piñera continues moving his agenda forward — although not without problems— the opposition is still trying to find a footing in this new political scenario. In the short term, the center-left seems doomed to fail considering the fragmentation across and within its parties. The left-of-center opposition need to overcome their differences soon, otherwise not only do they risk losing the local elections in 2020, but also the presidency again in 2021. If the latter materializes, it would be the first time in almost 100 hundred years that the Right would remain in La Moneda for two consecutive constitutional terms.

Nicaragua – National Strike Called to Force President Ortega From Office

The nearly three months of near continuous protests, prompted by calls for the resignation of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murrillo, show no sign of abating. If anything, tension in the Central American state has appeared to intensify. And now on Thursday of this week, the embattled Ortega administration will face a 24-hour general strike organized by opposition groups and with the support of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. The purpose of the strike is to try and place economic pressure on Ortega; estimates suggest that the strike could cost the Nicaraguan economy US$25-US$30 million.

The protests began in late April in response to the proposed reform of Nicaragua’s social security system and the beleaguered Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). The reforms proposed a five per cent tax on old age and disability pensions, which the government defended as needed to address the fiscal mismanagement of INSS. Protests, led by student groups, soon erupted in Managua and by the first weekend, ten protestors lay dead at the hands of police. The protests soon evolved into a general clarion call for an end to Ortega’s eleven-year rule.

So far, the protests have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 148 people and Ortega now appears to be locked in a degenerating cycle of repression, which has prompted comparisons with the under-siege Maduro administration in Venezuela. If he were to step down, Ortega  likely fears probable prosecution for the deaths of the protestors. The incentive then? Cling to power and crack down on dissent at all costs. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, following a recent visit to Managua, urged the government to halt violent repression and to prevent the use of force by paramilitary groups, which have been attacking protestors. The President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, has also raised the political crisis in Nicaragua at a recent speech at the Organization of American States.

The intensity of the protests previously forced Ortega to pull back on his proposed social security reform and to approach the Catholic Church to intercede. A few weeks ago, talks, broadcast live on television and mediated by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, were held between government and opposition groups following the death of protestors. The televised talks did not begin well for Ortega however. Hundreds chanted “Killer” as Ortega arrived at the seminary and once the talks actually began, a student leader interrupted Ortega and began reading out the names of all of those who had been killed by police.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. Ortega has been frequently accused of an increasing authoritarian turn and in 2013, he sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished the presidential term limit.

The Catholic Church, once again this week, has offered to intercede and mediate the dispute between the government and the opposition. It is difficult to see how Nicaragua can completely escape the trap that Venezuelan has fallen into, but the latest reports suggest that Ortega, although he is not willing to step down, has agreed to an early election. One thing is for sure. The crisis in Nicaragua is far from over.

Venezuela – President Maduro wins Re-election to Second Term

On Sunday May 20th, President Nicolás Maduro was re-elected for a second six-year term in Venezuela. According to the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE – National Electoral Council), Maduro received 67.84 per cent of the vote, a significant lead over the next nearest candidate, Henri Falcón, with 20.93 per cent. The evangelical Javier Bertucci received 10.82 per cent with Reinaldo Quijada, the fourth and final candidate, attracting just 0.39 per cent of the electorate. The CNE reported a turnout of just 46.07 per cent well down from the almost 80 per cent turnout in the last two presidential elections.

Amid a devastating economic crisis, generalized food shortages, widespread protests, a partial opposition boycott and the increasing authoritarianism of the Maduro government, it is no surprise that this electoral result has been mired in controversy. Nearly four months ago, in order to provide some respite from the escalating political, social and economic crisis, the Venezuelan government and representatives of the opposition began meeting in the Dominican Republic to thrash out a set of electoral procedures that would be acceptable to both sides, including reform of the National Electoral Council. In the midst of these talks, the Council announced a presidential election for the end of April, before changing the date to May. Presidential elections in Venezuela have traditionally been held in December, but nonetheless, the opposition agreed to this ‘snap election’, but soon after consensus on the date was reached, the talks disintegrated over disagreement about the conditions of the vote itself.

This left the opposition with very little time to mobilize and to co-ordinate a campaign to seriously challenge Maduro. The most well-known opposition figures, Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo López were unable to stand in the election; Capriles was barred from office and López was under house arrest. In December, the Constituent Assembly adopted a decree that stated that political parties that wish to take part in elections in Venezuela must have been active in prior elections. A broad swathe of the opposition, following the October gubernatorial elections, agreed to boycott December’s municipal elections and by refusing to take part in the municipal elections, the main parties provided the CNE with an excuse to bar them from presidential elections.

In addition, the opposition was already weak and fragmented. Henrique Capriles announced before Christmas that he was leaving the MUD coalition and persistent government repression of opposition groups and leaders has further weakened the opposition alliance. Henri Falcón defied a larger call to boycott the entire electoral process further exacerbating schisms among opposition leaders.

And Falcón has refused to recognise the result, given the intimidation, electoral fraud and vote buying, which he alleges were widespread throughout the electoral process. The Lima group, comprising the foreign ministers and representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Saint Lucia, have also issued a statement refuting the validity of the final result.

Even the turnout statistics were subject to controversy. Although the CNE reported a turnout of just over 46 per cent, significantly lower than the last presidential elections, opposition groups have claimed that this is still a highly inflated figure, in an effort to lend further legitimacy to Maduro’s weak mandate. They put the actual turnout at closer to 30 per cent.

Clearly, by no means do these elections draw a line under Venezuela’s political (and economic) woes. If anything, they only serve to set the scene for further turbulence.

Nicaragua – Protests Erupt against President Ortega

In Nicaragua, talks have opened between the administration of President Daniel Ortega and protestors who, for the past month, have taken to the streets of Managua to call for the removal of Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murrillo. The talks, mediated by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and held at a seminary in Managua, are designed to diffuse the tension between the government and opposition groups following the death of approximately 65 protestors. The talks, in a bid for transparency, are being broadcast live on television.

The protests began just over three weeks ago in response to proposed reform of Nicaragua’s social security system and the beleaguered Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). The reforms imposed a five per cent tax on old age and disability pensions, which the government defended as needed to address the fiscal mismanagement of INSS. Protests, led by student groups, soon erupted in Managua and by the first weekend, ten protestors lay dead at the hands of police. The protests soon evolved into a general clarion call for an end to Ortega’s eleven-year rule.

The intensity of the protests eventually forced Ortega to pull back on his proposed social security reform and to approach the Catholic Church to intercede. The televised talks did not begin well for Ortega however. Hundreds chanted “Killer” as Ortega arrived at the seminary and once the talks actually began, a student leader interrupted Ortega and began reading out the names of all of those who had been killed by police. And even though the talks were aimed at reducing the number of clashes between protestors and the police, hundreds still gathered at the Universidad Centroamericana.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. As he tightened his grip on power, Ortega has been frequently compared to the Maduro regime in Venezuela and he has been accused of adopting tactics straight out of the playbook of electoral or competitive authoritarians, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. 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.

For example, in 2009, Ortega sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011. In 2013, he sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. And in December 2016, Ortega, with his wife Rosario Murillo as his running mate, won the presidential election with 72 per cent of the vote. Critics alleged that this huge electoral victory was due to manipulation of the political playing field, which, with just five months to go before the election, saw the Supreme Court rule that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role.

Ortega’s administration is not the first Latin American government (democratic or otherwise) to face wide-ranging protests. Protests, and the wide-scale deaths of protestors, have also rocked Venezuela and the government of Nicolás Maduro and Maduro remains in power, albeit after tightening his authoritarian grip. Large sustained street protests nonetheless have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations in Latin America. So is Ortega in trouble? Presidential instability in Latin America appears to lie at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the and 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] Given Ortega’s grip on the political institutions in Nicaragua, this means he can probably weather an amount of further unrest. At least for a while.

[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.

Peru – Ex-Presidents and their Legal Troubles

The legal woes of Peruvian former presidents continue at pace. It is barely a month since former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (2016-2018), facing an impeachment vote, resigned in the wake of allegations of vote buying and a lack of clarity surrounding US$782,000 that a company he owned received from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. Now this week, another ex-President, Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) and his wife Nadine Heredia, were released from their pre-trail detention over alleged kickbacks they received, also from Obebrecht. Humala and Heredia are accused of receiving money from Obebrecht, which they then used to illegally finance Humala’s election campaigns. They have been under investigation in some form or other since 2015 when four of Heredia’s personal notebooks, containing details of the alleged kickbacks, were stolen by a former housekeeper and leaked to the press. Humala and Heredia have been in prison since July 2017, but prosecutors had yet to press any charges and so last week, the Constitutional Court ruled that their arrest and imprisonment did not comply with the rules of due process.

Former Presidents Kuczynski and Humala are not the only ones affected by the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal. Centered on the Lavo Jato corruption scandal, the Odebrecht affair has its roots in bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in return for a whole gamut of favors. In fact, 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. The scandal has been partly responsible for forcing Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil, out of office. In Panama, prosecutors are now seeking to detain the sons of former president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), Ricardo Alberto and Luis Enrique Martinelli, who are accused of depositing part of a US$22 million bribe that Odebrecht paid in return for lucrative state contracts in Panama. 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.

But while this scandal has dragged other Latin American executives into its orbit, it seems to have hit the cohort of Peruvian ex-Presidents particularly hard. 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. Toledo is currently on the run and the Peruvian government offered a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to Toledo’s arrest. The presidency of Alan García (2006-2011/1985-1990) has also fallen under suspicion, given that Obebrecht won a record number of contracts in Peru during his tenure. Kuczynski is not allowed to leave the country while investigations continue and former Odebrecht officers in Brazil have also alleged that they partly financed the presidential campaign of Keiko Fujimori.

This week it also emerged that former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) is set to face new charges over the alleged forced sterilization of five women during his time in office. Over 300,000 women were sterilized as part of a state programme during Fujimori’s presidency, but thousands of these woman have accused the state of forcing them to have the surgery against their will. In a 2014 investigation, Fujimori was cleared of any wrongdoing in this regard. This comes only months after Fujimori, who was serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and human rights abuses, was pardoned by former President Kuczynski. In December of last year, Kuczynski  defeated a motion to impeach him, by 78 votes against 19, with support from Keiko’s brother, Kenji Fujimori, who defied his sister by leading a small group of rebellious Fuerza Popular legislators to block the impeachment vote against Kuczynski.

By my count, this now means that every single living former Peruvian president is either under investigation, under suspicion, facing charges, on the run, or newly released from prison. Given the legal woes of these ex-presidents, it is perhaps no surprise that Peruvians tend to evince such low support for the executive office.

Victor Araújo, Andréa Freitas, and Marcelo Vieira – The partisan logic of government formation in presidential democracies: evidence from Latin America

This is a guest post by Victor Araújo, Andréa Freitas, and Marcelo Vieira. It is based on their article in Revista Ciencia Política and is available here.

In presidential democracies, constitutions empower the head of the executive branch as the main actor responsible for the composition of ministerial portfolios. Once elected, the president has the prerogative to directly appoint the high-level members of the government. The invited parties, in turn, must also decide whether to accept the offer. This decision, similar to the decision in parliamentary multiparty systems, involves costs and benefits. However, there are few studies that examine the reasoning behind parties’ decisions to join coalitions in presidential systems.

In our recent article The Presidential Logic of Government Formation in Latin American Democracies, we argue that the decision over whether to join or reject the government’s coalition is related to the party leaders’ evaluations regarding how much political resources their party will gain from the policies. By analyzing 12 Latin American presidential democracies, we test whether the presence of institutional incentives that allow political parties to influence policies in the legislative arena is related to parties’ decision to join government coalitions.

Theoretically, we assume that decentralization of the legislative decision-making process creates institutional mechanisms for sharing the policy formulation competence among different actors, strengthening the system of legislative commissions and allowing those parties to use this decision arena to change the policies that interest them. Thus, decentralized parliaments tend to empower opposition parties and increase the probability of minority governments.

Considering that state resources are finite and political actors prefer policies closer to their ideal points, parties need to set strategies on how to access resources from the public machine. Therefore, the question that emerges is: In which arenas can parties act to have their preferences considered in policies to be implemented by the government? In democratic contexts, parties have three options:
1. To systematize, vocalize and organize their preferences in deliberative instances of the decision-making process within the legislative branch;

2. To use mechanisms of preference alignment during the formulation process of public policies or;

3. To occupy ministry offices and positions in the structure of the executive power, attempting to aggregate their preferences to the executive’s policy agenda.

If, in contexts such as 1 and 2, a parties’ chances of influencing the policy-making process are reduced, then its incentives pursue option 3 increase. In other words, if a party does not expect to be the formateur party, it is more advantageous to join the government and have the chance to actively participate in the public policy formulation process. Those contexts vary according to the set of political institutions in two dimensions based on the centralization or decentralization score of the legislative power and the executive power. These two dimensions regulate the capacity of each branch to influence the political agenda. That is, to aggregate their preferences into the decision-making process.

Figure 1. Policy aggregation preference arenas and incentives to integrate into government coalitions

Source: Elaborated by the authors

In the first context (I), the area to aggregate preferences according to the two arenas (executive and legislative) is equivalent (L<=>E). In this case, the institutional arrangement gives equal capacity to the executive and legislative branches to influence the decision-making process. In other words, the possibility that parties influence public policies through the process of formulation and control of the implementation of public policies, which occurs both in the legislative arena and in the executive arena, is open. Consequently, the party that expects to be the formateur party of the cabinet in the short and medium run – and other parties that choose to not integrate cabinet -, will have an equivalent executive capacity to influence the agenda. In this context, formed coalitions will be either minimum winning or even minority coalitions, depending on the political/ideological parties that form the legislature.

In the second context (II), there is a non-equivalence relationship in the aggregation of preferences between both arenas of power (E>L). Therefore, the capacity of the legislative branch to aggregate its preferences is reduced by an excessive centralization of decision-making power in the hands of the executive branch and president. In other words, not being a member of the government cabinet means having restricted access to the formulation process of public policies, due to the legislative branch’s reduced capacity to aggregate parties’ preferences. In this context, all parties invited by the president that do not aim, in the short term, to assume the presidency, tend to accept the president’s coalition offer.

The third context (III) describes a situation in which the president has fewer agenda-setting powers and a reduced autonomy to manage resources — positions and budget — as well as a decentralized legislature (L>E). In this context, the capacity of the executive branch to influence the decision-making process is reduced, making it less attractive to legislative parties. In such a context, coalitions will seldom be formed. Because parties can aggregate their preferences in the legislative branch, they will not risk the potential costs of being associated with the government.

The Latin American countries analyzed in our article represent each of the three contexts described above. Chile and Panama are examples of the first context (L<=>E). In those cases, although the executive power has considerable influence over the legislative process, processes in the legislature are decentralized and there is an open space for aggregating preferences in this arena. Colombia and Ecuador can be included in the second context (E>L). In those democracies, the executive has considerable capacity to aggregate preferences in the formation of policy, while there is also a relatively low degree of decentralization of the legislative process. Finally, Costa Rica and Paraguay are included in the third context (L>E). In both countries, the presidency has a reduced prerogative that limits the executive’s ability to dominate legislative agenda. There is also a high degree of decentralization of legislative activity in these cases.

We use information from 12 Latin American Countries, comprising 68 governments and 112 cabinets, formed between 1979 and 2011. We conducted a panel data analysis in which we considered the variation among government’s cabinets both between and within democracies. We tested the impact of the decentralization score of the legislative activity on the probability of parties joining a government’s coalitions in presidential systems.

Our results suggest that the existence of parliaments with greater influence on the legislative process consistently reduces the incentives of parties to join the government. Figure 2 graphically shows the predicted effect of the degree of decentralization on the size of the cabinet. By varying the degree of decentralization and keeping all other variables constant (at their means), we are interested in assessing the expected size of the government’s coalition when we observe different values for legislative decentralization. A basic interpretation of the figure indicates a linear and negative relationship between both decentralization and the proportion of legislative parties within the cabinet. As the variable decentralization increases, the proportion of legislative parties that join the coalition decreases.

Figure 2. Predicting the size of the government coalition according to the decentralization of the legislative process in 12 Latin American Countries

Source: Elaborated by the authors

Therefore, our findings reinforce the idea that offices in the structure of the executive branch are only one path, among others, used by parties to influence the policy decision-making process. Our results suggest that parties adopt a policy-seeking orientation in presidential systems. This does not mean that we assume the unrealistic premise that all parties pursue programmatic goals. Our assumption means that, even if a specific party has clientelistic and patronage aspirations, political and monetary resources are crucial elements to accomplish their objectives, and that the only way to access such resources is through control over policies. There are at least three clear advantages in assuming the premise of policy-seeking behavior of parties:) it considers all dimensions where parties can express their preferences; 2) it takes into consideration the role and preferences expressed by the voters, and; 3) it enables analyses of different aspects of the decision-making process, avoiding simplistic conceptions based on, for example, the idea of patronage.

Authors

Victor Araújo is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP, Brazil) and a Research Associate at Center for Metropolitan Studies.
Email: victor.asaraujo@usp.br Website: http://www.victor-araujo.com

Andréa Freitas is Professor of Political Science at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP, Brazil), and coordinator of the Center for Political Institutions and Elections Studies (CEBRAP, Brazil). Email: amfrei@g.unicamp.br

Marcelo Vieira is Professor of Political Science at the Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo (UFES, Brazil), and coordinator of Comparative Politics Center (CPC, UFES).
Email: marcelo.m.vieira@ufes.br

Cuba – Miguel Díaz-Canel becomes President

As I am writing this, the Cuban President, Raúl Castro, will step down from his post to allow the current vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to become Cuba’s new president (and the fifth president since the revolution of 1959). This will form the culmination of a meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly, which convened on Wednesday and named Díaz-Canel as the sole candidate to take over from Castro. Significantly, Díaz-Canel will be the first president since 1976 that is not a Castro, and the first president since 1959 that is not considered a figurehead for a Castro-run government.

Raúl Castro, who is now 86, and who took over as president from his brother, Fidel Castro, in 2006, is thought to be stepping aside to ensure the stability of the transition in the midst of a growing economic crisis and increasing dissatisfaction among Cubans, particularly the younger generation. Raúl oversaw a number of liberalizing economic reforms from 2008 on, which expanded Cuba’s private sector, but which also have also increased inequality among Cubans. At the same time, the state productive sector has remained mired in over-employment and productivity problems.

At 57, Díaz-Canel is the first leader since the revolution that is not part of the revolutionary guerilla generation – he did not march down from the Sierra Maestra with Che Guevara or Fidel. In contrast, his political experience mostly stems from the period of economic crisis in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped purchasing Cuban sugar at preferential rates and subsiding Cuban oil consumption, and he gained a reputation as an able technocrat in Villa Clara province. His support for LGBT rights, his use of an iPad, and his defense of disgruntled blogging teachers, are thought to signal a modernizer but nearly all analysts point to a likely continuation of the status quo, at least in the short to medium term. And if reform does occur, it will be of a gradual nature, given that Díaz-Canel is effectively a hand-picked and trained internal successor.

What is more, this is still far from a break with the past. Raúl Castro will still remain as head of the Communist Party of Cuba, arguably one of the most powerful positions in the country, while the vice-president has been named as Ramiro Valdés, an 85 year old veteran of the revolution who was with Fidel at the famous and symbolic attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.

In fact, this current period in Cuban history, as Díaz-Canel assumes the presidential office, is analogous in many ways to the period of the 1990s, when he first cut his teeth as a Cuban politician. The economy is faltering and the US embargo, long hailed as a Cold War hangover, is very much back in vogue under the current Trump administration after the liberalizing reforms of the Obama administration. US embassy staff in Havana have been called home amidst allegations of covert sonic attacks on the embassy. The Venezuela government under Hugo Chávez, which had reprised the old Soviet Union role of economic subsidizer and source of cheap oil, is now no longer able to play this role as their own economic and political situation descends into chaos and crisis. All of this, leaves Cuba under significant economic and international pressure.

Díaz-Canel will need to address the economic stagnation, Cuba’s problematic dual currency system, and the debt overhang, much of which has already been restructured by China. In addition, increasing hostility from Miami and the US government will only make the task of stepping out from the Castros’ shadow even more difficult.

Costa Rica – Centre-Left Candidate wins Presidency

In the second round of presidential elections held last Sunday, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, of the left-of-center, Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC), convincingly won the Costa Rican presidential election with 60.66 per cent of the vote. His competitor, Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, of the right-leaning Partido Restauración Nacional (PRN), received only 39.34 per cent of the popular vote as of the last count on Monday, April 2. With 97.47 per cent of all votes counted and processed and with a respectable 66.46 per cent turnout, Fabrico Alvarado quickly conceded defeat, leaving Carlos Alvarado with a healthy electoral mandate.

The first round of the election was held on February 4th and Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz and the PRN topped the poll with 24.9 per cent of the vote, leaving Carlos Alvarado and the PAC in second place with 21.6 per cent with the centrist Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN) and the center-right Partido Unidad Socialcristianai (PUSC) in third and fourth place respectively. As no candidate received over 40 per cent in the first round, the contest went to a second round run-off between the leading two.

At one point in the campaign, Carlos Alvarado, a former labor minister (and a rock musician and novelist) under the current president, Luis Guillermo Solís, was under pressure due to corruption allegations against the Solís government, involving kickbacks and Chinese imports. However, the campaign became dominated by social issues, particularly same-sex marriage, and the anti-gay marriage conservatism of Fabricio Alvarado, a former evangelical preacher, television journalist and member of the national assembly (elected in 2014), failed to resonate with the majority of voters.

Although the campaign touched upon other issues such as the national deficit, stubborn unemployment levels and the surprising recent rise in Costa Rica’s homicide rate, by the second round, the election had effectively become a ‘referendum on same-sex marriage.’ This became the central issue of the campaign due to a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José and of which Costa Rica is a member, in January shortly before the first round contest. In response to a petition from the Solís administration, the Court ruled that couples in same-sex relationships should be entitled to the same family and financial rights as heterosexual couples and as such, all signatories to the Court must recognize same-sex marriage. The Court even recommended that in contexts where domestic opposition is particularly virulent, governments use temporary decree measures until the passage of statutory legislation. Currently in the Americas, same-sex marriage is legal in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the US, Uruguay, and some parts of Mexico. Ecuador currently legislates for same-sex civil unions.

The Solís administration, and Carlos Alvarado, embraced the decision, but it generated a backlash among Costa Rica’s growing evangelical Christian population, whom Fabricio Alvarado actively courted during the campaign. While this worked as a strategy in the first round, it did not appeal to the majority of Costa Ricans. Interestingly, this was the first time that neither of the two traditional parties had a candidate in the run-off election and is indicative of the increasing fragmentation of the Costa Rican political system.[1]

Carlos Alvarado will take office on May 8th for his four year term.

[1] See Roberts, Kenneth M. Changing Course in Latin America. Cambridge University Press, 2015.