Category Archives: Latin America

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.

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