Category Archives: Latin America

Peru – Odebrecht ‘Disaster’ Claims More Than Reputations

The fallout from the Odebrecht corruption scandal has been felt across the entire region of Latin America. The investigation into the political dealings of the giant Brazilian construction company – known as Lava Jato (Car Wash) – has led directly and indirectly to the downfall of high-profile politicians, notably in Brazil.

Nevertheless, the impact of the scandal has been most dramatic in Peru. Variously likened to a “tornado”, a “tsunami” and an “earthquake”, Odebrecht is the unnatural disaster that has upended the existing political order.

As noted previously in this blog, the investigation has implicated all four of Peru’s most recent presidents, along with other important political figures. Alejandro Toledo remains a fugitive; Ollanta Humala is likely to be charged along with his wife, Nadine Heredia; and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is under house arrest.

Yet all of that pales in comparison with the dramatic, near-public suicide of Alan Garcia on April 17th. When police came to his home in Lima to arrest the twice-president of Peru, Garcia was seen to produce a gun before retiring to an office to shoot himself. It was a tragic end to a controversial life and career, and has given rise to a new phase of public questioning of Peru’s approach to the Odebrecht scandal.

For many in Peru the sight of so many former presidents implicated in bribery is a source of considerable shame. But others point to the investigations of powerful figures as evidence that Peru is the only country in the region in which the “wheels of justice are truly turning”, and have exhorted other countries to follow Peru’s example.

It is certainly true that the tough approach adopted by Peru’s prosecutors and judiciary has come as a surprise to many given the country’s reputation for weak insitutions. However, it is also the case that these investigations have not run their course, and may yet be derailed. Furthermore, analysis of Peru’s political institutions reveals a more complex scenario.

Early investigations of so-called ‘leftists’ like Toledo, Humala and, most recently, former Lima Mayor Susana Villaran, were headline-grabbing but did not touch the real power players in Peruvian politics: Garcia’s APRA and the party led by Keiko Fujimori, Fuerza Popular. A more substantive test of the strength of Peru’s judicial system came with the scandal of the “CNM audios”i. Those recordings of judges peddling influence placed ‘fujimorismo-aprismo’ in the firing line.

The prosecutors running the Lava Jato invevstigation, José Pérez and Rafael Vela, have not backed down in the face of fierce attacks by apristas, including former Attorney General Pedro Chávarry, who attempted to oust them and was later forced to resign himself. For some, these events demonstrate the democratising force of public prosecutors, and represent the “triumph” of the judicial over the political class in Peru.

Such statements may be premature, hoewver, and it is clear that politics still matters a great deal. For starters, the backing of “accidental president” Martin Vizcarra, who has taken up the mantle of fighting corruption, has also proved crucial to date. Vizcarra’s programme of political reform outlined previously included dissolving the CNM, which effectively removed the ‘shield’ against prosecution that Garcia had erected through his control of a large number of judges.

But neither the smooth procession of the investigation nor the passage of Vizcarra’s reforms are by any means certain. The fujimorista bloc in the legislature has used its majority to weaken or obstruct the reforms, forcing Vizcarra to repeatedly threaten to dissolve Congress. Recently those in Fuerza Popular have taken to describing Keiko – who remains in preventative detention – as a “political prisoner”. The claim has been dismissed by Human Rights Watch, but found support from another public prosecutor, proving that not all prosecutors are alike.

Furthermore, following Garcia’s suicide many supporters of APRA openly blamed the prosecutors and civil society for his death. Initially Vizcarra’s resolve appeared to weaken when he questioned the use of preventative detention against politicians. But the subsequent testimony by Jorge Barata, erstwhile head of Odebrecht in Peru, wherein he produced documentation to evidence huge payments to a high-ranking Garcia aide, appears to have ended that line of attack.

All of which brings us back to the fallout from the Odebrecht investigations in Peru. Beyond whether or not the investigation and its impacts reflect positively or negatively on Peru’s democracy lies another, more fundamental question: does any of this matter?

In his recent book on Odebrechtii, Francisco Durand argues that the use of Peru as an “operational hub” and main channel for its investments in Latin America was not happenstance. Dating back to the government of Alberto Fujimori, Durand reveals that Odebrecht found in Peru an ideal mix of ideological compatibility and low state capacity that allowed its systematic bribery operations to thrive. Furthermore, Odebrecht family members established key personal and professional relationships with members of Peru’s business and media elites, granting the company unparalleled influence and access.

For Durand, the Odebrecht case is but the most prominent example of the “political capture” of the Peruvian state by corporate interestsiii. Per this concept, bribery is just one form that this influence can take in attempts by large corporations to avoid state regulation and lower standards, such as those relating to the environment. This influence, frequently but not exclusively channelled through associations known as ‘gremios‘, appears unaffected by recent events.

This analysis fits conceptually with that of other scholars who have noted Peru’s puzzling stability in the context of a collapsed party system and weak state capacity, wherein the prevailing neoliberal economic model functions largely on “auto-pilot”iv, untroubled by the government of the day. In other words, politicians are simply not that important to the running of the state in Peru.

The coming two years will put this theory to the test. In the view of many commentators the Odebrecht scandal signals the end of the existing political order in Peru, leaving an extremely open field ahead of the 2021 elections. Furthermore, these events have somewhat strengthened public faith in the judiciary and civil societyv, and have opened up new spaces to at least debate structural reform, albeit confined to the political sphere.

But others have interpreted the huge public concern with corruption as a demand for social and indeed economic inclusion. Whether political voice can be given to such demands will perhaps prove the true legacy of the Odebrecht disaster in Peru.

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

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

iii See also Crabtree and Durand’s book, “Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture” (2017).

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

v The role played by Gustavo Gorritti and his teams of investigative reporters at IDL-Reporteros in exposing the scandal is particularly noteworthy.

The Piñera administration isn’t moving forward

President Sebastián Piñera’s approval ratings dropped from 44% in April 2018 to 27% in May 2019, whereas those who hold a negative opinion toward his administration grew from 38% to 63% in the same period (source: MORI-CERC). After 15 months in office, the Piñera administration has nothing substantial to show for it yet. The economy still has not taken off, the president made a judgment error by having a “family trip” as part of a state visit to China in April, and the right-wing Chile Vamos ruling coalition has begun to see some infighting over the latest cabinet reshuffle.

Piñera’s campaign slogan was “tiempos mejores” (better times), which summarizes what the electorate expects from him: more and better jobs. However, better times have yet to come, and people seem to have grown tired of waiting. Economic perceptions are not optimistic. Only 19% of Chileans now believe the national economy will improve in the next 12 months, compared to 26% in October 2018 (source: CEP). As a matter of fact, Felipe Larraín, Finance Minister, has repeatedly found himself downgrading the economic growth expectations in the last months while promising that the economy will eventually turn around. Finally, unemployment is still close to 7%, and unemployment still seems higher under Piñera’s first year in office than during Michellet Bachelet’s last year in the presidential palace, La Moneda.

Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)

Unemployment (March 2017 – April 2019)
Source: Own elaboration based on data from Chile’s Central Bank.

However, the shape of the economy is not the only reason for the Piñera government’s waning popularity. In late April, as part of a state visit to China, Piñera brought with him his two adult sons, Sebastián and Cristóbal. Both of them even sat in a business meeting with Chinese investors and entrepreneurs of the tech sector. Piñera and his closest ministers adamantly argued that this action did not break any legal rule and that it did not cost taxpayers any extra money. The opposition took this issue to the Comptroller General, whose ruling backed the president’s version. Nevertheless, the truth is that the Piñera brothers had privileged access to a state visit just for being related to the president. Nepotism is not new in the Piñera administration, though. Last year, he designated his brother as ambassador in Argentina and the young daughter of a friend of his (with no government experience) as a commercial attaché in the New York office with an annual salary of US$ 180,000. The president only backed down from the appointments after receiving intense backlash from the opposition. This time, critiques did not only come from the opposition but also from members of his own coalition. Deputy Ximena Ossandón (RN) and Senator Andrés Allamand (RN) labeled the president’s actions as a mistake for which Piñera should apologize in order to move on. Rather, La Moneda has been haunted by this issue for over a month, hampering the president’s ability to control the agenda.

Moreover, Chile Vamos has faced some internal troubles lately. In March 2019, Piñera’s personalistic leadership style was singled out as preventing potential candidates of his coalition from getting more media attention. Then, the “family trip” to China as part of the state visit took over the agenda. Now, it is the distribution of portfolios after the latest cabinet shake-up. Leaders of UDI, one of the parties of the ruling alliance, protested because the changes unsettled the “equilibrium of forces” within the cabinet, as there are now fewer UDI ministers. RN, the other major party in Chile Vamos, asked Sebastián Piñera not to give in to the UDI’s pressures and complaints since they were unjustified. Interestingly, the latest internal disputes attracted more attention than the cabinet reshuffle itself, which, as political scientist Patricio Navia states, was not substantial enough to weather the critiques towards the Piñera administration.

The silver lining is that the opposition, although it has lately shown signs of unity by blocking the president’s major bills in Congress (e.g., tax and pension reforms), has approval ratings as bad as the Piñera administration: 58% of Chileans have a negative view of opposition parties, and only 22% approve of their performance (source: MORI-CERC). Facing a weak opposition obviously has its advantages. The president may make some mistakes and get away with them. Whether those mistakes will cost him in the future is yet unknown. But more importantly, after 15 months in office, it is still not clear what grand legacy the Piñera administration wants to offer.

Guest post: “Going Public” in Comparative Perspective: Presidents’ Public Appeals under Pure Presidentialism

Presidents’ abilities to connect with the public are of utmost political importance. As the focal leader of the nation, presidents can leverage their unique connection to this nation-wide constituency to influence their negotiations with the legislative branch. In pure presidential systems, the constitutional separation of origin and survival of the political executive demands constant negotiation and compromise across independent branches of government, incentivizing the president to rely on this unique connection with the public.

While historically, U.S. presidents may have relied on inter-branch negotiations and backroom deals, modern American presidents live and die by their connection to the public: their electoral campaigns take root years in advance, and many attempt to maintain said political momentum with ongoing direct public appeals throughout their administration. Whether it’s FDR’s radio broadcast Fireside Chats to Donald Trump’s ubiquitous use of social media, leveraging public support has become a tool in the president’s arsenal to strategically wield when deemed necessary.  Indeed, many scholars and political spectators attribute President Obama’s campaign success to his effective use of social media and then note the continuance of this strategy of direct public appeals throughout his presidency, taking the form of speeches and weekly YouTube addresses throughout his administration. Direct public appeals, so the story goes, enable U.S. presidents to apply indirect pressure on members of Congress, thereby improving the chances that the presidents’ preferred policy would be adopted into law.

The public presidency is not uniquely American. Work on populism throughout the developing world identifies the rise of anti-establishment rhetoric and the lack of an institutionalized parties as two key facilitating conditions for the emergence of populist leaders.  In all pure presidential systems, presidents may leverage their electoral connection with the nationwide constituency in order to sidestep the negotiations that the institutional separation of powers imposes, applying indirect pressure to legislative coalitions.

Although the notion of ‘going public’ has its origins in U.S. presidency, we have little sense of how direct appeals to the public fit into the broader portfolio of presidential powers. Our research situates presidents’ direct public appeals in the broader portfolio of comparative presidential powers. Rather than construe populism and presidents’ plebiscitarian orientation as a personality trait or leadership style, we consider how a president’s propensity to appeal to the public may vary in response to changes in the bargaining environment, which may vary both across countries and over time as a function of institutional, personal and political factors. In our forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly, we show show that the frequency of presidents’ public appeals varies with both their partisan support in the legislature, their status as a newcomer to the political system, and electoral and legislative institutions. Further, we make available our original data such that we might not be the last to investigate this sort of question.

We debut the Presidential Speeches of the Americas (PSA) dataset, which is a dataset and archive of appearances and speeches made by 24 presidents across 18 pure presidential systems of the western hemisphere. These data contain the records of presidents’ speeches and public appearances as advertised on the official websites of the presidency, most of which contain the transcript of the presidential address. Our aim was to collect as much information as possible, harvesting presidential speech archives for as long as they were made available online. Most sitting presidents maintain an online archive of presidential activities and speeches, and in several countries online archives were also available for previous presidential administrations through the WayBack Internet Archive. An overview of the data contained in the PSA dataset is shown in Table 1. This dataset and archive include records of (and in most cases transcripts of) more than 12,500 presidential speeches, made by 24 presidents in 18 pure presidential systems throughout the western hemisphere. It is available to the public, may be found on the website https://www.psa-dataset-archive.com

In our forthcoming paper, we collapsed all observations in the PSA dataset into a monthly count of presidential speeches, such that we could track the covariance of presidential speechmaking with our explanatory variables. The heatmap shows the cross-sectional distribution of the monthly average number of presidential appearances as reported on the online press archives of the office of the presidency. Though not shown here in the interest of space, President Obama averaged 36 public speeches and appearances per month over the course of his two terms in office. The hemispheric median number of speeches per month is 7, though the data skews positive, with a mean of nearly 12. President Obama shares the distinction of having the highest number of presidential appearances with President Santos of Colombia, with 56 public appearances in a single calendar month.

Shifting our focus across countries and overtime, we see that beyond individual personality traits, institutional and political contexts offer substantial explanatory power as well. When presidents have less partisan support in the legislature, are in open list electoral systems, have bicameral legislatures, or are political outsiders, they are more likely to appeal to the public.

We set out to fill an important lacunae in the research on comparative presidentialism, to sys- systematically consider how presidents’ direct public appeals serve as one resource among many that presidents may use to advance their policy agendas. To that end, we introduce and publicize a new dataset and archive of presidential speeches, the Presidential Speeches of the Americas dataset and archive. Our statistical analysis of a subset of the PSA data suggests that presidents’ direct appeals to the public might serve as a substitute for other sorts of presidential powers, either those derived from their support in the legislature, or those granted to the executive in constitutional texts. These results underscore the advantage of considering ‘going public’ in a comparative perspective, wherein variance in institutional and partisan support can be empirically considered.

For additional information, or to find our forthcoming research at Presidential Studies Quarterly, please visit our website at https://www.psa-dataset-archive.com.

Authors: Alexandra Cockerham, Florida State University; Amanda Driscoll, Florida State University; Joan Joseph, MIT

Posted by Fiona Yap on behalf of authors

Bolivia: A Testing Year for Bolivia’s Democracy

The tide that swept leftist governments to power in Latin America over a decade ago has dramatically receded in recent years. The resulting political struggles between left and right have seen a rise in undemocratic tendencies, with dubious methods utilised both by presidents to retain power, as well as by opponents seeking to depose incumbents. 

Bolivia under Evo Morales has proved no exception, as previously outlined in this blog. In this context, 2019 increasingly looks like being a pivotal year for Bolivia’s democracy. Presidential elections are scheduled to take place on October 20th, where visions of the past and present will vie to control the country’s future. 

In particular, current President Evo Morales will be seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, having managed to overturnthe result of a 2016 plebiscite in which a majority voted against the abolition of term limits. 

Since the shock of that result, Morales and his government have done what they tend to do when faced with setbacks: retrench and find a way around the problem by whatever means necessary. In this case a friendly Supreme Court acceded to the government’s petition to override the plebiscite, thus abolishing term limits. In turn the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ratified that rulingand registered the candidacy of Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia-Linera.

The government’s manoeuvrings prompted a significant backlash. In the immediate aftermath of the TSE decision, a series of protests eruptedinvolving work stoppages, blockades, marches and vigils. Opponents have come together under the heading of ‘Bolivia Dijo No!’(Bolivia Said No!). The coalition is an uneasy one, however, as it contains a mixture of right-wing opponents from wealthy sectors and disillusioned former Morales supporters. The former group, in particular, has shown violent tendencies, evidenced by the burningof the TSE building in Santa Cruz. Such behaviour is unlikely to win over wavering middle-class voters, however.

Morales has sought to prey on these doubts by offering stability, further poverty reduction, and continued economic growth, which has averaged five per cent during his 13 years in power. Furthermore, the recent launch of a system of universal healthcareis a departure from the more targeted and clientelistic social protection measurestypically employed by the government.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers have noted that Morales has a habit of launching big initiatives in the period before presidential elections. Nor was the healthcare plan well-received by doctors, who launched industrial actionand criticised the lack of funding for beds, supplies and staff.

Other recent initiatives, however, appear to be more overt attempts to utilise state power to influence the outcome of the election. One example was the holding of mandatory primary electionsin January. While on its face a move to enhance democratic processes, critics viewed the primaries as an attempt by Morales to expand his electoral base following the humiliation of the 2016 plebiscite.

Furthermore, the measure was imposed in late 2018with little warning, and provided opposition parties with a very short period within which to register candidates. In particular, the timeframe meant that the opposition was unable to coalesce around a single candidate. The conduct of the processwas also hampered by low turnout – partly explained by many parties calling for a boycott – and allegations of significant irregularities. The result was that the opposition emerged divided, with nine candidates set to contest the election.

Nonetheless, the main rival that has emerged is a name from Bolivia’s past: former president Carlos Mesa. A mild-mannered journalist and historian, Mesa is widely respected. Nevertheless, his association with the unpopular government of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (‘Goni’) – who Mesa served as Vice-President before taking over when Goni was ousted – continues to dog his candidacy. Mesa’s refusal to formalise an alliance with any party is evidence that he is aware of this weakness.

In response to the threat of Mesa, Morales has used more direct tactics to damage his rival. These have included accusing Mesa of causing economic damageto the state due to his nationalisation of a Chilean company when president – ironic given that Morales’ signature promise when first elected was the purported nationalisation of the country’s gas reserves – and levelling charges of accepting bribesfrom a Brazilian construction company. 

The overall image forged by Morales’ actions over the past three years – commencing with the overturning of the result of the 2016 plebiscite, and running through the primaries to the use of the state apparatus to target a political rival – is of a government that increasingly adheres to the typology of “competitive authoritarianism” developed by Levitsky and Way[i]

The reason underlying these actions is that Morales’s grip on power has loosened significantly in recent years due to the inherent contradictions of his governing model. Morales relies heavily on rents from gas, mining and agribusiness for redistribution and public spending. The end of the commodities boom has seen the government go to ever-greater lengths to boost income, even opening up protected areasfor oil and gas exploration. 

The result has been a series of conflicts between the self-styled ‘government of the social movements’ and social movements themselves[ii]. The disconnect between this model and Morales’ environmentalist discourse can no longer be overlooked.

Furthermore, the kind of large-scale infrastructure projects undertaken by the government have traditionally been sources of patronage and bribery in Bolivia. It is far from surprising then that Morales’ government has been dogged by allegations of corruption, nepotism and vanity[iii].

Nevertheless, Morales remains a popular and indeed historic figure in Bolivia whose importance as a symbol continues to resonate with many. Recent opinion pollsappear to show that Morales’s lead over Mesa is growing, albeit slowly.

The biggest problem facing Morales looks likely to be the electoral system, and in particular the run-off vote. In each of his three previous victories, Morales was elected with over 50 per cent of the vote, thereby avoiding a second round of voting. That outcome appears unlikely on this occasion.

Instead Morales’ core vote appears to be closer to 30 per cent. Even allowing for the fact that polls routinely under-estimate support for Morales, if the president fails to triumph over Mesa by more than ten per cent it would trigger a run-off. A second round would place the president in a very different situation, facing a single candidate around whom a diffuse and divided opposition could coalesce. Indeed, opinion pollsindicate that Mesa would win a run-off vote against Morales.

Were this to occur, it would represent a significant test for Bolivia’s institutions and its current president’s commitment to democracy.


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

[ii]The ongoing socio-environmental conflict in the protected area of Tariquiaover hydrocarbon concessions granted without any prior consultation with indigenous communities is just the most recent of such clashes.

[iii]The construction of a 29-storey presidential palace – named The Great House of the People – for a cost of $34 million is the most high-profile example of this tendency.

Guest Post. The Brazilian presidential election of 2018: Does a cartel of parties produce mavericks?

The results of the 2018 Brazilian elections have called into question recent academic conclusions on the institutional dynamics of the largest Latin-American democracy. In fact, prior to 2018, the so-called Brazilian duopoly was even praised for remaining stable for just over two decades.2 The remarkable fact was that such stability occurred thanks to a strange coexistence between a two-party system in the Executive branch and an extreme multi-party system in the Parliament.3 However, recent events seem to indicate that such stability was merely an illusion, constructed upon a party system in which the principal objective of its leaders was to prevent the emergence of new parties (or competitors) in order to continue exploiting the privileges and resources of the state. In other words, using the concept proposed by Katz and Mair,4 the established parties in Brazil developed behaviors similar in nature to a cartel of producers in an economic market. The Brazilian context was conducive to the rise of a marginal candidate with a strong critique of its dominant political parties like Jair Bolsonaro, who defied expectations by achieving victory in the 2018 presidential election and thereby fracturing the dominant parties which ruled Brazil with cartel-like behaviors over the two previous decades.

Literature Review on Brazilian democratic stability

Prior to the Brazilian presidential election on October 7, 2018, the predominant scholarly perspective on Brazilian democratic stability was entirely positive. For instance, Handlin pointed out that while in other countries political outsiders emerged, the representative democracy in Brazil remained consolidated. Handlin’s perspective attributed this tendency to the absence of a prior state crisis5 and the existence of a strong party organization (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) on the left. According to Handlin, the combination of both factors was enough to minimize political polarization and block or prevent the rise of radical outsiders.6

In turn, Mainwaring, Power and Bizarro developed a more moderate perspective. They considered that Brazilian stability rested on an unevenly institutionalized party system. According to their analysis, the PT was the only party that had taken root in specific sectors of society, while the rest of the political parties had failed to do the same. Nevertheless, they also noted that the percentage of partisan identification in Brazil never exceeded 40% of the population; moreover, in 2015, when a series of acts of governmental corruption were exposed to the public, the percentage of citizens with no partisan self- identification reached a historical high of 75%.7

But some interpretations went further and considered the Brazilian case as proof that the institutional combination that since Linz had been viewed as perverse —or the anti-ideal:  presidentialism plus a multi-party system— was plausible. Proponents of this interpretation argued that the key to successful governance —in terms of stability— is a constitutionally strong Executive branch. In practical terms, this system denotes a president who controls political assets (initiating laws, decrees, etc.) or “goods” (Cabinet positions, “pork projects,” etc.) which are crucial to building coalitions, and thus avoids having a minority or weak position in the government. Of course, the democratic nature of this institutional design should be complemented by reliable and effective institutions (Legislative, judiciary bodies or the media) to prevent the president from taking an autocratic path.

The cartel of parties and the emergence of a maverick

However, the features of the Brazilian case that were used to explain the political stability of a highly fragmented and unevenly institutionalized party system were also the root of its debacle. As Mello and Spektor mentioned, the institutional design of the Brazilian government —which facilitated the relationship between the Executive and the Legislative— “… [also] encouraged exactly the kind of graft that the Car Wash scandal revealed …”. 8 In other words, this institutional framework not only made it possible for the Executive branch to control the Congress based on perks, but also allowed private interests to gain more significant influence on governmental decision-making. The result of all the illicit exchanges/transactions required to sustain this system” was the neutralization of the checks and balances system, and the consolidation of representative institutions of non-democratic countries, such as clientelism, patronage networks, etc.

So, what happened? A viable response is to characterize the Brazilian party system as a cartel of parties. Indeed, after a long period of coexistence —and due to the institutional incentives described above— the PT, the PSDB, the MD9, and various medium-sized parties in the Congress morphed into a political cartel. The evidence of this phenomenon is clear: an increase in public funds directed to government-recognized political parties combined with an increase in legal barriers to the entry of new parties.10 These are precisely the types of party behaviours that Katz and Mair—the creators of the cartel of parties’ concept— identified in their analysis of Europe. 11 The only difference is that in the Brazilian case the parties not only exploited public resources but also channeled private funds in their favor.

In this highly cartelized political context, whenever corruption scandals were exposed by the mass media, the majority of citizens perceived that the uncovered acts of corruption were not exceptional, but rather a routine component of the institutional arrangements that defined relations between the Executive and Legislative branches —and interest groups— for almost two decades. This political environment, along with a period of economic contraction, provoked a low- intensity state crisis in Brazil. In other words, widespread corruption undermined the legitimacy of established political institutions, while economic contraction revealed the weak performance of the state in providing basic services like public safety.

This being the case, the political arena was propitious for the emergence of an external candidate with a strong anti-establishment position; however, as a feature of Brazil’s party system, an anti-establishment candidate was actually able to arise from within the system itself. Having served as a federal deputy in Brazil for more than three decades, Jair Bolsonaro was not an “outsider,” but neither was he an “insider,” despite his long party militancy in a small conservative party.12 In any case, Bolsonaro was a maverick working inside this so-called cartel of parties in Brazil. But, still, how did such a marginal figure within Brazil’s political party system become a strong candidate? Considering that the principal established political forces —both the opposition and the government— represented options from the center in political-ideological terms, Bolsonaro’s extreme political positions were seen as “a virtue” by a significant group of discontent citizens. Why? There was no doubt that his extreme ideological positions had prevented him from participating in the coalitions that governed Brazil during the two previous decades; therefore Bolsonaro was able to portray himself to the public as an unpolluted political figure. In sum, the growing public frustration with the Brazilian cartel of parties led many citizens to search for candidates on the margins of the party system; but the only ones readily available were those with extreme ideological positions.

If what has been said is true, then why was a right-wing and not a left-wing radical elected? The answer can be given considering the hegemony of the PT on the left. Indeed, it is clear that extreme options on left were non-existent; the PT, in its little more than ten years in power had absorbed or moderated such parties. Additionally, there was not a significant amount of free space open to leftist sympathizers for new political options since the PT hegemonically channeled the citizen preferences on the left, especially in northeastern Brazil. However, since no center-right party had been able to consolidate reliable sources of electoral support, the growth potential across the spectrum on the right was enormous; and the parties that did exist were utterly discredited.13 

Furthermore, Bolsonaro correctly perceived that his electoral support relied not only on his “anti-petismo,” (that is to say: anti-PT) but also on his anti-establishment speech.14 In addition, because of the overwhelming lead that he developed in the first round of voting (46,6% of  voters), he targeted his campaign at specific sectors or social groups (evangelicals, rural population, etc.) and not at significant political parties. Seeking the support of or forging an alliance with an established party – and therefore moderating his anti-establishment political posture— before a runoff election would have been a grave mistake on the part of Bolsonaro; in other words, a political maneuver that would have been interpreted by many in Brazil as an undesirable pact with the cartel of parties in power.

In summary, Bolsonaro’s victory has called into question some recent interpretations on the success of political minority presidents. In the case of Brazil, political stability relied on a type of cartel of parties in which incentives came not only from the state (cabinet positions or public funds) but also from the private sector (bribes, extra payments, etc.). Indeed, this reality forces us to rethink about whether there may be other institutional solutions to the consequences of this challenging combination: presidentialism plus a multi-party system. Additionally, extrapolating from the Brazilian case, one could assume that outsiders and mavericks have a similar origin: an ineffective state. Paradoxically, it doesn’t matter if the extreme ideological positions are on the right or the left —that would depend on the political configuration of each society— because both (radicals on the right or the left) share a critique of the incapacity of state to resolve the most prominent social problems of their societies (inequality, poverty, insecurity, etc.). The only difference would be that outsiders emerge more often in a weak institutionalized party system, while the mavericks frequently appear in a party system unevenly institutionalized but whose main parties look to ensure their privileged positions.

Guest post, Gerson Julcarima Alvarez, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Canada.

ENDNOTES

1 I thank Prof. Alan Siaroff for his comments on a previous version of this article.

Between 1994 and 2014 Brazil only had three finance ministers and with the victory of Dilma Roussef Brazil became the first country in Latin America where three presidents were successively re-elected.

3 In the last six Brazilian elections, two parties (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT and the right-center Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira- PSDB) reached between 70 and 90% of the presidential votes in the first run-off elections. However, in the Lower House, their joint vote was between 26 and 38%. See in this respect: Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy J. Power, eds. (2017), Democratic Brazil Divided, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, p.10; Scott Mainwaring, Timothy J. Power, and Fernando Bizzarro (2018), “The Uneven Institutionalization of a Party System: Brazil” in Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse, ed. Scott Mainwaring, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.174-75.

4 Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair (2018), Democracy and the Cartelization of Political Parties, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.134-38.

5 The state crisis is the combination of a deficit of public services and a loss of citizen legitimacy towards political institutions. See: Samuel Handlin (20147), State Crisis in Fragile Democracies: Polarization and Political Regimes in South America, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 5-6.

6 Ibid., p. 8.

7 Mainwaring, Power, and Bizzarro, p. 182.

8 Eduardo Mello and Matias Spektor (2018), “Brazil: The Costs of Multiparty Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, no. 2, p. 115.

9 Political party created in 2013 from the merger of two left-parties: Partido Popular Socialista (PPS) and Partido da Mobilização Nacional (PMN).

10 Cynthia McClintock (2018), Electoral Rules and Democracy in Latin America, Oxford: Oxford  University Press, pp. 47-55; Mainwaring, Power, and Bizzarro, p. 192.

11 Katz and Mair, pp. 144-45.

12 Wendy Hunter and Timothy J. Power (2019), “Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Illiberal Backlash,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30, no. 1, p. 75.

13 Kingstone and Power, p. 13; David J. Samuels and Cesar Zucco (2018), Partisans, Antipartisans, and Nonpartisans: Voting Behavior in Brazil, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-39.

14 Hunter and Power, p. 80; Samuels and Zucco, pp. 48-49.

Ecuador – Mid-Term Elections Send Ecuador Back to the Future

The results of Sunday’s mid-term elections indicate that Ecuador may be returning to the days of political fragmentation and instability, raising issues for the country’s democracy.

It was not supposed to be like this. A little over a year ago President Moreno received overwhelming support for his plebiscite, was riding high in the polls, and heading a largely unified political sector. Yet, as outlined previously in this blog, the point of unity was a shared opposition to former president Rafael Correa. As predicted, this proved a less-than-satisfactory basis for future governance.

Instead Ecuador’s economic and political future has begun to resemble its past. Moreno’s beleaguered administration bears an increasing resemblance to the chaotic governments that made Ecuador a byword for instability during the 1990s and early 2000s[i]

Beset by economic and political problems, Moreno’s approval rating has slumped to 30%; he has lost a second vice-president to a corruption scandal; and ruling party Alianza PAIS has been broken into “100 pieces”. The month of March witnessed the return of the “demonised” IMF to prop up the country’s ailing economy, evoking memories of former crises[ii].

Now the country’s politics is following a similar path. After a decade of near-hegemony by Alianza PAIS, Sunday’s elections for prefects, mayors, and councillors saw the resumption of what Simon Pachano dubbed the “provincialisation of representation”[iii]. The best that Moreno can say after failing to run candidates in the mid-terms is that no other party or movement has emerged obviously strengthened. 

An election that saw 11,069 posts contested by over 84,000 candidates from among seven political parties, nine national movements and 54 provincial movements, has left Ecuadorian politics atomised.  Localised, proto-populist movements have helped to elect mayors in four of the country’s five major cities, including the capital Quito.

The results have implications for some established political players. Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution Movement failed to  make any headway, although this can be largely attributed to the government prohibiting them from running candidates. Meanwhile the overwhelming ratification of Cynthia Viteri as mayor of Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, may point to a return from the political wilderness of the conservative Social Christian Party.

But the overall picture is one of a “political vacuum” that has not been filled by any political force, mainly due to squabbling and division. This may be good news for Moreno in terms of political survival. 

Taking a broader view, however, the results bode ill for Ecuador’s democracy and economy. Having won elections as Correa’s former vice-president, Moreno has steadily moved away from his predecessor’s geopolitical and economic positions. Late last year Moreno introduced an ‘paquetazo’ of austerity measures, including layoffs in the public sector, and cuts to state subsidies. These moves paved the way for the formal approval of a $4.2 billion line of credit from the IMF, a highly controversial move.

Moreno has sought to blame the poor economic circumstances that he inherited from Correa. There is no doubt that levels of public debt were understated by Correa, and issues with salary payments for public sector workers pre-date the current president. But there is some evidence to suggest that Moreno is now overstating debt, perhaps to justify more cuts. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian economy is continuing to contract.

While it is valid to argue that Moreno has largely continued the economic policies of Correa’s latter years – the former president reached an accord with the IMF for interim credit in 2016 –Moreno has significantly “accelerated” this process. As prior research shows, this kind of ‘switch’ can have a strongly negative impact on public faith in democracy[iv]. Recent survey data from Latinobarometro revealed that almost 20% of the public would favour an authoritarian government, providing some support for this thesis.

Accordingly, Moreno has been branded a “traitor” not only by Correa, but by many on the left. Justifying his break with the past by painting the Correa administration as corrupt, Moreno has overseen the conviction of his former vice-president and Correa loyalist Jorge Glas on corruption charges, and has sought Correa’s extradition from Belgium. 

But attempts to portray himself as the new broom of Ecuadorian politics have failed. Moreno’s second vice-president, María Alejandra Vicuña, was forced to resign following a corruption scandal, while rumours of offshore accounts and secret payments continue to swirl around the president. At a time when Ecuador is in dire need of political leadership, its president enjoys little credibility.

Instead of national unity, the mid-term results indicate a return to the days of high electoral volatility and moveable allegiances – referred to as “swapping jerseys” in Ecuador. Reduced policy coherence and enhanced instability appear the likely outcomes.

Geopolitically, Moreno has re-aligned Ecuador with the US, supporting Juan Guaido in Venezuela, and pulling out of the Unasur regional body. Economically, Moreno’s plan involves a combination of IMF-mandated cuts to the public sector, renewed privatisation, and a continuation of the extractivism that characterised the Correa era.

Yet the mid-term results point to issues for the president in this area also, with the election of indigenous anti-mining activist Yaku Perez Guartambel as Prefect of mineral-rich Azuay, and the rejection of the Quimsacocha mining project in a local popular plebiscite. Along with the protests that met Moreno’s austerity measures, these events may herald the return to political prominence of Ecuador’s social movements, so weakened under Correa[v]. Were that to occur, the echoes of the past would be undeniable.


[i]Pérez-Liñán, A. (2007), Presidential impeachment and the new political instability in Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[ii]Aguirre, M. (2019), ‘Informe de Coyuntura: El Juego del Ahorcado’, CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Enero. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/images/PDFs/coyuntura_enero_2019_opt.pdf.

[iii]Pachano, S. (2006), ‘Ecuador: The provincialization of representation’, in S, Mainwaring, A.M. Bejarano, and E. Pizarro Leongómez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

[iv]Stokes, S. C. (2001). Mandates and democracy: Neoliberalism by surprise in Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; Johnson, G. B., & Ryu, S. R. (2010), ‘Repudiating or rewarding neoliberalism? How broken campaign promises condition economic voting in Latin America’, Latin American Politics and Society52(4), pp. 1-24.

[v]Becker, M. (2013), ‘The stormy relations between Rafael Correa and social movements in Ecuador’, Latin American Perspectives40(3),pp. 43-62.

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega and the Protesting Pensioners

Daniel Ortega began 2018 governing a Nicaragua whose political system could described as hybrid-tending authoritarian. The president, his family and his party (the FSLN, Sandinista National Liberation Front) controlled the machinery of state, not least the courts and the electoral commission. Ortega’s family and friends also owned the lion’s share of Nicaragua’s media, but not all of it. There was still room for political pluralism in the media, and independent public affairs-oriented civil society groups existed and functioned acceptably well. In 2019, however, political pluralism has vanished and Nicaragua has joined the ranks of authoritarian regimes. Examining how Ortega’s administration responded to protest explains how the shift occurred.

In 2013 and again in 2018 Nicaraguan president Ortega confronted protesting pensioners, seeking to protect or improve their social security pensions. In both cases, Ortega used violence to end the protests. But where there were no fatalities in 2013, in 2018 the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights counted 455 deaths over a period of five-and-a-half months; the government counted 198, while the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) found 319. While protest not infrequently produces violent clashes between protesters and the authorities, it rarely leaves so many dead.

Ortega’s decision to employ lethal violence in 2018 instead of persuasion, negotiation, co-optation, the threat of jail or even routine, non-deadly violence to end the protest reflects the mind set of a personal ruler who chooses which laws and institutions to observe and which to ignore. Killing hundreds of people goes a giant step beyond even normal authoritarian politics and bespeaks absolute impunity. If 2013 fit within in the limits of illiberal democracy, 2018 is plainly in the authoritarian realm.

In June 2013, Nicaraguan pensioners who did not qualify for a full pension mounted a protest to get Ortega’s FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) government to pay them a reduced, pro-rated pension if they met a specified threshold. To reinforce their claim the pensioners, supported by university students, occupied the social security administration’s headquarters in Managua.

The government then cut electricity and water to the building. This brought more students out to support the pensioners. The police then cordoned off the building and watched as FSLN supporters violently removed the protesters and their supporters from the premises. The government’s response to peaceful protest showed both the limits of the president’s tolerance for protests and, more importantly, that he controlled both the police and the extra-legal Sandinista enforcers.

Five years later social security pensions were again what sparked protest. On April 18, to address a budget deficit, President Ortega issued a decree reducing pension benefits while raising contributions to the pension fund. Ortega did not consult with the retirees who were directly affected, thereby making protest inevitable. What was not inevitable were the deaths of 26 protesters at the hands of riot police firing live rounds into the crowds.      

Ortega grasped his error and withdrew the decree. He also sought to open a dialogue but would agree to meet only with Nicaragua’s private enterprise council (COSEP). This was likely because Ortega and COSEP had got on well since his re-election in 2006. However, the business leaders declined, saying that the pensioners and students needed to be included. The president then labelled the business leaders golpistas, coup plotters, who sought his overthrow. The label golpista was soon applied to any who protested or supported the protesters, including the Catholic Church

Ortega and his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo owed part of their political success since 2006 to reconciliation with the Catholic Church, seen most clearly in their support for outlawing abortion. Relations with the Church were perhaps cooler than with business, but they were far friendlier than in the past. It was thus no surprise to see the Church, led by Cardinal Brenes, take the lead in organising a National Dialogue to let all involved meet for frank discussions in May.

Unfortunately, these talks failed. Nevertheless, they resumed in July when the protesters agreed that the way out was to advance the date of the next elections from November 2021 to April 2019. Ortega obviously refused, opening the way two more months of violence. In fact, the state’s violence increased as a parapolice force of off-duty police, supplemented by young Sandinista men, armed with assault rifles, wearing masks and riding in pickup trucks took to the streets. The Church was a particular target: Cardinal Brenes was assaulted in the street and stabbed in the arm by an unknown assailant.

The protesters were mainly unarmed, and those who were armed mostly had homemade devices built to launch fireworks. Yet the protests continued until September 29, when Ortega decreed protest demonstrations illegal, making protesters criminals, ending the phase of mass demonstrations.

The protesters adapted guerrilla tactics, having one person read a declaration or leave material in a public place. They and their supporters also put more emphasis on the fate of protesters the police detained. Thus their protest continues, albeit far more quietly.

For its part, the administration began bringing protesters it held to trial, often on charges of treason. The government also increased its pressure on journalists and the owners of independent radio stations and other non-FSLN aligned media, causing many journalists to choose exile.

As well, Ortega’s government began arresting leaders of peasant organisations, key players in rural Nicaragua’s politics who had crticised the president’s policies in the past. Further, the National Assembly voted to withdraw the articles of incorporation of civil society groups like the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, leaving them unable to function legally, and followed up by seizing the groups’ property. Finally, Ortega set out his plans for post-protest politics in a paper proposing a process of national reconciliation to be administered by the police.

Early in 2019, Ortega’s personal rule appeared fully consolidated. However, he faces several challenges. First, five months of violence left Nicaragua’s once sound economy in tatters. Several years of 4 percent growth could become a year of 4 percent contraction. Second, turning business and the Church into opponents leaves Ortega and his Sandinistas without allies beyond their ranks. Third, he now faces international pressure from the OAS and the Trump administration, and can count only Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela as hemispheric allies. Will this see Ortega relying even more on coercion to govern?

Waiting for the president: inter-branch relations under Bolsonaro’s administration

Magna Inácio (UFMG)

Since the election of the far-right and populist president Bolsonaro, the resilience of Brazilian democracy and its system of checks and balances has been put into question. With the beginning of the Legislative year, the institutional game has started anew. On February 1st, the new lawmakers took their seats and elected their Speakers, showing the faces of both the allies and opponents of the minority president.

This most fragmented Congress, populated by a large number of newcomers, showed the extent of the 2018 tsunami of concurrent elections at the federal and state levels. The quite stable partisan balance of the Congress of recent years was severely shaken. Small far-right and social conservative parties grabbed more seats while centrist and pivotal parties, for the first time since re-democratization, dried up. Although less devasted by this tsunami, given their electoral performance in the polarized presidential election, the leftist parties and potential opposition did not leave this dispute unharmed. The dominance of the Workers’ Party (PT) on the left is now challenged by the strengthened Democratic Labor Party (PDT), in the wake of the third-place of its presidential candidate. Can the lawmakers in both Chambers fine-tune the checks and balances mechanisms to operate in this adverse environment?

In the Brazilian Congress, leadership positions and parliamentary resources are allocated according to the proportional seat share of the parties. Therefore, these changes in the partisan composition of the chambers has raised concerns about the inter-branch relations under Bolsonaro’s presidential term. This is, especially, because the multidimensionality of the policy space has increased and the decision costs raised. For those concerned about the president’s capacity to approve costly economic reforms, such as the pension and tax reforms, a central question has been how responsive these fragmented chambers will be to these reforming agendas, some of them requiring supermajorities to approve constitutional amendments. On the other hand, those worried about policy shifts affecting the minority rights and progressive agendas implemented since the re-democratization have been asking how intensely can the congress move toward social conservatism and illiberalism, supported by these strengthened far-right parties?

Regardless of the substantive content of these agendas, Brazilian presidents have been successful in approving their agendas and changing the status quo only when they are able to make the largest parties their bedfellow allies, and jointly cartelize the legislative agenda, thereby boosting a friendlier inter-branch relationship. It is not only a strategy for overcoming minority status, but also a way to make the much-vaunted, wide presidential powers effective. Presidential unilateralism, by minority presidents in Brazil, has been showing itself to be a dangerous route toward decisional paralysis or, more seriously, impeachment.

Bolsonaro did not form a governing coalition by allocating portfolio positions to legislative parties, as all previous presidents have done. He started the administration as a minority president, whose party (Social Liberal Party – PSL) holds 11% and 4% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. Keeping this rhetoric against the political establishment, the president has insisted on governing through legislative coalitions, backed by decentralized parliamentary groups. Heading a cabinet formed by military personnel, nonpartisan experts and radical conservatives, Bolsonaro has challenged the status quo in several policy areas. However, a lack of presidential leadership has been remarkable since Day One of the administration. Feeble cabinet coordination has spilled over to inter-branch relations, as demonstrated by the first signals coming from the Congress.

The start of the Legislative year in February, a month after the president’s inauguration, gave lawmakers enough time to decode the coordination problems affecting the administration. The value of legislative arena for established parties has increased with the anti-coalitional strategy of Bolsonaro. Its strategic advantages have increased with the intense troubles faced by the administration in its beginning. Conflicts among cabinet members, scandal involving the president’s son, and delays in publicizing the legislative agenda of the government have impelled some parties to step back their moves toward the government.

The election of the Chambers’ speakers showed some capacity of party leaders to strengthen the legislative position in the institutional game.  The well-established center-right Democrats party, which has some affiliated ministers but which declares itself as independent in relation to the government, elected both speakers. In the Chamber of Deputies, this party formed a large legislative coalition and reelected its former Speaker. The presidential party, PSL, took part in the coalition in the Chamber, securing important institutional positions. However, the party’s and the government’s moves to grab more power were constrained by the winner Speaker. Alongside this dispute, three parliamentary blocks have emerged: the largest right-center bloc, controlling the Speakership and 59% of the seats; and, two center-left and opposition blocks, one corresponding to 21% of the seats, and other controlling 19% of the seats. In the Senate, intra- and inter-party conflicts in the nomination process of candidates escalated the contest, and the election procedures were challenged in the Supreme Court. A newcomer senator, supported by the government’s Chief of Staff, won the election after this disruptive dispute. Differently from the Chamber, this process did not foster the parliamentary alignment of the parties in blocks.

In addition to these legislative parties’ moves, an unexpected event further weakened the fragility of the governing legislative basis in the Congress. Denouncements of electoral fraud put a minister close to Bolsonaro, who was the key coordinator of his campaign and the president of his party, at the center of a new scandal. This minister was the first fired after 58 days of this administration, following the release of audio files between the president and this minister and personal accusations. The main takeaways of this episode, from the legislators’ point of view, were: first, the strong influence of Bolsonaro’s sons can prevail upon political and partisan commitments; second, the aggressive posture of Bolsonaro toward his close aide, including the use of social media, reinforced the need to ground the relation with the president and his administration in an institutional basis. Hence, this episode has cost reputational losses to the president and overshadowed the introduction of his major legislative bill proposal, that of pension reform.

This long-awaited pension reform will be the first legislative battle for the Bolsonaro administration. As a constitutional amendment, it requires the support of 3/5 of deputies and senators in two-floor voting, in each Chamber, to be approved. While the state’s fiscal situation has put pressure on the Congress to approve this reform, its redistributive impacts have mobilized attentive interest groups and social movements, making it a costly decision. All presidents since Cardoso (1994-1999) have approved more modest reforms after intense conflicts in the Congress.

Now, lawmakers might see this reform as more costly, since they were not rewarded with a regular flow of executive resources as members of the presidential cabinet. Anticipating risks of tit-for-tat moves and in the opposite direction of the president’s electoral promises, government leaders signaled the traditional “horse-trading” with individual lawmakers for getting legislative approval of this bill. However, the political nominations of lawmakers’ allies to positions of executive agencies is apparently paralyzed due the failure of the government to coordinate it.  From the lawmaker’s side, a clear message has been already sent: the Deputies approved a legislative resolution revoking an administrative decree of the executive that increased the number of officials authorized to classify documents as secret, reducing the transparency of the federal Executive. The lawmakers’ impatience is clear: a super majority, 71% of the deputies, approved an urgency petition to revoke this decree.  It was the first legislative defeat of the government after the pension reform started its journey in the Congress. At this moment, it does not show a policy conflict but, rather, an unambiguous signal that the lawmakers are already at the bargaining table.  Waiting for the president. 

El Salvador – Nayib Bukele wins presidential election breaking two-party dominance

Last 3 February 2019 presidential elections were held in El Salvador. The young politician Nayib Bukele, 37, was elected president after running as candidate of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). These elections are significant for several reasons. Firstly, the two-party dominance in the executive office of the last 30 years was broken. The right wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) ruled the country from 1989 to 2004, whilst the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) did from 2009 and 2014. These were rivals back in the 1980s during the civil war. This makes their defeat ever more symbolic.  

Secondly, this electoral process shows features similar to those we recently find in different elections around the globe: little credibility in traditional political parties, and a politician who presents himself as an anti-establishment candidate who uses a populist discourse and resorts to social networks as key platform to communicate his message. In addition, as in last year’s presidential election in Brazil, Bukele competed as the candidate of a small political party who welcomed his skills and popularity as a way to reach for the first time the executive office.

Like its predecessors, Bukele’s government will have to face structural political and economic problems that will limit its presidential powers. Moreover, he will have to face a divided government situation. In a still very conservative society, the president-elect will have to exert control over politicians from older generations and different political backgrounds in both his cabinet and his party fraction in the Legislative Assembly.

A frail economy, high insecurity and corruption scandals erode confidence in traditional parties

In 1992, the Peace Accords were signed between the government of El Salvador and the FMLN guerrilla. One of the most successful aspects of this negotiation was the institutionalisation of the guerrilla as a political party. Since 1994, the first year in which it participates in legislative elections—in El Salvador the legislative elections are held every three years and the presidential ones every five years—the FMLN has constituted itself as the second largest party in the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, behind of the right-wing ARENA—founded in 1981. In 2009, the FMLN reached the presidential office for the first time with media figure Mauricio Funes as a candidate and in 2014 it won again with Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Although this party had a Marxist leaning as a guerrilla group, since the mid-1990s it has moved towards the centre.

Due to the dominance of the presidential elections by ARENA and the FMLN in the last three decades, several commentators refer to this period as a bipartisan system. However, while the two parties are the strongest forces in the Legislative Assembly, this is a relatively fragmented legislature. There are 84 seats but no party has won the necessary number of seats to form simple majority, none of them has obtained more than 35 seats in a single election. The effective number of parliamentary parties (ENPP) index—or number of parties that have effective decision-making power—on average between 1994 and 2015 has remained at 3.46[1]. In other words, normally the Executive has no choice but to negotiate. The presidential powers are hindered by separate legislative and municipal elections that become barometers of the current government performance.

Despite the success of the 1992 peace process, the structural roots that led to civil war—poverty and economic and social inequality—persist. This is compounded by the increasing social violence since the 1990s. El Salvador has one of the highest homicides rates on the planet and insecurity has become part of everyday life in this country of 6.4 million people. With the Peace Accords, thousands of Salvadorans exiled in the United States returned to their country. The US government found in the end of the civil war an excuse to deport hundreds of Salvadorans linked to criminal gangs. That was the germ of the famous Salvadoran vicious street gangs called maras. These have become so powerful that it is said that today they even contribute to the financing of the main political parties. The parties, as well as private businesses, have to negotiate quotas of power in the territories where the maras operate.

Insecurity and a weak economy that has affected the middle class in particular are two of the factors that contribute to explain the weakening of trust in political parties. The dollarised economy of El Salvador grows modestly. According to the World Bank, it is one of the slowest growing countries in Central America and poverty has only slightly decreased during the present decade. This is largely due to Salvadorans’ high reliance on remittances, which, as Benedicte Bull and her co-authors argue, [Business Groups and Transnational Capitalism in Central America: Economic and Political Strategies. New York: Palgrave MacMillian] generates few incentives for productive activities. Extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas. It is not surprising then that in recent months thousands of Salvadorans from these areas have joined the caravan of migrants that left from Honduras to the United States. On the other hand, the government’s efforts to reduce the fiscal deficit have led to a significant increase in various taxes which could have impacted the incomes of the middle and lower classes, according to ICEFI, a Central American fiscal policy think tank.

Corruption scandals are added to the pressing economic and social situation. Two ARENA ex-presidents, Francisco Flores (2004-2009) and Tony Saca (2004-2009), have been convicted of corruption. Former FMLN President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) remains in exile in Nicaragua, where he is under political asylum status granted by the Nicaraguan government. He is requested by the Salvadoran judiciary authorities who have led an investigation on embezzlement during his government. This and the Saca’s case both are linked to a corruption scheme that diverted public funds to pay bonuses to public officials close to the presidents and their parties. Just a week ago, previous to the election, it was published that one of the persons who would have received illegal bonuses during the Funes’ government is the current President of the Republic, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. This was probably the coup de grâce to FMLN’s campaign that the supporters of the anti-corruption candidate Nayib Bukele were expecting. Nonetheless, bear in mind that somehow he has to circumvent the fact that he won under the GANA flag, a party founded by Tony Saca in 2010. In August last year, Saca declared himself guilty of corruption charges against him.

A millennial’s road to presidential office

Nayib Bukele was born in San Salvador in 1981, in a family of Palestinian origin. His father was an public relations businessman and Nayib took over the family business when he was pursuing a law degree, which did not complete. In 2012, he was elected mayor of the small city Nueva Cuscatlán, under the FMLN banner. In 2015 he again competed in local elections as a FMLN politician but this time as mayor candidate of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. As a mayor of this very populous city, he has carried out works of reconstruction of historical streets and buildings, at the time that he also has promoted other works such as skateboard parks, while increasing the police presence in the capital city. This has contributed to galvanise his popularity among the poor and middle classes. To this it has also contributed the open criticism to the party that led him to become a mayor as well as his dressing style and way of approaching fans, through social media platforms, which many describe as millennial.

By 2016, Bukele was already a well-known public figure in El Salvador and their presidential ambitions were obvious. In October that year writer Lauren Markham, reporting for The Guardian wrote that he “is met with the fanfare and admiration of celebrity. In the past year, while reporting on the violence in El Salvador and the exodus of citizens that it has unleashed, I’ve heard Bukele’s name—Nayib, Nayib, Nayib—issued like a trumpet call, from schoolyards in Oakland, California, to cornfields in El Salvador’s sun-parched east. Even those who oppose his policies concede that he is making profound changes, and thus, at worst, speak of him with respect”.

In September 2017 he had conflicts with councillors of ARENA and of his own party. In reaction to this, he accused the government of El Salvador of being more of the same like previous ARENA governments had been. In response, in October of that year the FMLN expelled him from the party. That same month he founded his own party, Nuevas Ideas, but it was not until August 2018 that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) authorised its registration.

The pragmatism and presidential ambition of Bukele were evident in the process that led him to seal his candidacy with GANA. Due to the obstacles to register Nuevas Ideas, he tried to be the candidate of the leftist Cambio Democrático, but the TSE on 26 July 2018 cancelled its credentials on the grounds that it did not reach the electoral threshold of minimum share of votes in the 2015 elections. Two days later Bukele announced that he would be the candidate of the right-wing GANA.

With Bukele, quickly GANA was placed ahead at the top in intention of votes, well above ARENA and the FMLN, in at least two opinion polls. Bear in mind that Bukele since 2017 had seen his popularity increase with the slogan “give us back what was stolen” in allusion to the governments of ARENA and the FMLN, and his social media campaigning.

A cloudy future

To the very complex structural problems of Salvadoran politics, society and economy it can be added that the new president will have to govern until 2021, accompanied by a legislative caucus of only 10 deputies that he will have to convince of his leadership. Remember that he officially joined GANA at last moment and it is unclear how his caudillo politics will fit in once in government.

Indeed, both GANA and Nayib Bukele sealed a pragmatic alliance and both have incentives to keep it once the new government is sworn-in in June. It is also true that GANA, whilst founded as a right-wing party, it has played a pivotal role in the Legislative Assembly, sometimes in tune with progressive social policies of the current FMLN government, as with the most conservative faction of ARENA. Nevertheless, to reach simple majority agreements, the new government will necessarily have to negotiate either with the FMLN, with 23 deputies, or ARENA that has 37 deputies and is probably ideologically closer to GANA. Currently, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly is a deputy of ARENA and in October it will change to a Christian Democrat legislator who will remain in office until 2021. This situation poses a divided government situation, and considering the power resources of the speaker one could argue that that GANA deputies will tilt toward the right.

At the time of writing, negotiations are taking place between Bukele’s team of the newly created left-wing party, New Ideas and GANA. This is the first test to prove the flexibility of the electoral coalition of the president-elect. The team of the to-be-sworn president assures that it will be an inclusive cabinet. Added to this situation is the international environment. El Salvador is known for its high rates of emigration mainly to the United States, motivated since the 1990s by deficient economic conditions. Since the beginning of the current decade, thousands of Salvadorans have been deported and especially during the last two years US immigration policies have become more aggressive against immigrants. If the promises of the US president Donald Trump are fulfilled, the Bukele government could become more complicated. However, unlike the FMLN government, with which there have been disputes with the government in Washington DC following El Salvador’s recent diplomatic break with Taiwan to establish them with China, Bukele and his pragmatic allies may be more willing to have more harmonious foreign relations with the United States.

This post was co-authored with Ilka Treminio, of FLACSO Costa Rica.


[1] This was averaged using Matt Golder and Nils-Christian Bormann’s ENPP calculations in their Democratic Electoral Systems, 1946-2016 dataset.

Magna Inacio – Overshadowing the honeymoon opportunities: Bolsonaro’s first month in power

An overshadowed honeymoon has been giving contours and rhythm to Bolsonaro’s first weeks in power. During the honeymoon, the new administration’s first 100 days, presidents usually count on the public’s good will and send strong signals of presidential leadership when presenting a clear governing agenda on Day One. Since “not all presidents are created equal”, the honeymoon phase is an exceptional chance for the president to wisely allow voters, political representatives and opponents to update their feelings about the new incumbent. The value of the first weeks is even greater when strong polarization, political uncertainty, and distrust prevailed during the electoral campaign. Despite these well-known advantages, some presidents allow, or cannot avoid, the overshadowing of the initial steps of their administrations.

Stabbed during an electoral rally, Jair Bolsonaro did not intervene much in the debates of the political campaign. Instead, he intensively resorted to social media to rhetorically reinforce his image as an anti-system candidate. His populist appeals fed the hopes of social conservative groups, and he voiced fury against corruption and committed himself to ultraliberal economic reforms. Backed by a weak partisan coalition, but supported by a massive number of religious leaders, anti-corruption activists and radical opponents of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT), Bolsonaro defeated established parties and won the presidential race with 55% of the valid votes.

The first test of Bolsonaro’s leadership skills was the “presidential transition” process. It is quite an institutionalized process in Brazil when, for 55 days, outgoing and incoming administration teams work together and the latter organize themselves to assume governing responsibility. Bolsonaro’s limited participation in the presidential campaign, along with high expectations about the content of his governing agenda, raised political uncertainties about which policies he was committed to and on which policies he would be able to deliver. Reforms to overcome the economic crisis and the state fiscal deficit, such as the reform of the pension system, had been initiated by outgoing President Michel Temer, who conducted a pronounced pro-market policy-shift after the impeachment of the leftist president Rousseff. However, he became a lame duck president after corruption scandals broke the ruling coalition, interrupting the costlier reforms. Shifting the weight of economic decisions to the minister of economy was Bolsonaro’s only move toward these reforms. Everyone expected pronouncements from the president about these reforms during the transition, but the little we knew about Bolsonaro’s policy preferences did not increase much.

It was also expected that, after winning the presidency, Bolsonaro would signal how he was going to handle his minority status in Congress, to get support for his promised policies. During the campaign, Bolsonaro strongly associated Brazil’s problems with the prevailing model of “coalition presidentialism,” on which past governments have been building legislative support, as a source of corruption and wrongdoing. Avoiding commitments to partisan bases, he claimed that nationalism should be the true motivation for inter-branch cooperation. The president-elect left legislative parties’ leaders “out of the loop”, and placed loyal campaigners and the military at center stage. Thus, the transition period did not contribute to dissipating uncertainties.

President Bolsonaro was sworn into office on January, 1st, 2019. His honeymoon period began with 65% of Brazilians declaring their optimism over the economic prospects under the new administration. However, some missteps during its first 30 days have set off alarms about the strengths of the president’s leadership. In the following, we call particular attention to intra-government management and the relations with Congress.

Cabinet Management

Miscalculations in the formation and management of the inaugural cabinet may have cost the president some reputational losses. This is particularly a risk when a new party assumes power and the president, such as Bolsonaro, lacks experience in the executive branch. At the beginning of his term, politicization, flip-flopping, and erratic cabinet politics increased the misgiving or skepticism about this president’s leverage to coordinate the executive and advance economic structural reforms.

A radical politicization of the executive, with the nomination of campaigners loyal or ideologically close to the president, to ministerial and high-level positions, has engulfed even more the institutionalized and specialized agencies whose efficiency can be hurt by such a strategy. “True believers” in the conservative agenda voiced by Bolsonaro were nominated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, and promptly announced deep changes in the core policies carried out by these structures and bureaucracies. The dismissal of all nominees considered to be sympathizers of leftist parties was one of the first acts of the loyal campaigner and Chief of Staff.

Without party coordination, this politicization was led by the “president’s men”. It broadened the space for fights within Bolsonaro’s electoral coalition for open positions. Cross-pressured by these groups, Bolsonaro flip-flopped on the nomination of several would-be ministers. Flip-flopping became evident, for the most part, in the organization of state agencies. The candidate, who had campaigned for a drastic reduction of the cabinet to 15 ministries, ultimately admitted to the need for 22. Flip-flopping marked Bolsonaro’s attempts to dismantle or transfer agencies in charge of policies that he opposed. For instance, his initial announcement of the elimination of the Ministry of the Environment was cancelled following opposition from the agrobusiness sector, worried about the negative impact on exports.

These management missteps damage the reputation of the president; even more so, when a lack of communication strategy amplifies them. Bolsonaro’s insistence on communicating each decision by Twitter and live-streaming web videos has allowed everyone to follow this presidential flip-flopping closely. More dramatically, the 6-minute speech delivered by Bolsonaro during the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos, followed by a cancellation of interviews, showed how costly these missteps can be for a reputation still being built.

Difficulties in accommodating the demands of his mixed coalition, left their marks on the final make-up of the cabinet. Nonpartisan super ministers of the Economy and of Justice had been appointed early; however, the whole cabinet was known only a few days before the inauguration. Loyal campaigners, or leaders of parliamentary fronts, were the only six ministers with previous legislative careers. Military officials assumed more ministerial and high-level positions than expected, corresponding to 7 out of 22 ministers. Beyond the defense policy, they are in charge or sharing responsibilities of inter-ministerial coordination and inter-branch relations inside the Presidential Office. Their significant participation in the government, for the first time since Brazil’s re-democratization, has raised concerns about civilian control over the military and potential intra-cabinet conflicts between civilian and military cabinet members.

Inter-branch (dis)coordination

Despite the presidential coattail effect on legislative and governorship elections, Bolsonaro was elected as a minority chief executive – as all members of the Brazilian “presidents’ club” have been. However, the president did not follow his predecessors in forming a coalition government to overcome this challenge. Instead, Bolsonaro has said he will govern with the backing of legislative coalitions, based on policy compromises.

The high levels of parliamentary fragmentation and legislative turnover could favor this presidential calculation. The effective number of parties is 16.5 and 13.5 in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, respectively.  The electoral endorsement from powerful “parliamentary fronts”, such as the famous “Beef, Bible, and Bullet” groups, boosted Bolsonaro’s expectations to coordinate executive-legislative relations based on these shifting coalitions.

This expectation is unrealistic: the president/his party are neither the median legislator nor are they able to cartelize the legislative agenda without a multi-party alliance. A party of amateurs is backing the president. It is unable to lead any efforts to build a stable legislative coalition. Despite its exceptional growth in the last election, it holds only 11% and 4.9% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, respectively. Most legislators are either outsiders or newcomers recently affiliated with the presidential party, just like Bolsonaro. The election to speakership positions showed the continuing capacity of the established parties to control the agenda and to check executive moves inside the Congress. The current Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies won a new mandate by leading a large legislative coalition, with 58% of the deputies. Despite the presidential party having taken part in this alliance and grabbing some important committee chairmanships, it shows the persistence of the partisan bias of these Chambers, where all executive proposals must be introduced. 

There is a one-month lapse between the presidential inauguration and when the new legislature starts in Brazil. It makes the president and his cabinet the most visible actors in the spotlight, able to get media coverage for engaging the public and stakeholders in addressing governing challenges. Beyond the first-mover advantages derived from the presidential powers, the president can frame the legislative debate before the new Speakers and party leaders take their seats. Surprisingly, Bolsonaro and his team did not seize these opportunities. On the contrary, ambiguous messages and negative records marked this period. Under these conditions, legislative parties stepped back before compromising with the president.

The government has not really engaged in the lawmaking process since the transition. Congressional leaders’ expectations of discussing final adjustments to the 2019 budget law with the new administration were disdained by the future Minister of the Economy. This fed into misgivings about either his lack of expertise in the public sector or his willingness to make unilateral decisions.  The content of the most anticipated executive bill proposal, the reform of the pension systems, is still unknown, and ambiguous signals have suggested conflicts among government groups. The military personnel resists change to their special pension-system, while the Minister of the Economy defends broad reforms. To show some action, the president has resorted to regulatory and administrative decrees in order to implement some electoral promises. Through the issuing of decrees, the new administration has facilitated gun ownership in Brazil, the monitoring of NGOs – Non-Governmental Organizations – by the Presidency, and given more nominees the power to declare secrecy over official documents, among others.  These decrees are, of course, properly understood by the legislative parties to signal that the minority president is willing to engage in unilateral actions.

Yet, the honeymoon has been overshadowed by an event that challenges Bolsonaro’s ability to manage a crisis. A judicial investigation has put the president’s family on the spot in a very sensitive area, a corruption scandal. It was revealed that a friend of the president’s son has been investigated for suspicious bank transactions while he was a staff member in the office of Flávio Bolsonaro, a state representative until 2018. Afterward, it became known that Flávio has employed family members of an alleged gang leader, from Rio de Janeiro, in this office. After denying his involvement, Flavio claimed his right to legislative immunity since he was elected senator, which was later rejected by the Supreme Court. The president, his sons and close allies have been discrediting these accusations and aggressively attacking the press on social media. On the other hand, the vice-president gained his momentum by defending the free press and judicial institutions investigating any possible wrongdoing involving government members. Bolsonaro knows that any reputational losses in this anti-corruption territory can greatly reduce his political leverage for keeping the military under his leadership and getting support from Congress.

The first 30 days of Bolsonaro’s administration have been intense. His initial decisions and moves indicated potential problems in cabinet management and inter-branch relations which could aggravate, rather overcome, his political weaknesses inherent to having been elected as a minority president. However, if the honeymoon of his administration has been overshadowed, it was caused by the president himself.