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The Elections of Discord in Latin America

Famed political scientist Adam Przeworski recently stated that what he likes most about elections is that they set in motion mechanisms that “allow political conflicts to be processed in peace and freedom”. He will like, then, the series of elections that await Latin Americans in 2021: five presidential elections -Peru, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras and the second round in Ecuador-, at least four sub-national elections -Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile and Mexico-, two legislative elections -Mexico and Argentina- and a constituent election in Chile. Elections against wind and pandemic and for all tastes. And all in a context of multidimensional crisis: political, economic and health.

Unrest in democracy

The Latin Americanist academic Manuel Alcántara considers that Latin American democracy is “fatigued”. The mood of the continent’s citizens reveals irritation with political parties and a general lack of confidence in political institutions. The cocktail includes dissatisfaction with the neoliberal model of society, resistance to accept governmental adjustment measures and weariness with the corruption of political leaders.

There are plenty of examples in the region to describe this (bad) social mood. The merry-go-round of protests in the South American Pacific countries between October 2019 and November 2020 is proof of this. Although the most prominent cases are those of Chile, Ecuador and Peru, they are not the only ones. In the same period there were mobilizations in all the countries where elections will be held this year: El Salvador, Bolivia, Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina, Nicaragua and Honduras.  

The uprisings are indicative of a growing regional crisis of governance that is eye-breaking. What are popular uprisings if not signs of political instability? And these signs are present in most democracies, whether half or consolidated. In any case, it is not surprising that these signs appear in the former, but that they do so in the latter, as in the case of Chile. There, in the face of the social outburst, President Piñera came out to proclaim to the four winds: “we are at war against a powerful enemy”. 

However, in this sea of anti-political mobilizations, the confrontation of ideas and programmatic proposals have been shipwrecked. Public debate has been reduced to polarized positions within the electorate. In the case of Ecuador, the second round will be resolved between correístas and anticorreístas and in the legislative elections in El Salvador, the main confrontation was between bukelistas and antibukelistas. In the other countries with imminent electoral processes, from Mexico to Argentina, the same pattern is repeated.

In short, half the continent will elect its representatives in a political context marked by polarization and personalism, and with the “good riddance” echoing in the streets. The plot will be woven with threads of skepticism and uncertainty.

At what point did our continent get screwed and why is it still screwed?

The second dimension of the regional crisis -and no less shocking- is the economic one. In the campaign for the first round of elections in Ecuador, the generation of employment and social aid for families affected by the pandemic were the central proposals of the Correa candidate Andrés Arauz. In El Salvador, last Sunday’s elections were a key moment for President Bukele’s anti-crisis plans.

Considering that nearly 45% of the region’s GDP is based on foreign trade in goods and services, the fall in the price of hydrocarbons strongly affected countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador. Chile and Peru were hit by the reduction in the price of the minerals that constitute their main exports (copper, lithium and iodine), while Argentina and Paraguay suffered from the contraction of prices and export volumes of agricultural goods.

Latin American countries ended the year 2020 amid regrets and uneasiness: fiscal problems and the increase in unemployment, informality -already reaching half of the workers and could continue to worsen- and poverty. The contraction of the regional GDP was 7.7% and forecasts for the years 2021 and 2022 foresee a modest recovery of 3.7% and 2.6%, respectively. The social gains of the last two decades have come to a screeching halt and the possibility of repeating a new lost decade is dangerously close at hand.

Voting in times of pandemic

In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Latin America exceeded twenty million infected and six hundred thousand dead, exposing the inadequacies of the public health system. How will the health crisis impact the upcoming elections? In three ways.

On the one hand, the pandemic will influence citizen participation. Campaigns will be developed through digital social networks and it is expected that young people from urban areas, who are entering politics largely thanks to digitalization, will be the most active and numerous protagonists.

On the other hand, the health emergency will affect polling and it is possible that forecasts will be less accurate than usual, which could lead to a crisis of reliability of polls.

Finally, vaccination campaigns have started and are unlikely to be left out of the election debates. From the schedule and the beneficiaries, to the origin of the vaccines, they will form a big bone of contention where some will present themselves as responsible parents before innocent citizens and others as saviors of the country with their court of officials and health advisors.

So far, economic and governance crises dominate the debate. Poor health management will not necessarily mean losing elections. But as this second year of the pandemic unfolds, the health dimension of the crisis may become a determining factor in different countries. Everything will depend on how equal access to vaccination is.

*Translation from Spanish by Destiny Harrison-Griffin

Photo by Joaquín Vallejo Correa na / CC BY-NC-ND


Sociólogo y cientista político. Fue profesor de la Facultad de Economía y Rel. Internacionales de la Univ. Autónoma de Baja California, Campus Tijuana (México). Miembro del Sistema Nacional de Investigadores de México (SNI/CONACYT). Doctor por FLACSO-México.


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