BOGOTA – The integrity of electoral rights, creating guarantees for voters and not putting people’s lives at risk from the coronavirus are some of the challenges facing Latin America, the region hardest hit by the pandemic and which in the coming months must hold a number of elections amid profound political and social polarization.
So far, two countries – the Dominican Republic and Uruguay – have held elections during the pandemic.
On July 5, the Dominican Republic held its presidential election – which had already been postponed due to technical problems – under the pressure of the coronavirus, seeing 44.71 percent participation, the highest since the end of the dictatorship in 1961.
On Sept. 27, Uruguay, faithful to its democratic tradition, held municipal elections with some 85 percent participation, thanks in part to the pandemic.
The elections that were held before the pandemic “showed evidence of concern in the region” that then increased and the scenario for the future “is of great uncertainty,” Leandro Querido, the executive director of Electoral Transparency (TE), told EFE.
According to the analyst, on the one hand are several governments with marked authoritarian shifts that have taken advantage of the health crisis to strengthen themselves, such as in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, the latter of which is emphasizing what it calls its good management of the pandemic.
On the other hand, countries like Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Costa Rica are going through convulsive periods of social protest over the measures adopted by their governments to deal with the pandemic, along with the fact that the governments have been unable to meet the deep economic needs of their citizens.
Daniel Zovatto, the director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Idea International, the pandemic accelerated all these tensions.
After registering the first COVID-19 case in Latin America in March, there was a certain calm after months of social unrest in several countries.
“Many of these protests were sent into quarantine and the elections were postponed, and thus the two social escape valves were also sent into quarantine,” Zovatto told EFE.
However, the extension of the quarantine, measures that did not meet the countries’ health and social needs and that aggravated the economic situation of the citizens, created “a boiling pot of great frustration, great anger” and the appearance of new protests.
The Organization of American States, along with the World Health Organization, created an “electoral manual” so that elections might be held safely and that all the biosecurity procedures could be implemented without harming the political rights of voters.
Querido said that Uruguay is the best example in the region of how elections should be held in times of pandemic and he also emphasized the reforms that are being adopted by other countries such as Brazil, which in the municipal elections will be a pilot program for voting by cellphone.
The pandemic challenges in elections include the fact that “the countries that before this crisis saw a chance to strengthen their institutional elements, to innovate, to incorporate technology, to improve electoral participation … are the countries that are beginning to show differences and pull out ahead of the rest,” the TE director said.
In recent years, in the majority of the elections the governing parties received a “punishment” vote and many of these elections are a reflection of that.
Bolivia is holding national elections on Oct. 18, after a year ago an earlier electoral round was nullified by complaints of fraud after Evo Morales won reelection, his MAS party now leading in the voter surveys despite the protests that had been held against the now-ex-president. The much questioned management of the current interim government has had great influence on the election campaign.
The municipal elections in Brazil on Nov. 15 will serve as a bellwether for the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who despite criticism over his management of the pandemic in that country – with the second highest number of cases in the world – has not affected his popularity.
After months of heavy protests against the government of Sebastian Piñera, on Oct. 25 Chileans will have to decide in a plebiscite whether they will change the 1980 Constitution to shelve questions that are still pending since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
And Venezuela, on Dec. 6, will hold legislative elections, which once again are mired in controversy over the absence of part of the opposition and which are expected to reaffirm the regime of Nicolas Maduro in power.
Latin America is at the beginning of a decisive decade, but the panorama is not encouraging and, according to Zovatto, there are three questions in play.
Number one: “There is the risk of having another lost decade in terms of the economy.” Number two: “There is the risk of having devastating decade-long setbacks in human development and in some countries even two decades in terms of poverty, inequality and unemployment.” And number three: “This entire context could create a deterioration in the quality of democracy and even a setback in democratic terms.”
Given the complex economic, health and social panorama, after the elections in the last quarter of this year, in 2021 countries like Ecuador, Argentina, Peru and Chile, among others, will go to the polls to choose leaders what will have to manage “the new normal.”