Latin America: Which Election Rules Work Best?

By Cynthia McClintock*

President Nayib Bukele and his wife waving to the crowd on his inauguration day

Inauguration of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador / PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American countries’ shift in recent decades from presidential-election rules awarding victory to candidates winning a plurality (“first past the post”) to majority runoff (a second round between the top two candidates if no candidate reaches a majority) has been successful overall. By 2016, 12 of the region’s 18 countries classified as “electoral democracies” used runoff, compared to only one, Costa Rica, prior to 1978. (Click here for a full explanation of the classifications.) Adopted in part due to the traumatic military coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende, elected in 1970 with only 36 percent of the vote, runoff enhanced the legitimacy of incoming governments and enticed candidates towards the political center. The runoff reform also lowered barriers to entry into the electoral arena by the previously excluded political left – a major challenge to many Latin American democracies in the 1980s-2000s.

  • Under runoff, a new party is not a “spoiler” party. Runoff allows voters to vote more sincerely in the first round – for the candidate whom they prefer – rather than strategically, i.e., for the preferred candidate whom they think can win. Also, a party has a second opportunity – if it is the runner-up, to win, but otherwise to have its voice heard, usually through its power of endorsement. Under plurality, if a new party wants to have any chance to win, it usually must ally with another party with an established political base, but alliances are problematic and dilute the new party’s brand.
  • According to virtually all studies, including my study of Latin American elections between 1978 and 2012, the number of political parties was larger under runoff rules than under plurality rules. And, in my study, a “new party” became a “significant contender” considerably more often under runoff.

Because of the increase in the number of parties, many observers opposed runoff. Although five or 10 or, worse yet, 15 or 20 parties indeed pose challenges for governability, evidence shows that a larger number of parties was not in fact correlated with inferior scores for political and civil rights as measured by Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). Under plurality, the hold of traditional “cartel” parties was not loosened and participation was not expanded.

  • Runoff also impeded the election of a president at an ideological extreme. By definition, a candidate cannot appeal only to the 30-40 percent of voters in a “base” that is outside mainstream opinion. Often, runoff has pulled presidential candidates towards the center – a process evolving over the span of several elections as the need to appeal to the center becomes clearer. Among the presidents in runoff systems shifting towards the center over one or more elections were Brazil’s Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva; El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes; Guatemala’s Álvaro Colom; Peru’s Ollanta Humala; and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez. Latin American countries under runoff arguably enter a virtuous circle with lower barriers to entry, the requirement for majority support, and ideological moderation. By contrast, a vicious circle emerged in plurality countries such as Honduras, Paraguay, and Venezuela, where plurality was one factor blocking the emergence of new parties, and perceptions of exclusion abetted polarization.

To date in 2018-2019, elections were held in runoff countries (Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador) and plurality countries (Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay). The election in Costa Rica showed the enduring importance of runoff: the evangelical candidate who had won the first round with only 25 percent was defeated by a center-left candidate in a landslide in the runoff. By contrast, legitimacy deficits, with presidents winning less than 50 percent, were likely in both Panama and Paraguay, and a legitimacy deficit was only narrowly avoided in Mexico. Further, in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, leading a new coalition, defeated the two long-standing parties. By contrast, in the plurality elections in Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay, new parties did not make significant headway.

  • Overall, in 2018-2019, the trend was towards the candidate, whether to the right or the left, who most effectively channeled voter anger against official corruption. Also, the trend was towards more severe political polarization and, as a result, the growing possibility that the candidate most able to defeat every other candidate in a pair-wise contest – the “Condorcet winner” – did not win. In two of the three runoff countries – Brazil and Colombia – it appears very likely that the Condorcet winner did not reach the runoff. It is not yet clear, however, what, if anything, should be done to counter this possibility.

 Although of course no electoral rule is a panacea, the greater openness of the electoral arena under runoff rules has facilitated the defeat of long-standing parties that had lost majority support but retained political bases. Presidents have been enticed towards the political center and, with majorities of the vote, not suffered legitimacy deficits. There is no ideal solution to the challenge of the emergence of too many parties, but more promising remedies include scheduling the legislative vote after the first presidential round, as in France, and establishing thresholds for parties’ entry into the legislature. A ranked-choice voting system – the “instant runoff” system in place in only a handful of countries – could conceivably work in the long run, but runoff rules have already helped Latin America expand inclusion and secure victors’ legitimacy.

June 14, 2019

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. This article is excerpted from her paper The Reform of Presidential-Election Rules in Latin America: Plurality, Runoff, and Ranked-Choice Voting, presented at LASA in May 2019.

 

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