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.

 

A Right Turn in Latin America?

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019. / Marcos Brandão / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

After a long winning streak, the left in Latin America has experienced electoral defeats in a number of former strongholds since 2015 – including Argentina, Chile, and Brazil – but the trend is not unidirectional and so far falls short of being a regional “right turn.”

  • Right wing presidents govern today in those three countries as well as Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Panama, and Peru – a scenario that is quite different from 2010, when about two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under some form of leftist government. Democratization, financial crises, and market liberalization shaped the 1980s-90s, while mounting social discontent against neoliberal market reforms helped to produce a “left turn” that spread across the region following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.  Leftist candidates won 30 presidential elections in 11 different Latin American countries between 1998 and 2014.

The current trend lines are hardly unidirectional across the region.  Mexico, which remained under conservative government when most of the region turned toward the left after 1998, has recently elected long-time leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency.  Incumbent leftist parties have been re-elected one or more times in Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.  Notably, leftist parties in some countries where they have been historically weak, such as Colombia and Honduras, have strengthened electorally and organizationally, laying the groundwork for further growth.  Leftists’ records elsewhere are mixed.  Rivalries among Ecuadorean leftists make their future uncertain.  Venezuelan President Maduro and Nicaraguan President Ortega have resorted to increasingly repressive and authoritarian measures to maintain their grip on power.

  • With the possible exception of Brazil, the right’s surge is not the result of the sort of social backlash that brought the left to power. In general, the right’s victories appear to be a routine alternation of power rather than a regional wave with common starting points and driving forces.  Argentina and Chile are the two clearest examples of routine electoral alternation of power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting in contexts of economic slow-downs, corruption scandals, and social policy discontent.  In countries like Paraguay and Honduras, on the other hand, the shifts were initiated by non-electoral means – a politically motivated presidential impeachment in the former and a military coup in the latter – and then consolidated through elections after the fact.  In Brazil, the right turn can be traced back to the social protests that broke out against Dilma Rousseff’s leftist PT government in June 2013, but former conservative allies’ opportunistic impeachment of Rousseff, along with their imprisonment of former President and PT founder Lula, seriously weakened her party – paving the way for the election of anti-establishment candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

The left in power is still strong, though probably not unbeatable today, in countries like Bolivia and Uruguay, at least in part because of their roots in and strong connections with social movements.  Unlike the PT, both Bolivia’s MAS and Uruguay’s FA have managed to preserve more of their movement character and to avoid extreme forms of top-down control and professionalization.  The ability of mass popular constituencies and grass-roots activism to hold party leaders accountable and steer public policies in desired directions—a condition largely absent in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—has helped the left maintain cohesion in Bolivia and Uruguay.  This cohesion, accompanied by significant reductions of inequality, helps to explain the continued vitality of left parties in these countries.  The recent strengthening of leftist alternatives in Mexico and Colombia, moreover, should guard against facile assumptions that a region wide right turn is underway.  Conservative forces’ recent victories are better understood as a reinforcement of the post-neoliberal left-right programmatic structuring of political competition in Latin America than a unidirectional political shift to the right.  That said, Brazil wields significant political and economic influence in the region and, traditionally seen as an “early mover” in the region, may be a bellwether of the future.  The ability of President Bolsonaro and his model of governance to deliver the results that Brazilians want—and to operate within the parameters of democratic institutions—will be key factors in determining the direction and strength of the region’s rightist wave.

January 9, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

Mexico: Tough Congressional-Executive Relations Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Piñata with the Mexican flag in the background

Bandera mexicana en el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México / Wikimedia/ Creative Commons

Whoever wins Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 probably will face a divided and cantankerous Congress – especially if, as appears likely, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Morena Party is the victor.  López Obrador has been ridiculed by the Mexican political class, some of whose leaders have called him the next Hugo Chávez, but most polls give the polemical candidate at least a 10-point lead over Ricardo Anaya of the coalition Por México al Frente.  In Congressional races, polls also give the advantage to López Obrador’s party and its coalition partners, including Partido del Trabajo (PT) and Partido Encuentro Social (PES), under the joint banner of Juntos Haremos Historia.  According to the Parametría poll, 32 percent of respondents intend to vote for Morena, five percent for PT, and two percent for PES.  Other polls give them higher numbers.

  • The formerly hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) appears likely to fall to third place due to President Peña Nieto’s poor performance and the party’s association with corruption, while the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), traditionally the largest leftist party, would be the fourth.
  • Under the most likely post-election scenarios, López Obrador’s coalition would constitute the largest minority in the Chamber but still fall short of the 51 percent absolute majority, except perhaps by the thinnest of margins. Under Mexico’s mixed electoral system – with both majority and “proportional representation” determining the allocation of Congressional seats – the larger parties lure the smaller ones into coalitions, but unity is often seriously challenged during legislative and other battles.

The traditional categories of left and right are growing obsolete in Mexico, as parties and candidates increasingly resort to opportunism rather than act based on loyalty to any particular ideology or party.  Personal and political grudges also often trump political agendas.

  • As a result, an alternative scenario may emerge in which alliances shift after election day in a way that enhances López Obrador’s power. Tensions between the left-leaning PRD and López Obrador, who was its leader for many years, were so deep that the candidate split with it and created Morena as a party in 2014, but opportunists in the party could well jump ship and join him if he wins by a comfortable margin.  In the PRI also, frustration with party leadership could also prompt defections, and López Obrador – a prominent Priista in the 1970s and 1980s – could also harness their backing.
  • Party switching from one election to another has long been a common practice of politicians in Mexico, but only recently have representatives switched parties in the midst of legislative periods. In particular the PRD’s ranks significantly dwindled as legislators elected under its rubric defected to join Morena. Were this to be replicated later this year or next, López Obrador’s congressional majority could be larger than polls suggest.
  • Party discipline in Mexico has been comparatively higher than in other multi-partisan presidential systems such as Brazil, because of the constitutional prohibition of consecutive reelection. In the past, incumbents did not have incentives to serve their constituencies because their careers depended strictly on party leaders, who centralized nominations to elective positions.  From 2018 on, representatives in both Chambers may run for reelection.  The promise of a Morena candidacy can fuel even more defections into its ranks if the party keeps growing its electoral base.
  • If Morena achieves such dominance, the Congress’s commissions, the equivalent of U.S. Congressional committees, could be important partners of López Obrador because the executive delivers proposals directly to them, and they, in turn, issue the final dictamen that the plenary votes on. Juntos’ influence in the commissions would translate into a fairly unexamined prioritization of the presidential agenda.

Even a comfortable victory on July 1 will not assure López Obrador a readily compliant Congress.  Most legislators in the Por México al Frente coalition, which includes PAN, PRD, and Movimiento Ciudadano stalwarts, will certainly constitute an obstructionist opposition.  How successfully they can sabotage the president’s agenda will obviously depend on their numbers, but unity in opposition to Constitutional amendments required by some of his campaign promises appears certain.  Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and in a majority of state legislatures – unachievable in any likely political configuration during a López Obrador administration.  His proposals for revocation of presidential tenure, lowering high-ranking officials’ salaries, and reversing education reforms– which would require Constitutional amendments – thus appear dead on arrival.  Absent reliable Congressional support, López Obrador would also have difficulty passing essential budget and revenue bills and gaining confirmation of important appointees such as the attorney general and key prosecutors.  No candidate would have an easy Congress, but the Mexican parties’ willingness to set aside petty divisions and coalesce behind pressing issues, at least early in the presidential term, appears lower than ever before.  Thus, López Obrador would have a lot riding on the willingness of some sectors of the opposition to defect.

May 24, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.