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article image2018: A big year for Latin America elections

By Tupac POINTU (AFP)     Dec 29, 2017 in World

Next year will be a big election year for Latin America, a region where democracy in many countries is only decades young, and where the shadow of corruption stretches wide and long.

Half of the population across the region is being called to cast ballots.

Here are the main points of note concerning the polls in regional economic heavyweights Brazil and Mexico, as well a newly pacified Colombia and troubled Venezuela.

- Corruption: the roots of wrath -

A corruption scandal involving Brazilian contractor Odebrecht is roiling politics in Latin American ...
A corruption scandal involving Brazilian contractor Odebrecht is roiling politics in Latin American countries like Peru where President Pedro Pablo Kuczynchi barely escaped impeachment over graft allegations
Ernesto BENAVIDES, AFP/File

The Odebrecht scandal, an affair of tentacular graft involving a Brazilian construction firm that is alleged to have paid millions of dollars in bribes to Latin American government officials to secure juicy public contracts, has rocked the region.

It has led to Ecuador's vice president being imprisoned for six years, and last week nearly resulted in Peru's president being impeached.

But the scandal is just part of a much bigger picture of corruption, according to Gaspard Estrada, director of an Observatory of Latin America at Paris's Sciences-Po institute.

"Corruption phenomena are deeply rooted in the region, and persist," he said.

"This will have an impact on the next political cycle," said Fiona Mackie, in charge of Latin America for The Economist Intelligence Unit. The Odebrecht scandal, she added, "is really shaking up the political scene."

The disheartening multiple cases of embezzlement and personal enrichment by officials in region has engendered "an impatience now in the electors, because they are so fed up," Mackie said.

"Elections in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico will be dominated by voter anger against the political establishment and demand for change, making them hard to predict and opening up room for negative surprises," the Eurasia consulting firm said in a recent report.

"Candidates that better capture this sentiment will be the most competitive, and the risk of negative surprises is high," as attested to by an unexpected surge for the left in a recent Chilean presidential election, the report said.

That "should serve as a reminder not to underestimate voter frustration," it said.

- A boon for outsiders -

Outsiders like right-wing soldier-turned-politician  Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have gotten a lift fro...
Outsiders like right-wing soldier-turned-politician Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have gotten a lift from a wave of public disgust with corruption-tainted political elites
Apu Gomes, AFP

The electoral landscape in Latin America in 2018 is dotted with an increasing number of candidates from outside the political system.

This can be put down to public disgust over the many instances of graft that has "disqualified the traditional political class," Estrada said.

He deplored a regional "leadership crisis" and feared political outsiders would fuel discourse that undermines democracy, as in Brazil where an extreme-right soldier-turned-politician, Jair Bolsonaro, has emerged as a contender.

Some traditional politicians were presenting themselves as outsiders "because that's a good thing to do in term of popularity, but they are insiders," Mackie said.

"An outsider needs to ally with a party that has a machinery. You need to have a political movement behind you," she added.

Eurasia said Mexico "is headed towards its most uncertain and consequential elections in decades on 1 July."

A leftwing candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, appears best placed for a win right now, it said.

A former mayor of Mexico City, Lopez Obrador is aiming for the presidency after a long political career. He has spurned the traditional leftwing PRD party to start the Movement for National Regeneration, known as Morena.

- Tilt to the right -

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro  seen here at an event in Cuba this month  leads the country wit...
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, seen here at an event in Cuba this month, leads the country with the region's worst economic crisis but analysts predict he will win re-election next year in a tightly controlled process
YAMIL LAGE, AFP/File

The victory of conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera as president-elect in Chile after a mid-December runoff has confirmed a general right-leaning tilt to the region, building on the stewardship of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Michel Temer in Brazil and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru.

But for Estrada, "it's not really a question of left or right -- it's just the government that had been in place, on the left, had flagged, which encouraged the parties on the right. What happened was a phenomenon of alternation."

More than political labels, 2018 will be decided by economic issues "because the economy is doing badly," he said.

"With a few notable exceptions, the policy and economic outlook for Latin America looks set to continue improving in 2018," Eurasia's report said.

But political dynamics could determine whether that "positive trend slows or, in some countries, is derailed," it said.

Eurasia predicted that in Venezuela, the Latin American country with the most severe economic problems, President Nicolas Maduro "will likely remain in office and win the presidential election in a tightly controlled process."

But, it added: "The government will also likely stumble into default, further complicating an already bleak economic outlook."

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