Monday, October 26, 2015

Voters demand change in Argentine and Guatemalan elections (Oct. 26, 2015)


Argentina's presidential elections yesterday ended in surprise: a strong showing by conservative candidate Mauricio Macri, who nearly tied with governing party candidate Daniel Scioli, means the two will head to a run-off election next month. The final results came in early this morning: Scioli has nearly 37 percent of the vote, with Macri coming close behind, with just over 34 percent. The leading candidate needed more than 45 percent of the vote, or 40 percent and a margin larger than 10 points over the nearest rival, to avoid the runoff. (See Friday's post.)

Scioli, who is governor of Buenos Aires, was widely expected to win outright, or at least have a larger lead against Macri, who is mayor of Buenos Aires city. Yesterday's results put Macri within reach of the presidency and send a strong message to the governing Frente para la Victoria party. It also means marks the emergence of a new, nationally competitive force in Argentina, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But the close results are already a victory for Macri and his campaign message of "let's change" (cambiemos). "What happened today will change politics in this country," Macri promised his supporters last night in what wound up being a victory party, reports Reuters. Opposition candidates one in municipalities and governorships up for grabs around the country, including the Buenos Aires province, a bastion of Peronist voters. Together with Macri's surprisingly strong showing, the mood is one of victory for his party, though it's not yet clear what will happen in next month's run-off.

Both candidates already made appeals last night to voters of the four candidates who were left out of the running yesterday, especially Sergio Massa, who is running on an opposition Peronist party ticket and got over 21 percent. Massa congratulated his supporters yesterday and Scioli and Macri, without saying which he will throw his weight behind in the upcoming run-off, reports Reuters. The former Kirchner ally turned opposition could play the role of kingmaker now, reports the New York Times. However about a third of Massa's supporters are Peronists, who could now back Scioli and potentially hand him a win.

Experts quoted in the piece say voters were looking for an end to the Kirchner governments which have been in power for 12 years now, and a less polarized style than that of current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

But, others note the essential similarity between the three leading candidates, who all promised to maintain many central elements of the Kirchner years, especially social spending. One Buenos Aires Herald columnist made the case that the three could be amalgamated into one composite candidate: "He is an amiable, middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged and fairly athletic bloke of Italian extraction who, with a winning smile, tells us that the country can easily overcome all its many economic and social problems," writes James Neilson.

Continuity won't be easy, says the Wall Street Journal. Argentina is short on dollars, and Fernández's successor will have to pursue unpopular (read austerity) policies to keep the economy on track. The piece goes into the complications of Argentina's foreign reserves and exchange rates, as well as high inflation and an important budget deficit. Both candidates are likely to scale back government intervention in the economy.

Yet, another New York Times piece notes the relative popularity of Fernández -- her approval ratings are at 42 percent. The highest of any president in modern Argentine history, notes the WSJ. Analysts are wondering what will happen to her political movement -- the Peronist oriented Kirchnerismo -- after she leaves office. A lot depends on whether her candidate Scioli wins the presidency or not. Cristina, as she's known locally, is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, but die hard fans are holding out hope that she'll make a comeback in the future ... 

In an aside, yet another New York Times piece from earlier in the weekend speaks of candidates who "buy" votes, via "clientilistic" policies of "offering services and goods in exchange for support." The piece quotes citizens and experts who cast social spending as vote buying. Admittedly there are many problematic practices in the area that could be improved through more institutionalized systems of social support, but the critiques reek of class snobbery and tend to be extended to all types of social programs. (The same is true around the region, as is the case with the much lauded "bolsa familia" in Brazil.) Poor people "sell" their votes in exchange for beneficial policies -- middle class voters are "courted" by politicians and justifiably vote in their best economic interests.


No joke: former TV comedian Jimmy Morales swept into the Guatemalan presidency with a landslide win in yesterday's run-off election against leftist Sandra Torres, reports Reuters

With over 90 percent of ballots counted, Morales had 70 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for Torres. It could be the largest margin of victory in a presidential vote since democracy was restored in 1985, reports the Wall Street Journal.

He was chosen in a fervor of anti-corruption sentiment, in the wake of several very high profile investigations that led to the resignation of former President Otto Pérez Molina in September and have implicated members of the Guatemalan political elite. Best known for playing dim-witted characters on TV, Morales' election represents a strong rejection of the status quo, reports the New York Times.

His slogan, "not corrupt, nor a thief," says it all.

"As president I received a mandate, and the mandate of the people of Guatemala is to fight against the corruption that is consuming us," Morales said last night.

However, how he will fight entrenched corruption is more of a mystery, as is basically everything else about his eventual government policies. His campaign was short on specifics, including what action he will take on pressing issues such as poverty and violence. Income inequality is among the most extreme in Latin America, and almost half of the children are chronically malnourished, according to the NYTimes piece.

The WSJ piece makes the case that Morales must now announce bold actions, especially in terms of promises to increase government transparency and accountability, if he hopes to avoid the widespread citizen protests that brought down Pérez Molina.

And he might represent a rejection of established political parties, but he'll be forced to cooperate if he wants to govern as his party has only 11 seats in Congress out of 158, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Voters don't seem to care about potential ties of members of his political party with military repression during the country's brutal and long 36-year civil war reports the Los Angeles Times, citing a local poll. "Signs tying Morales to military personnel associated with acts of repression during the civil war and other dark facts from his past don't seem to have had much impact on the vote registered in our survey," said the ProDatos research published on Oct. 21 in Prensa Libre.

News Briefs

  • No results yet from Haiti's presidential elections -- but officials thanked voters for a relatively calm day and urged patience, reports the Miami Herald. Voters may face a long wait for results: partial results are expected in 10 days but final results would not be ready until late November, reports the Associated Press. The leading candidates are expected to end in a run-off vote in December, though there was little clarity over who might be the front-runners of the 54 candidates. Still, the day was considered a success. Brazilian diplomat Celso Amorim, who headed a 125-person Organization of American States Observer Mission said the elections were positive. "Of course, we have to wait. It’s not finished, but I have a positive expectation that we’re moving into the right direction," he said. The number of voting centers vandalized or reporting security issues was down compared to Aug. 9, when 13 percent of the 1,508 voting centers were forced to suspend balloting because of armed violence, voter intimidation and irregularities. Voting was prevented in only one locality, where ballots and voting material were destroyed and could not be replaced because of adverse conditions. United Nations security forces reported that 224 people were arrested, including a candidate for the lower chamber of Deputies and two Haiti National Police officers. 
  • Election bonus track: Municipal elections in Colombia swept former mayor Enrique Peñalosa back into office in Bogotá. Peñalosa, a centrist independent who governed from 1998 to 2001, has promised to tackle the city's transit and crime problems, reports the Wall Street Journal. He narrowly beat the liberal party candidate who had the endorsement of President Juan Manuel Santos. Voters punished Social Democratic Polo Democratico Party whose members have been governing since 2004, according to Colombia Reports. Peñalosa, along with legendary former mayor Antanas Mockus (who gave him crucial backing this month), are behind what in policy circles is considered a case-study in urban transformation in Bogotá. It's a win for technocrats, but does not mean an end to polemic surrounding the office of the country's largest city, reports Silla Vacia. The former mayor inspires passion among followers and detractors, and has promised sweeping change for the city.
  • Around the country voters chose 1,500 provincial governors, mayors, councils and other officials, in elections that marked the return of a leftist party, the Patriotic Union, which had been nearly wiped out by political violence in the 1990s, reports the WSJ.  In the second-city of Medellin, former city council member Federico Andrés Gutiérrez won the race with 36 percent of the vote, reports the Miami Herald. The election day was peaceful, though there were hundreds of reports of fraud and irregularities, according to Colombia Reports. However, during the campaign season authorities arrested 113 people for electoral crimes, including 26 candidates, notes the Miami Herald. A piece from Time Magazine from last week says mayoral elections in Colombia are notoriously corrupt -- massive vote-buying and voter registration fraud could affect the results in hundreds of remote towns and cities. And that could be a problem for the recently signed peace accords with the FARC. Some candidates running for office yesterday are believed to have links to criminal gangs and large landholders who have little interest in the peace agenda, according to the piece. These are the first regional elections since Santos started the peace process against the FARC.  "The candidates that will be elected will have a great challenge on their shoulders: put in motion the peace agreement and achieve reconciliation," said statement by the Santos administration released the day before the elections. The FARC, the country’s largest rebel group, carried out no attacks yesterday. Silla Vacía has more coverage.
  • In a curious case, the central Colombian town of Yopal elected a new mayor who has been running the last month of his campaign from jail where he is held on corruption charges. It is unclear ifif he will be able to assume office as he was arrested earlier this month for selling plots of land from a terrain that originally belonged to "Coletas," an alleged drug trafficker wanted by the United States, explains Colombia Reports.
  • Dominican author Junot Díaz was called "anti-Dominican" and stripped of the order of merit award given to him in 2009 after campaigning for the rights of undocumented migrants in the Dominican Republic, reports The Guardian. Díaz was in Washington last week with the Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat, to urge the U.S. government to take action to curb persecution of, mainly Haitian, migrants in the Dominican Republic.
  • Hurricane Patricia, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere fizzled when it hit Mexico, in the sparsely populated area of Jalisco State and caused no major damage, reports the Wall Street Journal. Still the government response seems to have been reasonably competent says Alejandro Hope, of El Daily Post, who compares success in disaster relief and prevention policies with utter failure in public security and crime. It was a rare bit of good news for President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, reports the Los Angeles Times.

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