No change, please

Bolivia and Brazil have voted their incumbent presidents back in; Uruguay will have a new leader, probably from the same party as the outgoing José Mújica, by the end of next month

For the third successive time, Bolivia chose to put Evo Morales in the hot-seat. The popular president took his established brand of ‘indigenous socialism’ to the electorate again and they faithfully returned him to power. There was no need for a second round: the incumbent won 60% of first-time votes. Under Morales, Bolivia has been a staunch member of the ALBA coalition of countries and the president praised two of his leftist colleagues – one aged and ailing, one deceased – in his celebratory speech after claiming victory:

“this triumph is dedicated to Fidel Castro, to Hugo Chávez – may he rest in peace – and to all anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist presidents and governments”

Morales has stabilised the Andean country and overseen growth driven by a commodities boom. But he has had to manage contradictions in office. He supported new roads and building projects in previously untouched indigenous lands, while at the same time standing up for his roots in the coca-growing low-income community. But these cracks have not been big enough for the opposition to expose, such is the overall, nationwide strength of Morales and his Movement to Socialism party. His nearest opponent, conservative Samuel Doria Medina, eventually came in well behind Mr Morales with 24%.

In Brazil, the electorate also plumped for the incumbent, which gave them four more years of Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party candidate. After eight years of government under her predecessor and political father figure, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, it was widely thought that Rousseff could also cruise into a second term herself.

But some significant factors made this the closest run election Brazil has seen since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Firstly, the entrance of Marina Silva into the race after her running mate, presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash, ignited the campaign. There was now the possibility that Brazil could have its first black leader in Silva, the daughter of poor rubber tappers from the Amazon. But when one poll showed her winning a possible run-off against Ms Rousseff, the attack cogs of both the president’s party, the PT, and Aécio Neves’ PDSB, grinded into action, and Silva’s campaign was dismantled. She came a distant third in the first round.

Secondly, the Petrobras corruption scandal hurt Dilma Rousseff and her staff. A long list of kickbacks allegations, where ministers received cash siphoned off the state oil giant’s coffers, is being investigated. She firmly rejects any involvement and has hinted she will sue the right-wing magazine that has been printing splashes about the scandal. The kickbacks allegedly took place when she headed the Petrobras board but, in the end, her rival Aécio Neves was just as tainted by claims he would be a ‘rich president for the rich, upper classes’ as she was by the oil corruption story. Ms Rousseff has slashed poverty and increased welfare support, especially in the poor north-eastern states, but this has come at a cost to the economy, which is drifting away from the export-power growth witnessed during the eight years of the previous PT leader, Lula da Silva.

That was something that Aécio Neves’ team hoped to capitalise on, in particular Arminio Fraga, a respected economist and would-be finance minister. Coupled with the stumbling weakness of its rivals in the Rousseff administration, it made the Neves PDSB machine a viable replacement for the government. The markets certainly favoured Neves, and they rose whenever he had a surge and, tellingly, collapsed six per cent when the Rousseff victory was finally confirmed.

It ended up as a battle of the poorer north-east versus the richer south-east and one that ran to a nail-biting conclusion, the incumbent seeing off her challenger 51% to 49%. Brazilians seemed to be aware that the economy needs bolstering, and the finances need more structuring and less ministerial meddling, but the successes of the Rousseff administration in combating poverty still rung loudly. But this was a negative campaign fought on the back of sleaze allegations, mass protests last year against failing public infrastructure, a weak economy and a controversial World Cup that the country limped out of embarrassingly, losing their last two matches, the semi-final and third place play-off, 7-1 and 3-0 respectively. Dilma has a tough job on her hands for the next four years and has already said she hopes to be “a better president” this time around.

Just to the south of the biggest country in Latin America is one of the smallest. Uruguay has also been in electoral mood recently, with the first-round of its vote to replace the inimitable José Mújica. The humble leader, well-known for eschewing the trappings of the presidency by giving away 90% of his salary to charity, living in a farmstead and driving himself around in an old VW Beetle, cannot run for immediate re-election and was elected to the Senate. Mújica’s presidency was defined by a series of liberal reforms, including the legalisation of gay marriage and the production, sale and consumption of marijuana but there are signs that some of the policies could be amended by the incoming leader. That will either be Tabaré Vázquez, from Mújica’s leftist Broad Front or the conservative National Party’s Luis Lacalle Pou. Vázquez looks the more likely of the two to win at the moment. The two men meet one month today in a run-off.

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A las urnas…

Eight Latin American countries go to the polls next year – what can we expect?

First up across the region are Costa Rica and El Salvador, where there will be legislative and presidential elections on 2 February. The Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla, is constitutionally barred from running for consecutive terms. So although the number of female leaders across the region has risen to four recently with the re-election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, it will soon drop back down to three as Chinchilla leaves office (Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina are the other two women leaders). In fact, although it is unlikely, the number could be down to two by the autumn – as Brazilians go to the polls in October. Back in San José, no one candidate is storming the race, meaning that the country could need a run-off to split the field, an electoral practice that is common in Latin America but that has not taken place in Costa Rica since 2002. Johnny Araya of the National Liberation party and Broad Front’s José Villalta look to be the strongest of the candidates so far.

El Salvador is another country that prohibits presidents running again straightaway and, as such, Mauricio Funes will be stepping down this spring. The leading contenders to take his place go head-to-head on 2 February, with a run-off scheduled for 9 March if needed. It is the smallest country in Latin America and much of the new president’s focus will be on gang violence, which has been increasing recently despite a truce between the criminals in 2012.

Next up is Colombia, which has elections to both houses of parliament on that Sunday 9 March. Nearly three months after that, on 25 May, is the race for the hot-seat as the presidential candidates face the public. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is going once more and it looks as though he will follow his one-time mentor, ex-leader Álvaro Uribe, in securing consecutive terms in office. Peace talks with the Farc rebels are currently taking place and Santos has said that 2014 will be a crucial year for peace – he feels that it is his national duty to see the talks through to ‘the end’. He has so far wavered between moderation and muscle: at once trying to maintain the talks without completing retreating from the hardlines drawn up by Uribe during his two terms in office – ten more militants were killed in a bombing raid just after Christmas.

But in Panama there is no chance of seeing the same face again as Ricardo Martinelli is leaving office. On 4 May the isthmus nation is due to hold legislative ballots to its one National Assembly as well as the ballot for the head of state.

The Dominican Republic has a vote for the chamber of deputies and the senate the week after, on 16 May. Only legislators are on the ballot papers in 2014 because Danilo Medina was voted into the presidency in 2012 for a four-year term.

Evo Morales, the charismatic Bolivian president, is seeking a controversial re-election next year on 5 October. Technically, Evo has served two terms in office – the maximum that a politician can reach in the Andean nation. But because his first term (2006-9) predated the constitution that was re-written in 2009, the courts ruled that his time limit re-started under the new legal framework in 2009, rather than in 2006. As such, he is free to run again next autumn. Another victory and a full term in office would take his reign in the mountains up to 2019, which at 13 years would be almost as long as Hugo Chávez served in Venezuela. Evo’s time in office so far has been celebrated and criticised and has swung from a defence of coca farmers, to facing protests over subsidy cuts and road-building plans, to a cosy familiarity with other leftist countries, such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

Brazilians head to the polls on the same day in October, also for a general election. The country has been a regular in the world news this year, from widespread and – at times – violent protests against poor public services, to the visit of Pope Francis, and the excitement about and criticism of the upcoming World Cup. The festival of football happens thee months before the election and although the soccer-mad nation would love to see a sixth victory for a seleção there have also been the calls for the money to have been spent elsewhere in the economy. Dilma has continued with the Workers’ Party’s statism but has not had quite the popularity that her predecessor Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva enjoyed. That said, her recent poll showings have improved from over the summer of civil discord and should be strong enough to see off her efficient main challengers, Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialists’ Eduardo Campos.

Uruguay is the last of the Latin American countries to vote in 2014, with a general election on 26 October. The little South Atlantic nation has been making headlines of its own this year, with a ground-breaking legalisation of marijuana and same-sex marriage. Its football team stands a good chance of doing well at the World Cup, with several tremendous players blooming right now. Its outgoing leader, José Mújica, has won widespread acclaim for his low-key presidency, as he eschews many of the presidential trimmings and stylings by driving himself in slacks and jackets to work from his small farmstead and flying economy class. And much of this contributed to Uruguay being the inaugural winner of The Economist‘s ‘Country of the Year’ award. Whoever takes up the mantle in Montevideo will certainly have interesting shoes to fill.

Feliz Año!

Building the foundations

Domestic success for the BRICS countries backs up their global posturing

Following on from a recent update post about where Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are on the world stage at the moment, (see ‘A fortress made of BRICS‘– 08/06/11), it is worth taking a moment to look at the foundations of their international acclaim.

This week, the Brazilian Department of Work and Business released encouraging figures showing that the economy added 252,067 net payroll jobs in May. Despite some financial woes at the start of her presidency, Dilma Rousseff is clearly focused to try to continue the boom at home that her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, kick-started.

India has become a hotbed for foreign firms basing themselves in the country or outsourcing many of their operations there. This expansion of the boundaries of domestic business, be it through Indian or overseas companies, allows India to move out itself. A report by US congressman Jim McDermott last year showed how Indian firms created nearly 60,000 jobs in the States between 2004-09 in deals worth $26.5 billion.

There is no doubt that a shift in the global circles of dominance is underway. Commentators in the US believe that, despite the lack of credible Republican candidates, Barack Obama may still lose next year’s election because of one main issue: domestic economic problems. The eurozone is also worryingly wobbly. Greece has to match China’s growth just to get itself out of what is fast becoming a deepening hole from which the only exit seems to be through a door marked ‘Drachma this way’. In contrast, as the Chinese deputy bank governor said in March, his country has the ‘market depth, liquidity and safety’ to see the Chinese yuan replace the US dollar as the major world reserve currency.

It is a cycle which allows an non-stop wheel of development for the BRICS countries. Their success at home breeds success abroad and the rising powers feel confident to challenge established countries on the world stage. By ensuring domestic growth, they can back up their international vision with internal achievements.