From issue: Where is Latin America Heading? (Spring 2007)
New Leaders, New Voices
Election post-mortem: the 2005-2006 elections have nudged the region to the left, but that's only part of the story.
Elections invariably offer an opportunity to assess the health and quality of the democratic process in the countries where they are held. When they occur in neighboring states over roughly the same time period, however, observers are given a rare chance to move beyond isolated snapshots and assess the state of democracy in an entire region. Such an opportunity occurred from 2005 to 2006, when Latin America experienced 12 presidential elections, many of them closely fought, over a 14-month period. It was the first time the electoral calendars of so many Latin countries coincided, and analysts lost little time in seizing that historic moment to draw a variety of conclusions—many of them dire.
By the time Hugo Chávez’s anticipated re-election in Venezuela closed the 2006 election cycle, many commentators were already warning that the region’s democracies faced difficult times ahead. Some analysts saw potential turmoil in the growing tension between a “good” and a “bad” political left, while others underlined the dangers of a resurgent populism. Still others warned about the impact of the continuing strains in relations between the U.S. and Latin America on the region’s political landscape.
As new leaders across the continent were sworn into office in early 2007, there were good historical reasons for concern about stability. Since September 11, 2001, three Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador) have seen their presidents abruptly forced out of office. Odds are that some of the leaders elected in 2006 will face similar situations. For decades, fragile Latin American democracies have been abruptly ended by military coups. In recent years, economic crises combined with social mobilization have toppled democratically elected leaders. Though the economy is doing well in most of Latin America, social discontent will revive if there is a global economic downturn. At that moment, the stability of some of the recently elected governments will be tested.
But such concerns reflect only part of the post-election Latin American reality. A closer study of the results reveals several characteristics that we think have not received sufficient attention so far. Some tend to bear out the bleaker scenarios, but others underline what may seem surprising signals of health in a region where democracy has had a checkered history...