Democracy Delayed: COVID-19’s Effect on Latin America’s Politics

Democracy is often depicted as a means to peacefully resolve political conflict and socioeconomic discontent. But what happens when that essential safety valve of elections has been closed off?

Expert comment Updated 15 September 2020 Published 19 May 2020 3 minute READ
A demonstrator wears a face mask during a protest against Chilean President Sebastian Piñera's government in Santiago on 16 March 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

A demonstrator wears a face mask during a protest against Chilean President Sebastian Piñera’s government in Santiago on 16 March 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

This article is not about the coronavirus. Or at least not directly. It’s about the elections, political processes and protests in Latin America and the Caribbean that only a few months ago seemed destined to shape many countries’ democratic futures. In Bolivia, Chile and the Dominican Republic, public health concerns over COVID-19 have forced the postponement of critical elections; in all three countries social and political upheaval preceded the delays.

In the best of circumstances elections serve as a safety valve for political and social tensions. What will their postponement mean as the countries feel the economic and social effects of the pandemic?

In Bolivia, a make-up presidential election has been postponed. In Chile, a plebiscite on whether and how to amend the constitution has been pushed back to 28th October. In both of those cases, the special elections were called in the face of public protests. In the other country to postpone elections, the Dominican Republic, the government was forced to delay presidential and legislative elections originally scheduled for 17 May to July.

In that case too, the rescheduling came on the heels of protests; a suspicious technical meltdown in urban voting systems in the 16th February municipal elections sparked nearly two weeks of political demonstrations and forced a re-do on 25 March – which in turn forced a delay in the government’s imposing social distancing measures in response to the country’s COVID-19 outbreak.

And in Venezuela…. well, the complete absence of predictability and the politicization of the country’s electoral commission means scheduled National Assembly elections could occur almost any time; the one thing that is sure is under the current electoral authority, the process will never meet international standards for free and fair elections.

Discontent, Protest and Elections

International observers had determined the 20 October 2019 presidential and legislative process in Bolivia riddled with state-sponsored fraud. As evidence mounted that the election had been stolen, protestors took to the streets to demand that President Evo Morales – already running for a constitutionally questionable fourth term – step down. In negotiations, Morales allegedly agreed to call new elections under a new election commission, but then things got messy. The head of the military intervened to force Morales out and opposition politician Jeanine Áñez was appointed interim president. Upon assuming office, the former senator cracked down on pro-Morales protestors on the streets and rounded up supporters, efforts that stepped up under the COVID-19 quarantine.

The partisan attacks raised the concerns of international human rights groups while Áñez’s decision to run as a candidate in the fresh elections triggered concern among democrats. In the end, what once appeared to be a peaceful, consensus solution to election-fraud upheaval that convulsed the country turned into a coup and a vendetta, re-polarizing the country. And that was even before the elections were postponed.

In Chile, President Sebastian Piñera had called for a national referendum to potentially rewrite the constitution after months of social protests tore through the country shutting down large parts of the capital city, Santiago. While there is evidence that some protesters were supported externally, from countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the social upheaval had been brewing for years over a lack of social mobility, the unequal educational system and a closed political system marked by a constitution originally drafted in 1980 during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Originally on 25th April voters were to head to the polls to answer two questions: 1) whether to amend the constitution at all and 2) how that body charged with redrafting the charter should be elected. But on 19 March the Chilean Congress postponed the referendum to October 26, 2020.

The protests petered out as Piñera declared a nationwide state of emergency on 18 March in response to the virus but the frustrations and inequities that led to them remain and continue to fester. Whether or not a constitution rewrite could have addressed the political, social and economic demands of a majority of Chileans that led to the protests is an open question. For many Chileans, though, it was seen as a critical step with according to one survey 86 per cent supporting the process and a majority holding the view that a new or reformed magna carta would improve the economy and social policies. With now even the October vote in doubt and social distancing effectively limiting large scale peaceful demonstrations, the means for Chileans to channel their demands and push for a collective solution have become limited.

The COVID-19 postponement of elections in the Dominican Republican comes under a similar cloud of political and social discontent. The demonstrations that erupted after the technical failures of the municipal elections stemmed from longstanding distrust over the government of President Danilo Medina and his party’s creeping control over the state and allegations of corruption. While the municipal elections were eventually held without incident, the larger contest of legislative and presidential elections were seen as a crucial test of Medina’s Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), with even one of its standard bearers and two-time president Leonel Fernandez, running against it under the newly created People’s Force (FP) party. Up until the electoral commission delayed the balloting, the opposition candidate Luis Abinader of the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) had been leading the governing party’s candidate, Gonzalo Castillo, with potentially enough to avoid a second round. The future of the July elections is unclear with President Medina at the end of April extending the quarantine to 17 May but the number of infections is still rising, recently to over 11,000.

Democracy is often depicted as a means to peacefully resolve political conflict and socioeconomic discontent through free and fair competition. But what happens when that essential safety valve of elections has been closed off? To this we can add to the risk the economic contraction the world and the region will face in 2020 and likely beyond. The World Bank recently predicted that the Bolivian economy will contract by 3.4 per cent this year the worst in 34 years. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) revised sharply downward its projects for the Chilean economy, predicting it would shrink by three per cent in 2020. And according to the World Bank the Dominican Republic’s will remain flat, after years of steady growth. Add to that the reactions to the COVID-19 infection and its unequal effects on the populations in these countries and you have a pressure cooker.