Can Colombia, Brazil and Mexico’s Elections Bring the Left into Power in Latin America?

In 2018, the politics of Latin America has the potential to change drastically with multiple elections at the fore. Contributor Claudia A. Gonzalez provides an analysis of how elections in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico could be pivotal in pulling the region’s politics to the left.  


After experiencing disappointing growth over the past few years, gradual recovery remains on track for Latin America. As elucidated in the IMF Regional Economic Outlook, domestic demand is recovering and inflation is moderate in most countries in the region, except for Venezuela, providing a promising economic outlook for 2018. During the coming year, the IMF expects that the region will grow 1.9 % and continue on this upward path until 2020. However, when analyzing the political landscape of the year, different variables must be considered, including impending elections; which in many ways, can influence the growth expectations, either stimulating or jeopardizing them. During 2018 the two giants of the region, Brazil and Mexico, as well as Colombia, the 4th largest economy of the region, will be holding elections.

In Colombia, the upcoming election cycle will see a large movement away from the norms, electing someone other than Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos for the first time since 2002. More importantly, the new government will have to ease the country’s expectations on national reconciliation, which arose following the signing of the peace agreement. The implementation of the peace agreement in Colombia has been a point of contention as it not only calls for FARC to disarm to become a political party, but it also calls for a national reconciliation dialogue. As the implementation of the peace agreement is underway, it is demonstrating that Colombian institutions and politicians need to go an extra mile to keep the promises made in the agreement.

With four months remaining until the elections, Sergio Fajardo is the leading contender, followed closely by a leftist candidate Gustavo Petro.  Recent polls have shown that Fajardo is at 15% and Petro at 13%.  Sergio Fajardo is the former mayor of Medellín ; he has made it clear that setting up the national reconciliation dialogue is a priority for him and the country. Fajardo proclaims no ideology despite receiving endorsements from the Colombian coalition. As a mathematician, he presents a more pragmatic vision, with Medellin serving as proof of his broader goals. On the other hand, Gustavo Petro is an economist with a strong left leaning vision. In addition, Petro, the former mayor of Bogota, is proposing agricultural revival, an increase in exports of food and knowledge-intensive industrial products. In this particular election, more so than the ones in the past 50 years, the need for security proposals will be at the fore. With the end of the civil war spanning half a century, priorities in the population have changed and the prevalent peril is the inability of its future leader to commit to the implementation of the peace agreement. In this regard, dealing with the consequences of the legalization of the FARC party will be a defining aspect of whether or not long-term peace can hold in Colombia.

In both Brazil and Mexico, the population feels largely disenfranchised with the elites, who have been embroiled in corruption scandals strengthening the support for anti-establishment candidates. Elections in Mexico are currently scheduled for July. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is proving to be the strongest candidate thus far, with 31% support in recent polls, followed by the PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade who has 20%, just one point ahead of Ricardo Anaya who is still awaiting the official nomination from his party.

If trends hold until Election Day in Mexico, it will have significant implications for the NAFTA renegotiation process with the US. Under a government led by AMLO, chances are US President Donald Trump will negotiate with a truly antagonistic neighbor for the first time. Under this scenario, Canada’s role as mediator will be of extreme importance in fostering an environment for the two states to compromise on contentious issues.

Additionally, Mexico is currently struggling with major corruption and impunity scandals, which have spoiled the perception of political institutions. Candidates will face an electorate demanding answers on security issues – since Mexico has received concerning crime statistics with record high homicide figures. For Mexico, the biggest challenge will be finding a candidate, who will strike the right balance between delivering a responsive justice system and providing solutions to inequality in the midst of NAFTA renegotiations. Thus far, the only candidate who seems to be prepared to do so is AMLO, with his 400-page plan for the country.

Finally, the most remarkable election will be that of Brazil in October. This year, the elections will see a lot of turmoil as the crowd favorite, Luiz Inacio da Silva. Silva has not been confirmed yet following the verdict last Wednesday, which found him guilty of money laundering and corruption in the court of appeals. The Worker’s Party has been continually assuring the population that Lula will be their candidate for the coming elections, though Mr. da Silva is one appeal away from being sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Following the impeachment of Dilma Rouseff and ongoing criminal investigations into corruption, Brazilians have increasingly lost their faith in the democratic institutions of the country. This setting has paved the way for populist outsiders to soar in polls, as in the case of Jair Bolsonaro, a right wing conservative, seven-term congressional representative who is anti-gay, pro-gun and an advocate of the use of torture to tackle crime. If former president Lula is not eligible for office by election time, whomever he supports will ultimately have a leading chance bringing back left leaning politics to the country. Considering the latter, for Brazil, the elections will be unprecedented, and the real challenge will be the country’s ability to go through an electoral process where its institutions serve as independent functioning parts of the democracy.

If polls stay the way they are today, with Lula leading in Brazil – or eventually designating his candidate to run – and AMLO leading in Mexico, the region could experience a shift towards the left in two of its major economies. Internally, this might pave the way to a larger and more profound conversation with regards to democracy and institutions in Latin America. Bearing this in mind, 2018’s elections promise to be transformative in a way that the region has not experienced yet. The future leaders of the region’s giants will determine the renegotiations of NAFTA, the signing of TPP without the US and the Peace Agreement in Colombia. More importantly, the way in which they decide to address domestic policies related to corruption, impunity and democratic institutions will reveal if the region is doomed to the perpetuation of extractive institutions, or if it will be able to overcome the challenges and move towards fostering economic development and political stability.

Claudia A. Gonzalez is a Political Analyst with a background in economics. She is currently an Associate at Atheneum and holds a Master’s degree in Political Science. She has attended Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Universidad Catolica Andres Bello and the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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