The upcoming elections in the region will be marked by a lack of transparency, serious questions about the soundness of democracy, and attempts by the ruling party to disqualify and silence the opposition.

Throughout the second half of 2023, Latin America will see a number of crucial elections that will determine not only the future course of their respective countries but also the political path of the region as a whole. In the midst of growing political polarization, inflationary and economic problems, and deepening authoritarian policies, these elections will be of key importance to understanding the new configurations of power in the region.

One of the major challenges that RELIAL sees with serious concern in this situation is the use of disqualification as a political weapon to demobilize the opposition and try to silence the voices of those questioning authoritarian systems. For example, in Venezuela and Guatemala, social support for candidates has been so great that it remains to be seen how effective the measures will be in preventing such democratic will.

August 13: The PASO primary elections in Argentina

Argentina is the third-largest economic power in Latin America and one of the few countries with actual democratic stability. In a region having three socialist dictatorships and several leftist governments refusing to condemn them, the upcoming elections will be crucial in defining the future of democratic alliances both for and against dictatorships.

Cristina Kirchner, the current vice president, who was convicted of corruption in December last year, has stated that she will not run for the presidency. And so has Alberto Fernández, who could have run for potential re-election. Given this weakness of the ruling party, the opposition could potentially win this year’s election.

To achieve that, however, it must first go through the PASO elections (Open, Simultaneous, and Compulsory Primary Elections) on August 13. As the name indicates, these primary elections are mandatory for all political groups that wish to run for national office. Those winning 1.5% of the votes or more will be eligible to run as candidates in the presidential and legislative elections to be held on October 22.

PASO elections are required for all citizens to vote, regardless of their political affiliation. They are designed as a means to choose between different lineups of candidates within each party for presidential, deputy, and senatorial office. But parties are not actually required to hold them, and several parties have run with a single lineup in previous years.

This year, both the ruling party and the opposition alliance Juntos por el Cambio have nominated two lineups of candidates: the former made up of Sergio Massa and Agustín Rossi, and Juan Grabois and Paula Abal Medina; the latter by Patricia Bullrich and Luis Petri, and Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Gerardo Morales. The libertarian candidate Javier Milei, who stands as a departure from the traditional two-party system in Argentina, is also running in the primaries.

Today, the problems plaguing Argentina are various, including the fact that 6 out of 10 children suffer from hunger and that the country is currently facing one of the worst inflationary crises in the world. Thus, proposed agendas prioritize measures to slow the rise in prices and ensure that Argentines can make ends meet. Accordingly, campaigns have focused on providing different solutions to Argentina’s economic tragedy: ranging from giving greater autonomy to the central bank, as is the case in most countries, to eliminating the central bank or bringing official dollarization into the economy.

So far, polls favor Patricia Bullrich, an opposition candidate who was described as “the iron lady of Argentine politics” by the Spanish newspaper El País following her refusal to make a pact with the ruling party and her determination to take whatever steps are necessary to pull Argentina out of one of its worst crises in recent years.

A message Bullrich highlights in her campaign spot states: “Because dialogue will not drive drug traffickers out of Rosario; Because corruption will not end by compromising. Because you don’t negotiate with the mafias”. If she is elected to lead the country for the next few years, profound structural changes should be expected.

However, preferences may still shift significantly. A poll conducted by Bloomberg in March showed that none of the five most popular candidates has an approval rating higher than their disapproval rating. Whoever becomes president will have to deal not only with huge economic problems but also with the political problems affecting the region and giving rise to populist and authoritarian politicians who raise the banner of polarization and rejection of traditional politics.

August 20: Second round of elections in Guatemala

Bernardo Arévalo, a presidential candidate polled at no more than 3% of voting intentions, caught Guatemala by surprise when he came in second in the primary elections held on June 25, 2023.

Guatemalan elections have been marked from the beginning by challenges to the rule of law, including citizen rejection of traditional politics, corruption, and political violence. With 23 registered candidates, the victory in the primaries went to the null votes, with 17%, followed by former first lady Sandra Torres, with 15%, and progressive candidate Bernardo Arévalo with 12%.

Not surprisingly, the political class, which Arevalo refers to as “the pact of the corrupt,” has been involved in numerous embezzlement scandals. Those who investigate them either by legal or journalistic means usually end up in exile for their own safety or in prison, as is the case of journalist José Rubén Zamora.

Under the Constitution, neither Sandra Torres nor Zury Ríos, two of the most popular candidates, should have been eligible to run for the presidency: the former for nominating an ordained evangelical pastor as vice-president — even when the law forbids the candidacy of ministers of any religion or cult — and the latter for being the daughter of former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. But no specific action was taken against either of them.

And yet the one candidate suspended for alleged administrative faults was Carlos Pineda, the far-right, anti-establishment, TikToker candidate who was tipped to win according to the polls. Pineda appealed to the Constitutional Court, but in the end, he was unable to run in the election.

After Arevalo was surprisingly declared “the runner-up,” allowing him to move on to the second round, on Friday, June 30, nine parties appealed to the Constitutional Court to report inconsistencies and request an injunction, while the results remained unresolved. Following the denunciation, a new vote count was carried out, and once again, Sandra Torres and Bernardo Arevalo were declared first and second-place winners.

When everything seemed to be ready for the second round, Semilla, Arevalo’s party, was faced with a new challenge: a court order to remove its legal status that was issued by a prosecutor’s office presided by Rafael Curruchiche — who is currently under sanctions in the United States for obstruction in corruption cases.

The reason for the cancellation was the alleged forgery of signatures following a denunciation by a citizen who claimed he had been affiliated to the party without his consent. Not only was the order suspicious, given the political context of the time, but it was also unlawful, as the Constitution forbids the disqualification of any candidate standing to compete in a run-off election. After several hours of tension and protests, the Constitutional Court revoked Arevalo’s disqualification from the election.

But the problems did not stop there. On July 21, the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office conducted a raid on the offices of Movimiento Semilla to search for documents related to the alleged corruption case. In that same context, it was also announced that the immunity of party deputies might be lifted so that an investigation could be freely carried out against them.

Up until now, everything seems to indicate that no further challenges will arise for the run-off, but the winner will still have a long way to go to restore confidence in democracy and overcome the generalized apathy of citizens.

August 20: presidential elections in Ecuador

On May 17, Guillermo Lasso, president of Ecuador, took the world by surprise by dissolving the Parliamentary Assembly in the midst of heightened instability in the country following the impeachment trial against him for alleged embezzlement — just a day earlier, the Assembly had convened a plenary session to discuss his impeachment.

The move was likened to the one made a few months earlier in Peru by the now-former president, Pedro Castillo. Unlike the case of Castillo, what Lasso did was completely legal and was framed in a process known as “Muerte cruzada,” whereby the incumbent president has the power to dissolve the Assembly so long as he calls for elections to be held within 90 days of the dissolution.

As per the terms established, the elections will be held on August 13 and will have eight candidates for both the presidency and the Vice-Presidency. Although Lasso could have run again, the widespread disapproval of his administration – one of the strongest in all of Latin America – put him out of the game.

The campaign officially began on July 13 and will continue for only 35 days before Ecuadorians go to the ballots on August 20. Exit polls show that the correist candidate Luisa Gonzalez has the lead, followed by Otto Sonnezholner, who identifies himself as a liberal, and Yaku Perez, who is backed by the country’s indigenous movements.

When asked about the possibility of appointing Rafael Correa to office — the former president of Ecuador who was sentenced to eight years in prison and permanently disqualified from office  — Luisa Gonzales insisted that he will be one of her main advisors and reaffirmed her strong loyalty to the former president. In the same interview, she characterized the Venezuelan regime as democratic and remarked that she “respects that (electoral) decision just as she respects that of other countries.”

Correa’s likely involvement in the next administration is worrisome for the country’s democratic stability, as he has not only been found guilty of corruption, but his administration was one of the toughest against freedom of the press in Latin America and one of the mainstays of the current Latin American dictatorships.

September 4 and 6: Mexico’s presidential candidates announced

In Mexico, if anything is becoming noticeable about the presidential pre-campaigns, it is not so much the proposed policies — which should not even be there because, legally, the campaign period has not yet started — but rather President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s participation in defining both the contenders and the narrative of the race.

Unlike other Latin American countries that have well-established primary election processes, Mexico does not have any legally established procedure to select candidates within a party, nor does it have a first-round election. Instead, for the 2024 elections, both the opposition and the ruling party have defined their own “primary” nomination methods.

In both cases, López Obrador has played a key role in driving and justifying pre-campaign activities at a time when, according to the electoral authority, political promotion of candidates is forbidden. In his own party, MORENA (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional), the guidelines for electing a “coordinator for the defense of Mexico’s fourth transformation” — a term used to avoid sanctions for campaigning ahead of time — were made public on June 11.

The “election” will take place in late August with a national poll and four “mirror” polls that will include several questions agreed upon by the candidates to determine who enjoys the strongest popular support to take over from the current president and uphold the values of the so-called “transformation.” The results will be announced on September 6 and will be final.

As such, none of the contenders has dared to disagree with the president. When asked if López Obrador ” is leading the whole process,” Claudia Sheinbaum, the most favored candidate in the polls so far, said that he gives “opinions” that are later considered and acted upon by them.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Frente Amplio Opositor will have a mixed method of election. First, all candidates must collect at least 150,000 signatures on a virtual platform; after that, three surveys will be conducted to determine the best contenders, who will then attend national and regional forums to present their proposed actions. A number of candidates who had initially expressed interest have declined to enter the race, claiming that it is in violation of the electoral law.

Among the remaining, a favorite is Xóchitl Gálvez, a Mexican politician, engineer, and businesswoman of indigenous origin who came to the fore after López Obrador denied her entry to Palacio Nacional. Since then, the president has insisted that she will be the opposition candidate and has attacked her on multiple occasions during his daily morning conference, even exposing contracts for projects awarded to Galvez.

Since making such claims is illegal, the National Electoral Institute warned him to refrain from making electoral statements, and the president responded by launching a new segment in his conferences called ” “No lo dije yo” (“I didn’t say it myself”) and then denounced an alleged dirty war against him.

Although Xóchitl’s popularity has grown more than expected, the former head of government is still more than 30 points ahead of her, a gap that will be difficult to close. It is still too early to make any conclusive statements: there may still be gaps or power shifts within the ruling party or a surprising rebound of the opposition, but so far, everything seems to indicate that the process will continue to be led under presidential rule as in the times of the PRI hegemony, the party that governed the country for 70 years.

October 22: primaries in Venezuela

On the same day as Argentina’s general elections, Venezuela will be electing a contender to replace Nicolás Maduro in 2024. After a long civic struggle, the opposition parties succeeded in ensuring that the election process would not be carried out by the highly controversial government-controlled National Electoral Committee (CNE) and that Venezuelans abroad — one-fourth of the population — would be able to participate in the process.

The primary election has been colored by the government’s sabotage attempts with false disqualifications of the main contenders. The most recent example concerns María Corina Machado, a liberal candidate and RELIAL member who has a 57% approval rating among the opposition.

The move was strongly condemned by representatives from all over the world: the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Ecuador, Colombia — a close ally of Mr. Maduro — Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, who joined the European Union, the UN, and the OAS to express their rejection of such unconstitutional act.

Meanwhile, support from within the country did not take long to appear. Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López have both repudiated the disqualification, and Henrique Capriles — the runner-up in the polls — has credited the important role that María Corina is playing in mobilizing Venezuelans in pursuit of democracy.

The opposition party in Venezuela has called on the international community to observe and lend legitimacy to the primary election and to eventually recognize the result and encourage a fair election in 2024, in which the Maduro regime can finally be overthrown.

Of all the elections taking place this year, the Venezuelan election is one of the most important because it will become a turning point between authoritarianism and democracy. If he loses in 2024, Putin would have one less ally in Latin America, and that would set a key example for freedom to triumph in the rest of the region as well.