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4 Lessons learned from the elections in Ecuador and Guatemala

Elections in Ecuador and Guatemala on Sunday highlighted key trends across Latin America, including anti-corruption campaigns, the growing importance of young voters and calls to emulate El Salvador's crackdown on crime.

In Ecuador, where the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio this month rocked the election campaign, mainstream leftist Luisa González will face Daniel Noboa, the scion of a wealthy family known for their banana empire, in a runoff.

And in Guatemala, progressive anti-corruption campaigner Bernardo Arévalo won in a landslide victory over former first lady Sandra Torres, dealing a blow to the country's conservative political establishment.

As concerns simmered about the erosion of the rule of law and the rising power of drug gangs in different parts of Latin America, the vote was closely watched for what the results could mean.

Ecuador and Guatemala each face a different set of challenges, and while the difficulty of effectively governing both countries can hardly be overstated, the new leaders will have to grapple with controlling organized crime and economic opportunities to create to keep their citizens at home instead of emigrating.

The current star on Latin America's political scene is El Salvador's conservative populist President Nayib Bukele, for his success in using hard-line tactics to quell gang violence, including mass arrests that have killed thousands of innocent people and the gouging out of the civil liberties. But expectations that advocates of the Bukele gospel on crime would sail to victory were dashed in Ecuador and Guatemala.

“It's remarkable that the blatant admirers of Nayib Bukele's tough anti-criminal gang policies in El Salvador never fared well,” said Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization.

Despite the shock of Mr. Villavicencio's assassination, explicit anti-crime candidates in Ecuador split their votes. Jan Topic, who was closely allied with Mr Bukele, fared poorly despite rising poll numbers after the assassination.

“He ran a single-issue campaign that had a strong focus on security,” Risa Grais-Targow, Eurasia Group's Latin America director, said of Mr. Topic. “But voters have other concerns, including those related to the economy.”

Also in Guatemala — where fears of a slide toward authoritarian rule were mounting — Ms Torres' pledge to introduce Bukele-style policies had little effect. Instead, the former first lady was put on the defensive by her rival after she was under house arrest for a period related to allegations of illegal campaign finance.

Influencing the outcome: moves by the Guatemalan electoral authority to simply disqualify candidates deemed a threat to the existing order.

One of the candidates eliminated before the first round in June was Carlos Pineda, an outsider who wanted to emulate Mr Bukele's approach to crime. When Mr Pineda and others were disqualified, it presented a chance for Mr Arévalo, another outsider, albeit his crime-fighting proposals are more nuanced.

The election results in Ecuador and Guatemala depended to a large extent on the decisions of young voters. In Ecuador, Mr. Noboa, 35, a businessman and newcomer to politics, was in an electoral doldrums just a few weeks ago.

But by capitalizing on youth support while portraying himself as an outsider, Mr. Noboa unexpectedly made it into the runoff with about 24 percent of the vote. (Perhaps the notoriety of the name also helped; his father, Álvaro Noboa, one of the wealthiest men in Ecuador, ran unsuccessfully for president five times.)

In Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America, Mr. Arévalo, 64, also benefited from the support of young people, especially in cities drawn by his calls to end the political persecution of human rights activists, environmentalists, journalists, prosecutors, etc. judges.

Mr Arévalo also took a more moderate stance on social issues. While he said he would not seek to legalize abortion or gay marriage, he made it clear that his government would not allow discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation.

This position, somewhat new in Guatemala, was in sharp contrast to that of Ms Torres, who nominated an evangelical pastor to be her vice president and campaigned using a homophobic slur to refer to Mr Arévalo's supporters.

Guatemala and Ecuador offered starkly contrasting visions for the left in Latin America.

In fact, Mr. Arévalo, who criticizes left-wing governments like Nicaragua's, is often described as progressive within Guatemala's traditionally conservative political landscape. In this sense he is more like Gabriel Boric, the moderate young president of Chile, than the arsonists elsewhere in the region.

Also, Mr Arévalo's party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), which amalgamated following anti-corruption protests in 2015, is unlike any other party in Guatemala in recent decades. Semilla attracted attention because she campaigned principled and rigorously and clearly stated her sources of funding, in contrast to the opaque funding prevailing in other parties. Another source of inspiration for Semilla is Uruguay's Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a moderate left-of-centre democratic party.

“Arévalo is a Democrat through and through,” said Will Freeman, fellow in Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Ms. González, on the other hand, comes from a different segment of the Latin American left that, in the case of Ecuador, is characterized as testing democratic separation of powers, Mr. Freeman said. She is a supporter of Rafael Correa, a former Ecuadorian president who, despite being out of power for six years, remains a dominant force in the country's politics.

Mr Correa, who lives in Belgium after escaping an eight-year prison sentence for campaign finance violations, continues to command a strong base that fluctuates between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate.

This support is largely a result of “nostalgia for that moment of well-being that prevailed during the Correa era,” said Caroline Ávila, a political analyst in Ecuador.

The races in Ecuador and Guatemala highlighted a broader regional trend: the uncertainty and volatility of Latin American politics.

Polls in both countries failed to capture key developments. In Ecuador, where Mr. Topic exploited the aftermath of the Villavicencio assassination, Mr. Noboa threw himself into the runoff.

And in Guatemala, Mr Arévalo, a professorial candidate who sometimes reads his speeches and lacks the oratory skills of his rivals, was considered harmless by the establishment – until he won the runoff.

With his overwhelming victory, Mr. Arévalo now received more votes than any other candidate since democracy was restored in Guatemala in 1985.

It's a scenario not even predicted by many within Mr Arévalo's own party.

Simon Romero And Jody Garcia reports from Guatemala City and Genevieve Glatsky from Bogota, Colombia.

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