Super Election Year in Latin America: Peace, Polls & Populism

2018 marks a decisive year for Latin America with six presidential elections that will reshape the political landscape for the foreseeable future. As the continent shifts to the right and female political leaders depart, the backlash against gender equality and LGBTQ rights becomes inevitable.

A Comment by Lena Riemer

 

The presidential elections in Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil, and the legislative elections in El Salvador and Cuba will prove that a whole continent is shifting to the right. The most recent parliamentary elections in Colombia were the first elections since the signing of the peace agreement, with an outcome that is little surprising. The right-wing party Centro Democratico lead the vote, therefore weakened the support of the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC.

The early February elections in Costa Rica, Latin America’s oldest democracy, were said to be one of the country’s most unpredictable ever and considered as warning shots for what is about to change in South America. Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, conservative congressman, pastor and Christian singer, won 25 percent of the votes and the first round of Costa Rica’s presidential elections. While his strongest opponent ex-minister Carlos Alvarado Quesada (not related) received 22 percent. Both candidates will compete for a second time in the runoffs on 1 April.

 

Same-sex marriage and LGBT rights in many Latin American countries in jeopardy

Just before the elections, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights published a pronouncement forcing Costa Rica to recognise same-sex marriage and more LGBT rights. But no same-sex couples were married, as local governments have yet to implement the court’s decision. Alvarado Muñoz cashed in on the combination of frustration of many voters and opposed the ruling. He surged up the popularity scale within weeks and hit a nerve with his anti-establishment campaign by pointing out that progressive policies in favour of gender equality are to be seen as an elitist attack on the country’s traditional values.

Similar campaigns started to emerge all over the continent and helped conservative candidates to rise. A simple explanation for Latin America’s shift from left to right in recent years cannot be given as the reasons vary from country to country. One possible reason might be the mix of anti-establishment reactions fueled by declining economies, high unemployment rates, violent crime and a return to old values in vast parts of society. The two remaining left-wing presidents in the region, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, are not known for being at the forefront of promoting gender equality and LGBTQ rights. But in 2016, Bolivia has made first steps towards adopting a new law that allows people to change their gender on identity documents.

At the same time, there is the heated debate between pro- and anti-abortion groups. Conservative social movements push to ban abortion totally to revoke any kind of public policy based on gender equality. Popular evangelical churches are too strong opponents of these rights. Meanwhile, violence against women increases. A report by UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme stresses that nearly all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have implemented policies to curb violence against women. However, the region is still considered the most violent. The report also provides evidence of a correlation between violence against women, the backlash against gender rights and the rise of right-wing parties.

 

The end of an era of female leaders in Latin America

When the term of Chile’s current President Michelle Bachelet comes to an end in March 2018, conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera will be taking over. For a few years, she and her colleagues Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) and Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica) represented more than half of the continent’s population. The quadriga of female leaders had pushed for a more equitable footing for women in politics, for example, by introducing a quota system for more equal representation of women in high-profile positions, even if their attempts to put more women in power might not necessarily improve gender equality. But with Bachelet’s departure the chances of progressive advocacy throughout the continent vanish in thin air.

In Colombia, the upcoming presidential elections on 27 May are seen as a test for the achievements in the area of women’s rights. During the peace negotiations women played a fundamental role which was regarded as a blueprint for peace transformation. According to the UN’s Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index, Colombia is still ranked amongst the countries with the fewest women in political positions. The absence of powerful women is therefore evident during the ongoing presidential campaign: only three out of sixteen presidential candidates are female. Having these developments in mind, the future for women’s rights and equal representation in politics in Columbia looks rather gloomy.

The success of right-wing parties during Latin America’s super election year will definitely challenge the accomplishments of the past with regards to female empowerment and gender equality. In fact, Latin Americans are facing a backlash against human rights. The super election year 2018 has started with a victory for a right-wing populist in Costa Rica, followed by another right-wing victory in the parliamentary elections in Colombia putting the young peace accord at risk. Only the next few years will unravel the consequences of this hopefully only temporary shift to the right.

 

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image source: “Colombian Woman Reading Newspaper, Fonseca”, Adam Cohn, http://bit.ly/2FfitGe, licensed under Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

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Lena Riemer

Lena is a doctoral student researching on the prohibition of collective expulsion in public international law at Freie Universität Berlin and works as a research assistant at the international and interdisciplinary doctoral and postdoctoral graduate school Human Rights under Pressure. At Polis180, she is active in a project focussing on the role of women in the Colombian peace process.

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