Thursday, 22 March 2012

Elections in Mexico and Venezuela

Francisco Diaz and I have written a piece for Policy Network on the two important elections coming up in Latin America.

I will try something new for this blog, and in addition to linking to the original, I am including the entire text here, for easy reading.

here goes

The Big Latin American Elections of 2012
There are years in which the electoral stars seem to align, where a series of elections bring with them the capacity to revamp the political map. This is not one of those years. However, two Latin American countries will hold elections that have the potential to alter the regional landscape. 
Together with Brazil, both Mexico and Venezuela are amongst the most politically and economically relevant countries in the region. Each, at different times in their history, have sought to play the role of regional leader, and each have a natural resource – petroleum – which makes them key economic players and important trading partners for the United States. In recent years, however, Mexico and Venezuela have chosen different paths towards development. The upcoming presidential elections will place those paths to the test, or at least to the ballot.
In Mexico, the ruling right wing PAN will be represented by Josefina Vasquez Mota. In a country where politics remains strongly dominated by men, the female candidate has a certain appeal, but also very real challenges. Not least of these is that her party has ruled Mexico in the decade during which it has descended into drug cartel-fuelled violence. One of the ways in which the PAN is attempting to divert attention from its disastrous record on security is to remind voters of the corruption under the PRI, which ruled the country as a quasi one party state for much of the twentieth century. However, the PRI’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, is clearly leading the polls (casting around 50%, over 20% Vásquez). Peña has been able to present a politically centrist position which is enhanced by his good communication skills.   
Where does this leave the leftist PRD? Pretty much where it was after the 2009 presidential elections; divided between those who desire a forward-looking, modern social democracy on the one hand, and the firebrand leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who has barely got over his razor-thin electoral defeat last time around. AMLO ranks third in every poll, almost 5% below PAN.
If AMLO’s performance is somehow beholden to his past record, the same can be said, only more so, for Venezuela’s opposition, which will face Hugo Chavez in presidential elections in October. Since Chavez came to power he has faced virtually no organised opposition, thanks in part to his own institutional reengineering, but in large measure to the opposition’s internal division and ineptitude. With the selection in February of Henrique Capriles Radonski as its candidate, it appears the opposition has finally got its act together. Not only will Capriles represent a united opposition, he also presents a very different face of the sector. Unlike previous opposition to Chavez, which was tied to traditional parties and interests, Capriles represents a young, modern kind of social democratic vision much more along the lines of a Lula or Lagos. He has actually said that he wants to emulate the Chilean centre-left coalition, the Concertacion. It is a vision that veers away from a state-dominated economy but also seeks an active role for the state in the provision of public services such as health care. All the while, there is an awareness that Venezuela’s runaway public spending will have to be tackled. Chavez still leads in the polls, by a 15-18% margin, but Capriles is campaigning hard. It seems that these will be the first highly contested elections since Chavez came to power in 1998.
Both the Mexican and Venezuelan cases present real challenges for social democracy in general, and for possibilities of electoral success. For much of the past decade the centre-left in these countries has found it difficult to gain a firm footing in shifting political sands. However the elections taking place this year also offer the opportunity to reconstruct a disarticulated left, away from demagoguery and towards a forward looking and healthy social democracy which seeks economic growth but also emphasises well and responsibly funded social policy, all within the context of a vibrant democracy.

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