Latin America's Democracy in 2020, the Year of the Pandemic

By Paola De Anda Mota-

Voters in Santiago de Chile cast their votes in the referendum. Source:Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse

By the end of 2020, Latin America had reported over 400,000 deaths due to COVID-19. As around the rest of the world, the pandemic changed a lot during 2020: classes had to become virtual, travel plans were cancelled and businesses had to adapt or close. It is hard to think of something the pandemic did not affect, and democracy was no exception. Nevertheless, elections were not a COVID-19 causality in Latin America, electoral authorities proved to be resilient and managed to keep electoral processes alive. This was not without its challenges, all elections had to be altered in some way, dates had to be postponed and health protocols had to be implemented to safeguard the electorate without losing credibility in the process.

Many countries in Latin America faced a dilemma in the first months of 2020. While safeguarding the health of their citizens was a priority, civil rights, like the right to elect their representatives, could not be violated. Postponing elections was the immediate reaction, but they could not be cancelled since elections are democracy’s way of making public servants accountable, something that is especially important in Latin America where it can be said that democracies are not as stable as in, say, Europe. Elections are the people’s way of showing their contempt (or discontent) with the current party or representatives. Furthermore, elections also had to be credible which presented two challenges: (i) there had to be a way of ensuring a “normal” percentage of participation while avoiding the concentration of crowds in voting centres and (ii) any kind of innovation (such as digital voting) had to be carefully analysed and considered in country-specific contexts. In sum, elections had to be held whilst following health security measures, and processes had to be credible to the population and the international community. The challenge was big but, despite difficulties, elections did survive 2020 in Latin America.

Latin America's Elections in 2020

Overall, electoral authorities rose to the challenge, from the referendum in Chile to the presidential elections in the Dominican Republic and Bolivia, democratic elections proved resilient in the region. The Dominican Republic was the first country to have elections during the pandemic (excluding Costa Rica’s municipal election of February 2nd when the pandemic had not yet affected the region). The presidential election was scheduled for May 17th but was postponed and held on July 5th. The election was both presidential and legislative, so the result would have a big impact on the country’s political future. The opposition candidate from the social democratic party (PRM) Luis Abinader, won on the first round with 52.5% of the vote. Unlike in the US elections, there were no provisions for digital or postal voting, meaning people had to physically go out and vote. Some security measures were implemented; masks were mandatory and social distancing had to be maintained. Participation reached 55.29% which is 14.3% less than the usual participation rate in the country. Despite the latter, the election ran smoothly, and results were widely accepted both nationally and internationally.

In Bolivia, the success was even bigger as participation in their general election reached 87% (average participation is of 80%), despite the tense political context of the election. This election was postponed, from May 3rd to October 18th. Masks were mandatory as well and two voting turns were established to avoid crowds. Additionally, civil society organisations and electoral authorities made sure citizens were informed of the importance of voting safely. Communication was key and it contributed to the success of this election. Even the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres congratulated Bolivia for conducting a peaceful election with a high participation rate.

Chile, Mexico and Brazil also had to reschedule elections. Chile held a successful Constitutional Referendum, where participation (51%) was two points higher than the 2017 presidential election. The positive response to the decision to re-write the constitution was widely accepted and celebrated nationally. Mexico also experienced higher participation rates in its local elections, where an opposition party won. Additionally, the country managed to implement electronic machines for voting for the first time with no major incidents. Finally, Brazil was able to celebrate municipal elections simultaneously across the country without any major problems, with a health protocol and with a relatively small increase in abstention rate (four points). Argentina, Belize, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay also postponed and held successful elections in 2020 (Peru and Paraguay postponed them to 2021).

The only non-successful election in the region during 2020 was that of Venezuela, were Nicolas Maduro’s regime regained power in the national assembly due to the boycott of the main opposition parties and an exceptionally low participation rate.

A consistent challenge in all elections was creating a way for COVID-19 patients and vulnerable individuals to vote. In some countries, this was addressed but it is a problem that should be kept in mind for electoral processes in 2021, and maybe 2022. Even though it was smart not to innovate too much with voting mechanisms in the short term to safeguard credibility, it might be something electoral authorities want to work on for future elections and future challenges. Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru will all have elections during 2021, and they all have examples to follow and to learn from. Just like the rest of the world, democracies will have to keep fighting COVID-19. Elections may be postponed and adapted, but never cancelled. Political rights cannot be violated with the excuse of avoiding contagion.

Democracy and COVID-19 in Latin America

Of course, democracy is much more than elections. Not all democratic rights were preserved in Latin America during the pandemic. Some lockdown measures violated personal freedoms and people were detained unfairly in some countries. El Salvador is an example of this, as Nayib Bukele abused his presidential power in the name of protecting the country from COVID-19. Bukele decreed that people found on the streets without a valid reason would be sent to “quarantine centres”. Thousands were held in such facilities without even checking whether or not they carried the virus and without a proper process for detention. Furthermore, both the V-dem Institute and Freedom House have published reports about democratic backslide and democratic standards violations in the region as a whole during the pandemic.

Moreover, the Global State of Democracy (GSoD) by IDEA International highlights the many challenges that democracy faced in Latin America even before the pandemic: the spill-over effect on the region caused by the democratic collapse of Venezuela, high levels of corruption, inequality (highest in the world), insecurity, crimes and violence. These challenges have undermined people’s trust in democracy, and in 2020 the region presented the lowest levels of support for democracy in a decade. Additionally, it is the region with the largest share of countries experiencing decreases in freedom of expression. The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the situation for the region. IDEA International placed at least one development of concern for democracy and human rights during the pandemic in 7 countries that had no signs of democratic erosion prior to the pandemic (Mexico, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Argentina, Barbados and Paraguay). Furthermore, Latin America is a region that has relied heavily on the military to manage the sanitary situation as the army in multiple countries became more involved in essential tasks and enforcing lockdown measures. This has given rise to a fear amongst many that governments will continue to use their militaries to enforce the law and provide basic services, even beyond the COVID-19 era, which may be a danger for democracy.

Overall, of course, it was a challenging year for the region, but as has been made clear, electoral authorities rose to the challenge and elections proved resilient. Except for Venezuela, the political right to clean and fair elections was preserved. This was possible because electoral authorities and institutions, like national electoral tribunals, showed their efficiency and willingness to defend democracy. Within months, health protocols were put in place and new dates were set. Electoral authorities/institutions also worked with civil society organizations and health specialists to make sure the population was informed and safe. As also discussed, other facets of democracy will continue to face many challenges in the region, but clean and fair elections seem to be safe and that is something to celebrate.



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