Acute political polarization has been a common characteristic of Latin American politics for decades, with deep economic inequalities often sharpening the ideological divisions among the region's political parties. Whenever a presidential election rolls around, understanding these ideological differences has typically been key to ascertaining the direction of the country going to the polls. This year's presidential elections in Brazil and Colombia, however, promise to be like no other in Latin America. Widespread corruption scandals and economic slowdown have hit both countries' traditional political parties hard. As a result, fragmentation – rather than polarization – will be the watchword of the day as elections in Brazil and Colombia will likely catapult an outsider into power in both countries.
This fragmentation, however, is a double-edged sword: While it can help propel a president to power, such divisiveness also makes it harder for presidents to form stable and durable coalitions in Congress. And a lack of congressional support is no trifling matter in Latin America, as three sitting presidents – including Brazil's sitting president and his predecessor – have faced impeachment votes in the last two years alone.
A Poisoned Chalice Awaits Brazil's Winner
Some of Latin America's sharpest political divisions are in Brazil, where flexible electoral rules have permitted small political powers to proliferate. Because of the lack of an electoral threshold, there are over 30 political parties represented in Brazil's Congress. The ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement is the largest party in the lower house but controls a mere 12 percent of the total seats. Unsurprisingly, such parliamentary arithmetic makes an incumbent highly vulnerable in the event that he or she fails to form a broad ruling coalition in Congress. Such a system creates strange bedfellows: To survive, many presidents have been compelled to allocate control of ministries and government agencies to ideologically opposing political parties in exchange for their support in Congress.
The consequences of failing to secure support in Congress are clear for all to see. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was forced from office as a result of an impeachment vote, while her successor, Michel Temer, avoided the same fate. While Temer has survived for now, he remains vulnerable following the delicate negotiations he pursued to remain in power.
After coming to power, Temer succeeded in forming a broad coalition in Congress, but members of the grouping have indicated that they could part ways come the October 2018 presidential election. Indeed, many of his erstwhile partners are already entertaining plans to nominate their own candidates.
Temer himself appears unlikely to throw his hat into the ring again due to an approval rating that has fallen to a paltry 7 percent. Temer's involvement in corruption scandals, as well as his perceived responsibility for austerity measures and slow economic recovery following a two-year recession, have all served to decimate support for his presidency. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party will likely nominate Sao Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, while parties that have hitherto backed Temer, such as the Social Democratic Party and the Democrats, are considering whether to run Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles and the president of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, respectively.
All of these candidates, however, lack popular support due to their association with Temer's administration. According to the latest opinion polls, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva leads the race with support of around 30 percent, followed by two candidates from smaller parties, the populist right-wing Congressman Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) and the pro-environment contender Marina Silva of the Sustainability Network Party. Despite da Silva's enduring popularity, his candidacy could soon be terminated if a federal court upholds a nine-year prison sentence for graft at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 24. In the event that da Silva is barred from running, Brazil's presidential election could go to a second round between Bolsonaro and Silva, according to a recent poll conducted by Parana Pesquisas.
But while the Jan. 24 court ruling could make Bolsonaro and Silva the front-runners for the job of leading Brazil, the pair would face similar predicaments if they emerge victorious. Bolsonaro's PSL controls less than 1 percent of the total seats in the lower house, while Silva's party possesses just four of 513 seats in Brazil's lower house and 1 of 81 seats in the Senate. Accordingly, both candidates would need to negotiate with several parties just to secure a bare majority in Congress; otherwise, they would become extremely vulnerable to the prospect of impeachment following any political crisis. A Bolsonaro presidency would likely focus on security issues, while Silva would be expected to champion the environment. In spite of their vast differences, however, both candidates would likely continue to pursue economic liberalization in Brazil.
Further outsiders such as former Supreme Court head Joaquim Barbosa and TV presenter Luciano Huck could also mount challenges, but both would suffer from a similar lack of solid congressional support if they win. Critically, Brazil is negotiating a series of regional trade deals, and any new president would need to secure cooperation with Congress to ensure their implementation.
The Prospects of Pyrrhic Victory in Colombia
Like Brazil, Colombia's legislature is also riven by division. President Juan Manuel Santos may have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, but his lack of popularity has resulted in the collapse of his ruling coalition ahead of May's presidential vote – which is just as well, as he is unable to run for re-election. Santos enjoyed strong backing from four large political parties in both houses of Congress when he came to power in 2010, but an economic slowdown, a polarizing peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a corruption probe into illegal campaign financing in the 2014 presidential campaign have divided the parties to the extent that they have failed to nominate a common candidate. The various problems have left the country's voters disillusioned with the traditional political parties and prevented Santos from finding an heir apparent to defend his legacy. As a result, a number of candidates, including both independents and members of smaller parties, can realistically entertain hopes of winning.
One candidate who could benefit from a more open playing field is Sergio Fajardo, an independent who is currently leading the polls, according to a national survey conducted last month. Fajardo, who is close to environmental and other social movements, currently leads the race with 18.7 percent support, according to the survey. Left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro trails in second place with 14.3 percent, followed by center-right politician German Vargas Lleras with 12 percent and Humberto de la Calle, the former chief negotiator in the FARC peace talks, with 9.1 percent. Other candidates include conservative candidate Martha Lucia Ramirez at 8.7 percent and Ivan Duque, who is backed by Santos' hawkish predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, at 8.4 percent. Although Fajardo currently has the support of less than one-fifth of Colombians, the independent is likely to win in a second round against any opponent, according to the poll.
The survey indicates that the elections will be very open and that non-traditional political forces have a high chance of grabbing the presidency due to the extent of the division in Congress. Though Fajardo (as governor of Antioquia) and Petro (as mayor of Bogota) have previously held office, they are not part of Colombia's traditional political elite – something that could benefit them enormously come May.
A Fajardo presidency would likely display a strong pro-environment stance, while a Petro administration could result in more public spending, corporate tax hikes and state intervention in the economy. Crucially, both favor upholding the landmark peace deal with the FARC. Fajardo and Petro, however, are hamstrung by small party structures in Congress that could render them too weak to move forward on critical issues such as peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest rebel group in the country.
What's certain is that Colombia and Brazil will witness wide-open elections featuring many presidential candidates who are bullish on their chances of coming to power. Who emerges victorious in both countries remains anyone's guess, but the winners appear set to struggle to cobble together a coalition capable of backing their visions for their respective countries. In the absence of any leading candidate from a party with a strong congressional presence, legislative instability beckons for Colombia and Brazil.