Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Electoral Challenge for the Western Hemisphere

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Protesters in Monterrey Mexico, brandish a mock ballot box with a “for sale” sign. Photo: HANS-MAXIMO MUSIELIK/LATINCONTENT/GETTY

Reading Time: 5 minutes
After more than three decades of experience with representative democracy, most Latin American countries have successfully reduced ballot-stuffing and other forms of election-day fraud, only to be faced with a different challenge: ensuring that elections are truly competitive. The legacy of concentrating power in iconic personalities or political parties gives incumbents around the region an overwhelming advantage that distorts the political process and creates an uneven playing field—a form of corruption just as insidious as the old-fashioned version.

To address this challenge, multilateral organizations, international NGOs, governments, legislatures, and national electoral commissions need to work together to establish a clear set of approaches and norms to ensure fairness, transparency and voter choice, before and during election campaigns.

The Problem

Incumbent executives tend to win elections. Why? Sometimes they are rewarded for good performance, but too often incumbents have access to state resources that can swing public opinion in their favor—such as timely “gifts” of infrastructure projects or welfare programs at election time. In some cases, these pre-election gifts may be quite legal; but the process is also open to abuses, such as the siphoning of government funds for use in campaigns and shady fundraising. In the past year, incumbent advantage became an issue in several elections. Venezuelans refer to ventajismo—or “extreme advantage”—to describe exploiting an incumbent’s access to state resources for electoral advantage, such as obligatory broadcast of presidential messages, participation of government officials in campaign activities, and use of government vehicles to transport voters. In Colombia, the opposition complained that mermelada—literally “marmalade”—or financing provided by the executive to legislators for their districts—influenced opposition legislators to use their own political machines to favor the president. In Panama, critics charged that former President Ricardo Martinelli exerted his influence to secure the nomination of his wife and former first lady, Marta Linares de Martinelli, to run as a vice presidential candidate in the May 2014 presidential elections.

Before the 1990s, most Latin American constitutions prohibited presidents from running for a second term. The ban was a direct response to a long history of strongmen who hid behind an electoral façade to stay in power indefinitely. In the past two decades, however, many presidents have persuaded friendly legislatures to reverse these bans, arguing they should have the right to continue their work. This has turned into a worrying trend—reinforcing the problem of incumbent advantage. Today, only four countries prohibit second presidential terms. Eight countries (including the U.S.) allow a leader to run for re-election after his or her first term ends; another eight allow presidents to re-enter the electoral struggle after a specific amount of time has elapsed. Presidents who hit the campaign trail for another term are usually rewarded by voters. Since 1990, the only Latin American president who lost a bid for immediate re-election was Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic in 2004.

A new trend toward indefinite re-election makes the need for rules and enforcement to ensure competitive elections even more urgent. Constitutional amendments removing presidential term limits passed in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez in 2009 and in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega in January 2014, with Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa in May proposing a similar reform. Such unlimited mandates could be dangerous. As multiple-term presidents concentrate more power in the executive branch, the system of checks and balances is weakened and the growth of an insider clique around a strong president responsible for appointments in the judiciary and financial administration reduces public accountability.


In itself, a second or third term is not undemocratic: if incumbent politicians or parties are doing a good job, it is rational for voters to be given the chance to return them to office. But the campaigns must be truly competitive. Opponents must have a fair shot at gaining office, and voters’ ability to decide against an incumbent cannot be impeded. The challenge is how to compensate for the natural advantages of incumbency and prevent the abuse of state power.

Three things are needed: effective regulations to enhance equitable campaign conditions; independent election and judicial authorities who can enforce those regulations; and a stronger hemisphere-wide norm for assessing the fairness and transparency of the entire electoral process—rather than just conditions on voting day.

Several countries have experimented with a variety of regulations to control incumbent advantage and enhance electoral competitiveness. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico prohibit the inauguration of public works during a campaign. Brazil also prohibits the government from distributing free goods and services, and prohibits the sitting president from making major public broadcasts during a campaign that are not part of the horário eleitoral gratuito—or free airtime—that is given to each presidential candidate.

Many other countries also provide free television access for campaign spots to enhance equitable competition, and Argentina, Brazil and Mexico further prohibit the private purchase of campaign ads on television and radio. Every country in the hemisphere except Venezuela provides some type of public financing to parties or candidates, which levels the playing field and also helps smaller parties compete. In the U.S., however, this financing is only for presidential campaigns and has been eschewed by candidates in the two most recent elections to avoid caps on campaign spending.

Although scholars and international election-monitoring organizations have long emphasized that the entire electoral process must be considered in evaluating the quality of elections, there is a tendency by the media and foreign governments to focus only on election-day activity: if no fraud is found in the vote count, election results are generally accepted. But if elections are truly to provide a democratic choice, citizens must have an equal chance to participate, both as voters and candidates. Voter registration, legal criteria to run for office and transparent dispute resolution are all crucial aspects, but campaign conditions described above typically have been the hardest aspects of an election to measure and evaluate.

Fortunately, there has been progress in identifying international standards for democratic elections and assessing compliance with them. The Carter Center’s Democratic Election Standards database identifies the international obligations that each state has committed to in the form of international treaties, protocols and agreements. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have designed methods to evaluate the often opaque elements of political finance—perhaps the trickiest part of election observation. International and national election observer groups have made strides in monitoring the balance in media coverage of campaigns and estimating campaign expenditures.

Yet, there is no hemispheric agreement on who will assess, and how to assess, elections. Despite the widely touted norm of international election observation, differing views on the role of outsiders in assessing elections exist: the U.S. and the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay do not invite outside observers; while other countries that had previously invited international observers, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, no longer do.

Even where international observer missions are invited, the willingness of the missions to publicly criticize or to recommend changes is inconsistent. In the OAS and the European Union, though observation procedures are well-established, the person selected to lead the observer delegation (chief of mission) sets the tone, which can vary widely across elections. The Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas—UNASUR) is the new “kid on the block” in election monitoring and is still developing its own standards and procedures. It has, thus far, varied its approach according to the desires of the inviting government—at times giving no public reports at all, such as in Venezuela in 2012 and 2013.

Developing a consensus on international standards for democratic elections that includes equitable campaign conditions is the next hurdle to overcome in achieving election quality. Citizens are the foot soldiers in this battle—either as national observers or as political party poll watchers—and they need to be well trained in the modern techniques for monitoring campaign equity, including equitable access to media, transparent campaign finance, and use of state resources.

At the same time, the civil society and multilateral organizations that have worked to establish free and fair elections have an important role to play in maintaining norms and practices. Those organizations should encourage a standard that recognizes and welcomes international observer groups that adhere to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observers. After the hemisphere’s long struggle for democracy, it would be a shame to allow Latin America’s old-style politics to return through the back door.

Tags: Democracy in Latin America, Electoral Reform, UNASUR
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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