By Dan Restrepo, Fellow, Center for American Progress
With Argentina’s mid-term election in the books, U.S.-based Latin America watchers are engaging in their usual, predictable responses – a series of overbroad generalizations about the implications of the result for the region’s politics, especially as the region enters a stretch of critical presidential elections.
There are some common political dynamics afoot in much of the Americas. But, those looking to extrapolate from Argentina’s election to the other key economies facing presidential elections–Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil–should take Cambiemos’ win for what it is and nothing more.
Mauricio Macri’s party’s electoral success and continued advances in Argentine politics is, first and foremost, welcome news for those looking to invest in a revitalized and more open Argentina. It provides wind in the sails of continued reform efforts and bodes well for Macri’s re-election chances, even if two years is an eternity in politics.
In less tangible ways, President Macri’s success also rightly provides much-needed psychological comfort to those reeling in the face of global advances by illiberal political actors. It was a win, albeit on local issues, for those siding with greater openness and regional interconnection. It was a win for “open” in what is the fundamental divide dominating global politics today—the contest between those who favor open versus closed societies and economies.
It should not, however, be understood as a sign that populism is in permanent retreat in the Americas or as evidence that the political right is ascendant across the region. Neither is likely the case—a leftist, populist, for example, is currently leading the polls in Latin America’s second largest country.
Taken together, the next four major economies to hold presidential elections in Latin America- Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – represent nearly two thirds of the region’s combined GDP and are home to over 60 percent of the region’s consumers. Three of the four–Chile, Colombia, and Mexico–have been instrumental in propelling forward the region’s most important economic integration effort–the Pacific Alliance.
Moreover, each of the four currently is led by a government that, regardless of ideology, has generally come down on the side of greater economic openness. But the candidates running in those elections do not all share the Open view. As a result, 14 months from now the picture of Open vs. Closed in the Americas could look quite different, a reality with huge implications for those doing business across the region.
Although these four elections will undoubtedly be influenced by some of the region-wide currents–frustration with elites, anti-corruption pushes, and skepticism in democracy’s ability to deliver–their outcomes will turn more on country-specific dynamics, electoral system quirks, and candidate personalities than on those region-wide currents.
In Mexico, for example, growing political fragmentation and a plurality winner system, means the next president could win with as little as 30 percent of the vote, or even less. The election will also likely be regularly buffeted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. And, rearing its head as always will be Mexico’s machine politics. These factors–small margins, outside propaganda, and machine politics–are more likely to determine the winner than will the candidate’s stance as a populist outsider or establishment figure.
In Colombia, by contrast, the election will depend heavily on candidates’ decisions regarding standing alone or joining in coalition. Colombia has a two-round election and serious political fragmentation. To become president then, the series of strong-personality politicians running will have to properly assess the risk of running alone or joining in meaningful coalition early to share eventual power.
In short, what happened in Argentina tells us next to nothing about the potentially determinative forces at play in Mexico or Colombia. Similarly, it tells us next to nothing about what will happen in Chile or Brazil.
To have any chance of properly reading the tea leaves of those four elections requires understanding and analyzing each country’s specific electoral quirks and political dynamics, not just region-wide currents. Given the size of the economies involved, what happens could have seismic political and economic implications; it’s worth the effort for anyone doing business in Latin America to do that work.
Daniel Restrepo is the founder of international strategy firm Restrepo Strategies LLC, which provides strategic and communications counsel to clients engaged in or exploring business opportunities throughout the Americas, as well as to leaders of some of the region’s key multilateral institutions. He served as President Barack Obama’s principal advisor on the Western Hemisphere for nearly six years.
Restrepo is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a regular conference speaker, an on-air contributor for CNN Español/CNN, and Special Counsel at the law firm Jones Walker LLP. Restrepo, his wife and their two daughters live in Washington, DC.