An anti-corruption comedian and political neophyte in Guatemala, an opposition upset in Argentina, a return to the center in Colombia, and a long tense wait in Haiti.
As the hemisphere hit the ballot box Sunday in four key elections, the unifying themes seemed to be change and peace. In Guatemala and Argentina, which held presidential elections, and in Colombia, which voted for local officials, citizens bucked trends and defied polls as they pushed back against the status quo.
And yet amid sometimes tight, heated and contentious races, initial reports suggest that these were some of the most orderly and peaceful elections in recent times, particularly in long-troubled Haiti and Colombia.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of super Sunday came in Argentina, where the opposition mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, spoiled predictions and came within a hair of tying Daniel Scioli — who has the backing of President Cristina Fernández.
Scioli won 37 percent of the vote versus Macri’s 34 percent. In third place was Sergio Massa, a one-time Fernández ally turned rival, with 21 percent. The results set the stage for a Scioli-Macri runoff Nov. 22.
Despite his win, the outcome was an upset for Scioli, who had been leading some polls by as much as 10 points. But 12 years of Kirchnerismo, which started with Fernández’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner in 2003, seemed to weigh on voters.
In that sense, Fernández’s populist policies and high-drama political style seem to be losing their luster amid a tanking economy and eroding security, said Jason Marczak, the deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington.
“The skin has come off the onion in terms of the real state of the Argentine economy,” he said. “People see what’s looming on the horizon.”
“Macri represents the incentive to reach out to the foreign investor community, to implement the market reforms that were anathema to Cristina Fernández,” he added.
The results could make the No. 3 candidate, Massa, a political powerbroker, as both contenders vie for his endorsement.
But Massa’s supporters may not be able to be herded as a bloc, said Cynthia Arnson with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“He is certainly trying to position himself as the deal breaker and be courted by both camps,” she said, “but he has a lot of differences with Scioli and Macri.”
And the runoff could prove tricky for Macri, who must walk a fine line between promoting economic reforms and challenging the subsidies that have been one of the hallmarks of the Fernández administration.
“I think people identify the center-right with people who impose economic adjustments and take away benefits,” Arnson said of Macri. They’re seen as “implementing policies that favor the private sector to the detriment of working class and middle class Argentines.”
Whether the country is willing to take that leap could determine the legacy of Kirchnerismo.
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If Argentina was a battle between old political hands, in Guatemala the electorate gave its overwhelming support to Jimmy Morales, whose only previous political experience was playing the president in a movie for laughs.
Morales, a well-known comedian, campaigned as an anti-corruption crusader who backs the death penalty. He won an overwhelming 72 percent of the vote versus former first lady Sandra Torres’ 28 percent.
Morales was swept into power amid disgust with the traditional political class and huge marches that led to the ouster of President Otto Pérez and his vice president earlier this year on corruption charges.
In that environment, Morales’ campaign slogan was telling: “Not corrupt and not a thief.”
“Guatemala is interesting in that it shows this increasing trend across Latin America that the peoples’ voice actually matter and peoples’ votes count,”’ Marczak said.
Morales’ election is “a very positive development in terms of holding the elites responsible,” he added.
But the forces that swept him into power could make governing complicated if he doesn’t make good on the expectations he’s built as a reformer.
“He is inexperienced politically,” Arnson said. “And there have been a lot of concerns about the conservative right-wing members of the military who backed him.”
The big question is “will he be able to respond to those demands for change?” Arnson asked. “My guess is not.”
In Haiti, where 54 candidates were vying for president in Sunday’s vote, tensions were beginning to escalate Monday amid allegations of voter fraud and complaints from party observers that they weren’t being allowed to witness the final vote count. Authorities say it will take more than a week to provide a final tally.
Even so, the country was earning praise for avoiding the armed violence at the polls and chaos that plagued a legislative first-round vote Aug. 9.
Rosny Desroches, the executive director of a local observer group, said the public disapproval of the August election helped set the stage for Sunday’s vote.
“There was a big moral sanction by the Haitian population over what happened Aug. 9,” he said. “I believe everyone realized that the country doesn’t send a beautiful image when there is violence like that during an event as important as choosing leaders.”
Even so, local observers reported that parties were selling accreditation badges (for political party monitors to vote) to the highest bidder. And it remains unclear if the calm will prevail as votes are counted and at least four candidates continue to declare themselves the winner.
Contender Moise Jean-Charles, from northern Haiti, said Monday that his votes were stolen and his supporters took to the streets.
Authorities have asked the media and candidates to refrain from publishing anything resembling results.
On Monday, opposition presidential candidate Jude Celestin asked for people to stop issuing false results to try and manipulate the outcome of the vote.
“These are people who have no interest in Haiti, who want to manipulate the people and have us fighting against each other,” said Celestin, who worried that his candidacy might be in danger.
In 2010, he was pulled from the ballot under international pressure in favor of President Michel Martelly amid fraud allegations.
“I feel my country is in danger because there are people who do not want to respect the people’s vote,” he said. “2015 will not pass the same way as 2010.”
In Colombia, which elected local officials Sunday, the big winner wasn’t in the race: Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, whose Cambio Radical party made broad gains and set the stage for his presidential run in 2018.
The outcome was also positive for President Juan Manuel Santos’ governing coalition, which includes the U Party, the Liberal Party and Cambio Radical. Together, they won 28 out of 32 governor’s posts.
The backdrop of the race is ongoing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. That peace deal is expected to be signed early next year, meaning this batch of governors and mayors will have to implement the agreement.
“I invite all of you — and when I say all, I mean all, friends and adversaries — to keep moving toward the end of the conflict and toward a just and lasting peace,” Santos said.
The capital of Bogotá elected Enrique Peñalosa, who led the city from 1998-2001, as its mayor. The triumph of the well-known urbanization guru put an end to 12 years of left-wing rule, as the populace had grown weary of traffic and crime in this city of 8 million.
In the second-city of Medellin, former city council member Federico Andrés Gutiérrez staged a come-from-behind victory over Juan Carlos Roberto Vélez, who had the backing of former President Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party.
In that sense, it was a stinging defeat for Uribe, who was once governor of Antioquia and considered Medellin one of his strongholds. His party only won two mayors’ seats and two governorships — one of those, in Tolima, with a coalition.
But the biggest winner may have been the nation. Despite some sporadic violence, including the murder of one officer, Colombia’s police said the election was among the most peaceful in over a decade.
Santos said election violence was down 60 percent from 2011.
“Colombia voted in peace and for peace,” he said.
However, that satisfaction might not last long. On Monday, there were reports that the nation’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, had killed 11 soldiers.