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How did Latin America’s first pandemic election go?

. Jul 06, 2020
Dominican President-elect Luis Abinader. Photo: Still via CNN español Dominican President-elect Luis Abinader. Photo: Still via CNN español

Free and fair elections are a basic tenet of democracy, and the Covid-19 pandemic has put several national ballots at risk. At least 11 elections have been upended in Latin America: municipal races were postponed in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, and Paraguay, and Chile has pushed back a constitutional referendum to October. In Bolivia, interim President Jeanine Áñez — who took office after a coup d’état against Evo Morales — is using the pandemic to stretch her supposedly placeholder term a little longer. But the Dominican Republic, a 10.6-million-people nation with 37,425 confirmed coronavirus infections and 794 deaths, has gone ahead with its presidential election, regardless of the pandemic.

</p> <p>Social-democrat businessman Luis Abinader, of the center-left Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), <a href="https://twitter.com/luisabinader/status/1279978487294590976">managed a first-round victory</a> in Latin America’s first election since the beginning of the pandemic. The result breaks with the 16-year reign of the centrist Dominican Liberation Party (PLD).</p> <p>It was not a smooth ride, however.&nbsp;</p> <p>Candidates were unable to hold rallies —&nbsp;turning their campaign focus to the internet. Platforms were largely centered on health issues, as the Dominican Republic quickly became one of the worst-affected nations by Covid-19 in the Caribbean. The president-elect himself contracted the coronavirus, along with his wife, and he had to halt his campaign for two weeks.</p> <p>Voters went to the polls amid a climate of tension. Municipal elections, initially scheduled for February 16, were pushed back one month due to problems with electronic voting machines. The suspension sparked several acts of violence and calls for the resignation of the country&#8217;s electoral board, especially after a man who served as security detail to Mr. Abinader —&nbsp;whose PRM party won 52 percent of disputed mayorships —&nbsp;was arrested for trying to tamper with the election.</p> <h2>How does an election work amid a deadly pandemic?</h2> <p>With 2.7 million infections and 117,000 deaths, Latin America is the current epicenter of the pandemic.</p> <p>Despite the risks, election day was not that different from what Dominican life has been like during the Covid-19 crisis. Most people wore masks, but not everyone respected social distancing — which was already expected, judging by the municipal elections fiasco. In both votes, turnout hovered around 50 percent, much lower than authorities&#8217; expectations of 60 percent.</p> <p>The pandemic also kept most countries from sending international observers —&nbsp;with the duties falling to 76 members of the Organization of American States (OAS), one of whom <a href="https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202007/485745-votantes-con-precauciones-y-un-observador-de-la-oea-con-coronavirus-en-dominicana.html">tested positive</a> for Covid-19 and is in quarantine. According to the organization, the infection happened in the Dominican Republic, as all OAS representatives were tested before embarking.</p> <p>Whether polling stations served as coronavirus breeding grounds is as of yet unclear. Latin American countries, especially those with elections in 2020, must monitor what will happen now in the Dominican Republic in order to decide what to do — and what <em>not</em> to do — when their time comes to send citizens to the polls.</p> <h2>The &#8220;Dominican miracle&#8221;</h2> <p>The Dominican Republic reached Sunday&#8217;s election as the fastest growing economy in Latin America over the past few years. Between 2014 and 2019, the country&#8217;s economy expanded at an average annual rate of 6.3 percent — 7 percent in 2018 alone. The period, for many economists, is dubbed the &#8220;Dominican miracle.&#8221;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3097221" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3097221/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>While the Great Lockdown will push <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/03/19/latin-america-sliding-deep-recession-say-banks/">Latin American economies into a deep recession</a>, the tiny Caribbean nation is set to be an outlier. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac) predicts <a href="https://dominicantoday.com/dr/economy/2020/04/21/dominican-economy-could-avert-looming-recession/">zero growth</a> for the year —&nbsp;which is a figure to celebrate, next to pessimistic projections for Brazil and Mexico. The <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2020/07/06/latin-america-brazil-mexico-face-similar-job-market-woes/">region&#8217;s top 2 economies</a> could shrink by 9 and 8 percent, respectively, depending on the forecast.</p> <p>But, reminiscent of Brazil&#8217;s own &#8220;economic miracle&#8221; of the 1970s, official figures can <a href="https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-53226640">mask unpleasant realities</a>. &#8220;The Dominican Republic is growing thanks to development policies that fuel income concentration, and the activities which create most jobs are low-paying,&#8221; said political scientist Olaya Dotel, a professor at the Santo Domingo Autonomous University, to BBC Mundo.</p> <p>She also warns about a growing fiscal deficit which could make the country fragile in the future. That was the formula of Brazil&#8217;s miracle —&nbsp;and it was followed by the so-called &#8220;<a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/05/03/brazilian-economy-crises-history/">lost decade</a>&#8221; of the 1980s.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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