A Mexican Voter

A voter in Mexico. (Image: C. Zissis)

2021 Elections in Latin America: A Preview

By Chase Harrison , Katie Hopkins , Luisa Horwitz and Holly K. Sonneland

Nine Latin American countries hold elections this year, with five—Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru—selecting presidents.

From midterms in Mexico to a presidential vote in Peru, nine Latin American countries hold elections in 2021, testing the waters of how voters are feeling a year into the pandemic. COVID-19 will continue to hold these countries and their economies hostage for the better part of the year, given that vaccine rollout is expected to be slower in Latin America than in much of the world. With that and weak political parties in many countries, observers posit that we could see a continuing rise of populism.

AS/COA Online covers what’s at stake in each of the nine countries holding elections.

Election calendar

Ecuador: February 7, April 11 presidential runoff  
El Salvador: February 28
Chile: *May 15–16—local elections and constitutional delegates, June 13 gubernatorial runoff; November 21—general election, December 19 presidential runoff
Peru: April 11, June 6 presidential runoff
Mexico: June 6
Argentina: *September 12 primaries, November 14 general election
Paraguay: October 10
Nicaragua: November 7
Honduras: November 27

  • Type of election: Midterm legislative
  • Up for grabs: 124 seats in the 257-member Chamber of Deputies, 24 seats in the 72-member Senate
  • Election dates: September 12 primaries, November 14 general elections
  • Win threshold:
    • Chamber of Deputies: Each party has candidate lists and a specific candidate list must win 3 percent of votes in the primary to move on to the generals. At that point, legislators gain seats based on a proportional representation system and the order in which they appear on the list. 
    • Senators follow the same primary steps as deputies. In the generals, two senators gain seats based on a simple majority for the top party or coalition, and one senator gains a seat representing the second-highest voted coalition.

  • Term length: Four years for deputies, six for senators

Note: The primaries were originally scheduled for August 8 and the general elections for October 24, but pushed back on June 3 due to the pandemic.

The ruling Everyone’s Front coalition holds a majority in the Senate, while the opposition controls the lower chamber. In 2021 midterms, all eyes will be on whether the opposition will retain power in the lower house, and whether the ruling coalition loses any ground. The opposition has the majority in the Chamber of Deputies with 138 seats out of the 257, while the governing coalition holds 119. There are no term limits for members of Argentina’s Congress.

An Economist Intelligence Unit’s January report cautions that the ability of President Alberto Fernández’s ruling coalition to effectively govern is at stake in 2021. The president, who came to power in December 2019 amid an economic crisis and shortly before the pandemic, has already seen his coalition fall prey to divisions, particularly between the center-left and far-left groups.

On December 11, 2020, Peronist governors sent a bill to Congress proposing to cancel the August primaries, known as “open, simultaneous, and obligatory” (or PASO), and defer to parties to select their candidates due to costs of organizing these votes with the need for extra health protocols. The proposal, if passed, would mean that candidate lists would automatically consist of those nominated as pre-candidates by each political party. Before the bill went into Congress, President Fernández said in November 2020 that PASOs usually cost around $152 million and that money could be of better use for other services, but gave assurances he would “submit to what Congress says” on the matter. The proposal is in debate in legislative extraordinary sessions, which began January 4 and will last through February 28.

  • Type of elections: Presidential, local, gubernatorial, regional, legislative, constitutional convention
  • Up for grabs: Presidency, local officials in 345 municipalities, governors in 16 regions, 294 members of 16 regional advisory boards, all 155 deputies, 27 of 50 senators, 155 convention seats
  • Election dates:  
    • Gubernatorial, local, and constitutional delegates: May 15–16, June 13 gubernatorial runoffs
    • Presidential, legislative, regional: July 18 primaries, November 21 first round, December 19 presidential runoff
  • Win threshold: 50 percent
  • Term length: Between nine and 12 months for constitutional delegates, four years for other seats

    *Note: Local, regional, and constitutional convention delegate elections were originally scheduled for April 10–11, with May 9 gubernatorial runoffs, while presidential primaries were originally slated for July 4.

Chileans will vote for everything but the kitchen sink in 2021, though for voters the most important race isn’t the presidential one—it’s the one to elect members of the constitutional convention. As such, and because convention representatives can’t hold public office, many newer leaders who came to prominence during protests that broke out in October 2019 and the campaign to reform Chile’s Constitution are running to be part of the convention. The convention’s 155 seats will be equally allocated among men and women, making Chile the first country ever to have gender parity in the drafting of a constitution. Members will debate for nine months, with the option to extend another three, and then the final document will be put to the public for ratification in 2022.

That leaves a mix of familiar faces for the presidential race. They include President Sebastian Piñera’s former Defense Minister and party mate Mario Desbordes of the National Renewal party, congresswoman and former journalist Pamela Jiles of the Humanist Party, and cabinet member in ex-President Michelle Bachelet’s government and current Senator Ximena Rincón of the Christian Democratic Party. Heraldo Muñoz and Francisco Vidal, alums of the Bachelet and Ricardo Lagos governments, will likely face off in the primary for the Party for Democracy, of which Muñoz is the current president.

The early field also includes no fewer than three Santiago district mayors: Daniel Jadue of the Communist Party, as well as Joaquín Lavín and Evelyn Matthei, who both have ties to the Pinochet dictatorship and will be vying for the nomination of their Independent Democratic Union party. One potential newcomer is economist Sebastián Sichel, who first came from the private sector to join the cabinet during Bachelet’s second term and then stayed on for that of Piñera’s.

Who wins will depend on the coalition that assembles behind the ticket. Piñera can’t run this year, but his prospects wouldn’t have been good after a much-derided response to 2019 popular unrest, backing the losing side of the constitutional referendum, and ending 2020 with a 15 percent approval rating. For his conservative Chile Vamos coalition to mount a viable presidential candidate in 2021, it’ll likely need to nominate someone who, unlike Piñera, supported the campaign to rewrite the constitution, which Chileans backed 4 to 1 in an October 2020 referendum.

One positive effect of the period since protests started is that Chileans are more politically engaged. While 60 percent of Chileans planned to vote in 2017 elections, 78 percent plan to do so this year, per Cadem. Turnout in Chile’s both rounds of the last presidential race was under 50 percent.

  • Type of election: Presidential, legislative, Andean Parliament
  • Up for grabs: Presidency, 137 members of the National Assembly, five members of the Andean Parliament
  • Election dates: February 7 first round, April 11 presidential runoff 
  • Win threshold
    • For the president, 50 percent in the first round, or 40 percent plus 10 percent ahead of the nearest rival. 
    • In the legislature, seats are divided proportionally at the national and provincial level.
  • Term length: Four years

Though he’s only served one term and would be eligible for another, President Lenín Moreno will not seek reelection in 2021. Moreno, elected in 2017 as the political heir of former President Rafael Correa, spent much of his term—and political capital—pushing back against Correa’s populist and protectionist legacy, negotiating with bondholders, responding to popular unrest, and managing the pandemic.
Now, correístas will attempt to reclaim power in Ecuador, despite the fact that Correa himself is stuck abroad due to corruption charges. They back Andrés Arauz of the Union for Hope coalition. An economist, Arauz served as Correa’s minister of knowledge and human talent. His platform speaks of reversing what he describes as Moreno’s neoliberal reforms and reviving Correa’s strategy of heavy government social spending funded by commodity development like new oil infrastructure.

Battling it out with Arauz in early polls is third-time candidate Guillermo Lasso. A businessman and former economy minister, Lasso hopes to consolidate the anti-Correa vote and unite Ecuador’s private-sector elites, social conservatives, and center-right. Yaku Pérez of the indigenous Pachakutik party is another competitor and a former governor who rose to prominence in the October 2019 anti-austerity protests. 

The ability of the new president to govern will depend on the composition of the unicameral National Assembly and party coalitions. During his term, Moreno struggled with an opposition-controlled Assembly that stalled or blocked many of his efforts for economic stimulus and anti-corruption measures. Polls show the strongest pro-Correa and anti-Correa parties at 33 percent and 24 percent respectively, suggesting split control.

El Salvador
  • Type of election: Legislative, local midterms
  • Up for grabs: All 84 members of the Legislative Assembly, mayors and city council members in 262 municipalities
  • Election date: February 28
  • Win threshold: 50 percent
  • Length of term: Three years

President Nayib Bukele’s name won’t be on the ballot on February 28, but he’s all over 2021 races.

According to polls, Bukele’s populist New Ideas party, in coalition with his old Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, is running with over 50 percent of support for both Congress and local races. Meanwhile, the two parties that won the most local and legislative seats just three years ago—the Nationalist Republican Alliance on the right and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front on the left—currently hold a combined 70 percent of congressional and local seats but are likely to be decimated and potentially win less than 10 percent of the seats up for grabs. These will be the first elections in which New Ideas fields candidates; GANA has 10 seats in the Congress and 25 mayor’s offices.

The takeover will make Bukele’s control of the country essentially complete. After a disruptive first year in office that he nonetheless finished with a 90 percent approval rating, he spent much of 2020 in open confrontation with the opposition-controlled Assembly and the courts over pandemic response measures, while taking steps that defied constitutional rights. By November, fully 96 percent of people approved of his presidency, with 17 in 20 salvadorans saying his management was “very good,” per Gallup. A similar portion approve of his pandemic response.

The top two issues for voters are the pandemic (30 percent) and the economy (28 percent), followed by politics (19 percent) and security (15 percent).

  • Type of election: Presidential, legislative, local, Central American Parliament
  • Up for grabs: Presidency, 128 members of the National Congress, 298 mayors and 2,142 councilors, 20 members of the Central American Parliament
  • Election date: November 27
  • Win threshold
    • For president, a simple majority. 
    • For legislature, parties win seats based on their proportion of the vote in each province.
  • Term length: Four years for president and members of the National Assembly

Allegations of widespread fraud in Honduras’ 2017 presidential election resulted in a month of protests, strikes, and at least 30 deaths. Despite a UN-facilitated dialogue, the National Congress has not passed comprehensive electoral reforms yet. Issues such as an out-of-date electoral census and the lack of a presidential runoff remain unresolved heading into the 2021 election.

President Juan Orlando Hernández, who became Honduras’ first president to serve a second term after the Supreme Court ruled that reelection was constitutional in 2015, said he will not run again. His party, the National Party of Honduras (PNH), has controlled the presidency and the unicameral Congress since 2009. Now the PNH faces growing divisions and numerous drug and corruption charges among its officials, including new allegations that Hernández himself was directly involved in the trafficking of cocaine to the United States. The PNH’s top primary contenders are congressional leader Mauricio Oliva and Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura.

The Liberal Party of Honduras and Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) are also fielding candidates. LIBRE is a left-wing party that sprung into existence after the 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis and coup that saw then-President Manuel Zelaya head into a tumultuous exile. It may nominate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the former first lady and runner-up in the 2013 presidential election. While these opposition parties entered a coalition in 2017, it does not seem like they will in 2021. If they split the opposition vote, they put the PNH in a strong position to retain control of the political system.

  • Type of election: Legislative, gubernatorial, local
  • Up for grabs: All 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, 15 governors, more than 21,000 local seats
  • Election date: June 6
  • Win threshold: Simple majority for most positions, 200 of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are divvied up proportionally based on electoral performance
  • Term length: Three-year terms for deputies, six-year terms for governors

In Mexico’s 2021 midterm elections, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, will seek to translate his strong approval rating into congressional wins and more governorships for his party, Morena. On June 6, Mexicans elect all 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 15 governors, and local officials in 30 of 32 states in the single-round vote. Official campaigning starts April 4.

Morena, which formally became a party in 2014, rode the wave of AMLO’s landslide win in 2018 to gain 275 of the 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In 2021, the party will attempt to build on that success and grow its control of governorships from the current six. No matter the result of this election, Morena will retain its majority in the Senate as those seats are elected concurrently with the president to six-year terms.

A December Reforma poll found that 44 percent of Mexicans said they intended to vote for Morena, well over double the 18 percent garnered by both the National Action Party (PAN) and the once-mighty Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). That may be why the PAN and the PRI, along with the Democratic Revolutionary Party, will seek to run as an electoral coalition known as Go for Mexico (Va por México) in many cases. Opposition parties point to a struggling economy and a disorganized coronavirus response as evidence that Mexico needs stronger counterweights to the president. In more conservative states like Nuevo León, Guanajuato, and Querétaro, the PAN is running their own candidates outside of the coalition.

  • Type of election: Presidential, legislative
  • Up for grabs: Presidency, 92 legislative seats
  • Election date: November 7
  • Win threshold: Plurality 
  • Term length: Five years

Incumbent President Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, is running for his fourth consecutive and fifth term overall as president. On this ticket alongside him is his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo.

Over the course of his 14-year reign, he’s chipped away at institutional checks on presidential power, curtailed civil liberties, and stymied attempts by the opposition to unify by using legislation and sometimes even force. Twenty-seven key figures in his government, including his wife and son, are subject to U.S. sanctions for money laundering, suppression of political dissidents, and, in the case of Ortega’s son, drug trafficking.

The country’s unicameral National Assembly comprises 92 legislators, 71 of whom are members of the FSLN. Congress passed legislation in December 2020 that effectively bars potential opposition candidates by giving Ortega the power to independently deem critics “terrorists” or “traitors,” making them ineligible to run for office while facing jail time.

Still, the two main opposition groups in Nicaragua—the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy and the Blue and White National Unity—announced they will form a political coalition ahead of the November elections. That coalition will likely face obstacles because, as in previous elections, the government ejected legislative candidates from opposition coalitions.

  • Type of election: Local
  • Up for grabs: 256 mayoral posts, 2,730 council members
  • Election dates: June 20 primaries, October 10 general election
  • Win threshold: Simple majority
  • Length of term: Five years

Paraguay’s local elections for mayors and councilmembers were postponed 11 months due to the pandemic. Mayors cannot run for reelection but city councilmembers can. The country’s electorate skews young: the largest age-based bloc is 18- to 24-year-olds, who make up 20 percent of the electorate overall.

President Mario Abdo Benitez’s right-leaning ruling Colorado Party sees October midterms as a chance to consolidate power ahead of 2023 elections. The president may not run for reelection, but the Colorado Party has held power in the country since 1947, with the exception of impeached leftist President Fernando Lugo’s time in office from 2008 to 2012. Meanwhile, opposition parties are forming alliances ahead of these local elections in hopes of securing a foothold ahead of the 2023 presidential vote. In December 2020, the Guasú Front, which is the main opposition coalition and gained two mayoral posts and 205 council member seats in 2015, pledged to form political alliances to that end.

  • Type of election: Presidential, legislative
  • Up for grabs: Presidency, two vice presidential seats, 130 legislative seats
  • Election dates: April 11 general elections, June 6 presidential runoff 
  • Win threshold: 50 percent
  • Term length: Five years

Peru’s 2021 elections follow a bruising year for the country. The International Monetary Fund forecasted a GDP contraction of 12.9 percent in 2020—among the worst in Latin America—and the country reported the second-highest coronavirus death rate per capita in the world as of December. On top of that, a political crisis led to the presidency exchanging hands three times in the fall.

A divided political landscape with unpopular political parties leaves the presidency and all 130 members of the unicameral Congress up for grabs. Longstanding tensions between the opposition-controlled legislative and executive branches came to a head in November when Congress voted to remove then-President Martín Vizcarra from office. Protests led by young Peruvians erupted over the legislature’s move against the popular Vizcarra, who’d long promised he would not run for another term as president. He is now running for Congress. The center-left Purple Party’s Francisco Sagasti serves as the caretaker president. Ipsos Peru polling shows Sagasti’s party leading congressional races across the country but the Popular Force party, the Popular Action party, and the National Victory party are still competitive.  

The candidate pool for the presidency, meanwhile, is set at a record 22 people with no clear frontrunner. A December Ipsos Peru poll found 32 percent of voters are undecided or unwilling to support any candidate. The former La Victoria Mayor and professional soccer player George Forsyth of the National Victory party, running on an anti-corruption platform, holds the highest level of support for president at 17 percent. The Purple Party’s Julio Guzmán and his centrist, economy-focused platform holds the second-highest level of support at 8 percent. Guzmán led a popular presidential campaign in 2016 only to be disqualified on a procedural technicality. At 7 percent, Verónika Mendoza, another 2016 candidate who’s back on New Peru’s ticket, is tied third with Keiko Fujimori of the right-wing Popular Force. Despite an ongoing money laundering investigation into Fujimori, the country’s Supreme Court authorized this third go at the top spot for the ex-president’s daughter.