IN THE annals of Latin American democracy, Marcelo Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction magnate, will occupy a place of unique infamy. From Mexico to Argentina and many places in between, his Brazilian construction company bribed presidents, ministers and candidates to win public contracts, setting a nefarious example that other firms followed. The damage to the public purses in padded contracts ran to over $3bn. The intangible cost to the credibility and prestige of democratic politics in Latin America is incalculable.
The reverberations from the Odebrecht scandal come at the worst possible time. Starting with Chile on November 19th, seven Latin American countries will choose presidents over the next 12 months. They include the two regional giants, Brazil and Mexico. An eighth, Venezuela, is due to vote by December 2018, though its dictator, Nicolás Maduro, is unlikely to allow a fair contest. A further six presidential ballots are due in 2019, not least in Argentina. The region’s political future is up for grabs.
Latin Americans are being called to vote just when polls indicate that they are more cynical about their democracies than they have been for 15 years or so. Largely because of corruption, there is a strong anti-establishment mood. The popular temper has not been improved by worsening crime in some countries, and by economic sluggishness after an earlier boom, which has left many Latin Americans with raised expectations and stagnant incomes. All this has stoked fears of a resurgence of populist nationalism—just when the region appeared to be shaking off the latest version of this.
That is a risk, notably in Mexico where Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist of the left, leads the opinion polls for July’s election. But there are other factors at work. One is a move away from the left, dominant for more than a decade in South America, which began with Mauricio Macri’s triumph in Argentina in 2015. The strong showing of his business-friendly coalition in a congressional election in October confirmed that trend. Victory for Sebastián Piñera in Chile would extend it.
Another tendency is political fragmentation. The elections in both Brazil (a dozen or more hopefuls) and Colombia (a score) are wide open. That has allowed outsiders, such as Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing populist, to figure in the early opinion polls in Brazil. Fragmentation carries another danger. New presidents may struggle to command a legislative majority just when the region needs reforms to return to faster growth.
Yet fragmentation does not mean that firebrands will win. Because party loyalties are weaker, many voters are still undecided. Centrist parties in Brazil and Mexico have yet to settle on candidates; those who emerge from the pack will see their standing in the polls improve.
Middle-class Latin Americans, a bigger share of the electorate than in the past, tend to be angrier about corruption than the poor, but they have more to lose and may thus be intolerant of adventurism. For that reason, Mr López Obrador lost the past two presidential elections in Mexico after leading in opinion polls. Mainstream media in Latin America have suffered less from competition with digital outlets than those in other regions; they will subject outsiders to interrogation.
Even in an era of weakened parties, political machines can be decisive. That applies in Paraguay’s election due in April, where the ruling Colorado Party has a tight grip. In Honduras, which is set to vote on November 26th, the conservative incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernández, obtained a questionable court ruling allowing him to run for re-election. He may be building an autocracy.
Two-round elections provide additional protection from extremism. In run-offs voters tend to plump for the mal menor (the lesser evil)—usually the more centrist candidate. Presidential elections are likely to go to a second round in Chile, Costa Rica (which votes in February), Colombia and Brazil. In Mexico, which does not hold a run-off, voters tend to choose safer candidates in the first round.
Nevertheless, Mr López Obrador could win. A run-off in Brazil could pit Mr Bolsonaro against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the left-wing former president who has been convicted of corruption (which he is appealing against). Yet centrists are likely to do better than early polls suggest.
If there is a silver lining in the Odebrecht scandal it is that it has turned the spotlight onto campaign financing and political corruption, prompting some countries to clean themselves up. Latin American democracy may be wounded, but Venezuela apart, it is far from dead.