Latin America’s “Voto Castigo”

The results of this year’s elections are likely to have a profound effect on the region: either strengthening democratic values or burying them under a mountain of extremism and polarization.


Source: Salvador Melendez/AP.

Across Latin America, voters are increasingly casting a “punishment vote” against their elected officials and political elites. This voto castigo reveals the public’s growing frustration with incumbent governments who seem unable—or unwilling—to address the region’s continuing complex challenges.

Driving this need for voracious change is the people’s desire to exert some control—and using their vote to achieve it. Latin America is grappling with social instability, in large measure the product of the political elites’ inability to address inequalities, stunning levels of corruption and meager economic growth. And all this has been exacerbated by the pandemic and its aftermath.

Insufficient economic growth, corruption, and deep inequalities are not new to the region. Polarization has become common—and the rise of authoritarian leaders is a direct consequence. The increase of radical political discourse and citizens’ dissatisfaction has resulted in historically low levels of trust in established political parties and traditional politicians.

The danger is that this trend could lead to democratic backsliding, as oppressive regimes have been more likely to emerge in a region that lacks strong democratic institutions.

In three of Latin America’s four elections in 2023—part of the 2021-24 electoral super-cycle—voters voted against incumbent governments. The public instead turned toward anti-establishment candidates, often despite candidates’ unexpected and even extreme political affiliations. For many voters, radical change was seen as the best option for solving widespread economic instability and corruption while encouraging development.

Consider Chile, with an established, stable democracy and a strong market economy. It erupted in months of protests in 2019, as the public demanded a fairer government and stronger welfare protections. Gabriel Boric’s presidential victory might not have been entirely due to this—but social discontent with traditional candidates certainly played a role.

This was also the case in Argentina, a country suffering from years of mismanagement by political elites, corruption scandals, and a deep economic crisis with triple-digit inflation. Argentina’s new President Javier Milei took advantage of a polarized society. During the first round of elections, Milei was seen as too extreme even for those in complete disagreement with the government-backed candidate, Sergio Masa. Milei took note of this and corrected course, winning the presidency. In a clear punishment vote, Argentines opted against Kirchnerism, the political force in power for two decades.

Guatemala showed the limits to this approach. Before last year’s elections, Giammattei’s government forced out most of the opposition candidates that represented a threat to the incumbent government, in violation of basic democratic principles. But in a surprising twist, center-left candidate Bernardo Arévalo, an otherwise unknown figure, was elected. His win signaled citizens’ rejection of the establishment and the hope from citizens that an outsider could challenge the status quo. Arévalo’s surprise win shocked the establishment, where the outgoing administration tried everything in their toolbox—from disqualifying Arévalo’s political party, Semilla, to stealing ballot boxes, and making it almost impossible to hold an inauguration ceremony—to annul his win and prevent him from taking office.

Punishment votes are only effective if elections work. The region has struggled with political elites bullying institutions to undo unfavorable electoral results that would oust them from power. Their meddling compromises the integrity of democratic elections and lowers confidence in democratic institutions, not only in countries like Nicaragua with dictatorial regimes but also in democratic countries facing high levels of corruption.

We have also seen that governments born out of democratic elections can transition to authoritarianism that threatens long-term political stability and economic growth. To prevent a new wave of democratic backsliding ushered in by public anger with the traditional political class, nations must address inequality. Currently, the richest 10 percent of the Latin American population holds 70 percent of wealth and the poorest 50 percent has only 1 percent. Likewise, strengthening democratic institutions that encourage citizen participation and administrations that work towards improving the state’s operational capacity to expand political rights, deliver basic public goods, and promote job creation, can increase trust in democratic regimes.

Support for democracy in Latin America has steadily decreased in the last decade, but punishment votes can be a double-edged sword. Last year’s flood of punishment votes could slow in 2024, but it would be a mistake to assume it disappears altogether. This year, six Latin American countries are due to hold elections, at least three of which—Panama, Mexico, and Uruguay—seem likely locations for a continuation of this trend. The number would quickly jump to four, if Venezuela’s elections are ultimately conducted in a democratic fashion. In the case of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele is running for reelection in contravention of the nation’s constitutional term limit, signaling a continuing shift from democratically elected government to a greater authoritarianism. Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader is the sole incumbent with a high chance of reelection. Still, the voto castigo serves primarily to punish the incumbent and traditional political class, rather than signaling a genuine ideological shift among citizens.

The results of this year’s elections are likely to have a profound effect on the region: either strengthening democratic values or burying them under a mountain of extremism and polarization. Voters have seen the impact their punishment vote can have on political elites. For many Latin Americans voting in 2024, the voto castigo may be their last resort.


Beatriz García Nice is an Associate with the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program. Prior to the Wilson Center, she worked for the OAS and the U.S. Department of State. She has a B.A. in International Relations and Political Science from the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla (UDLAP) and the Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, and an M.A. in Security from The George Washington University.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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