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Scholar Studies the Runoff Rule in Latin America

Only five Latin American countries follow plurality rule, in which the winner of the general election becomes president. Majority runoff elections between the top two presidential candidates now exist in 12 Latin American countries, and Wilson Center Fellow Cynthia McClintock is studying whether the runoff rule bolsters democracy.

With recent presidential elections in Peru, Mexico, and Brazil, Wilson Center Fellow Cynthia McClintock's research project is quite timely. She is studying whether majority runoffs bolster democracy in Latin American countries. Fifty years ago, Costa Rica was the only Latin American country to have a runoff procedure, but now 12 countries of the region have some form of it.

Plurality rule, in which the winner of the election reigns supreme, exists today only in five Latin American countries: Mexico, Venezuela, Honduras, Panama, and Paraguay. In such a system, a candidate can win with less than 40 percent of the national vote.

For example, in 1970 in Chile, Salvador Allende won with just 36 percent of the vote, about 1 percent over his challenger, yet he tried to govern as if he had a clear majority, said McClintock. Since 1980, she said, a president has won with less than a 40 percent majority only six times in Latin America. In Venezuela, former President Rafael Caldera had won with only 30 percent of the vote in 1993, which gave him trouble establishing legitimacy and, she said, may have facilitated the victory of President Hugo Chavez in 1998.

This year, in Mexico, conservative candidate Felipe Calderón won with 36 percent of the vote. "Even if he tries to form an alliance with other parties, his policies still may not be seen as legitimate as they were not endorsed by a majority of the voters," McClintock said. "Many Mexican political leaders and experts now favor a runoff."

Of the countries with a qualified-majority runoff, Argentina, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Ecuador allow a candidate to win with a less-than 50 percent threshold. Most other Latin American countries require passing a 50 percent threshold. "The idea is that the runoff should encourage political parties to ally to get the margin they'd need in the first round," McClintock said. "Half the time, the candidate gets the margin and a runoff is not necessary."

McClintock was in Mexico and Peru to observe the recent elections. In Peru, she said, the winner of the first round lost in the runoff. Candidate Alan García, the runner-up in the first round, defeated fiery ultranationalist Ollanta Humala in the runoff by 5 percent.

In Chile, former Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet won 53 percent in the runoff, becoming the first woman directly elected in Latin America without her husband preceding her. Bachelet's father was tortured during the 1973 coup, which may have increased her support base in the runoff. "The coup was a pivotal moment and a larger tragedy because Chile was a stellar democracy before," said McClintock.

Scant scholarly literature exists on the majority runoff rule, though most English-language literature tends to oppose it. McClintock said Spanish-language literature tends to favor the runoff, contending it enhances the president's legitimacy and pulls candidates toward the center.

"But the average person in Latin America considers the runoff too expensive, burdensome, and a waste of time," McClintock said.