Much has changed in Latin America since the last time Mexico, Brazil and Colombia’s electoral year cycles lined up with one another in 2006. With nine countries holding presidential and legislative elections and two holding legislative midterms, three out of every four Latin Americans of voting age will have elected a president over the course of 2017 and 2018.
And while the spotlight will largely be on political parties, their candidates and their campaigns, the 2018 election cycle should also highlight equally important factors: election commissions. As 2017 came to an end, we witnessed Honduras’ worst political crisis since the coup that removed then President Mel Zelaya in 2009. In a heavily contested presidential election full of technical irregularities, the Honduran Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE)—controlled by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s allies—declared Hernández the winner of the election.
The suspicious results and the political crisis that resulted underscore the importance of having credible, non-partisan, transparent, independent, and technically-qualified electoral institutions overseeing one of the hallmarks of the democratic process. With 2018 being the year of elections in Latin America, here is a look at the election tribunals for Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Costa Rica: Presidential Election February 4th
Established in 1949 under the current constitution, the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) is considered the fourth branch of government, on equal footing with the executive, legislative and judicial powers.
The TSE comprises three magistrates appointed by the Supreme Court of Justice for six year periods. However, during election periods, the TSE is extended to five magistrates, all of whom have the same conditions and requirements as the magistrates of the judicial branch.
The sitting magistrates are:
Luis Antonio Sobrado González, President
Eugenia María Zamora Chavarría, Vice President
The TSE performs four basic functions in accordance with the constitution: 1) electoral administration, directing and controlling all acts related to suffrage; 2) civil registry, keeping record of all civil events, including, birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, death, or acquisition of Costa Rican citizenship; 3) adjudication, resolving disputes in electoral matters; and 4) civic education, working to promote democratic values such as active citizenship, supporting the educational system in matters of civics, and offering electoral training to political parties. TSE has 32 regional offices throughout the country.
With the February 4th presidential elections drawing near, the TSE has had to warn the Costa Rican National Episcopal Conference and the Evangelical Alliance Federation to refrain from issuing public statements and materials that directly or implicitly represent a call to vote for certain candidates or parties. The TSE also ordered the organizations to instruct pastors and priests not to use sermons or places of worship to influence the vote of Costa Ricans.
The motion came after a complaint by a citizen against the religious institutions. As of January 22nd, the TSE has received 129 complaints regarding the use of religion as a campaign tool.
The electoral tribunal has also called on Costa Ricans to ensure they are well informed before casting their ballots. In a televised message the President of the TSE, Luis Antonio Sobrado Gonzaléz said: “Let’s show the world how the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America votes, without soldiers, without obstacles, in peace.”
Colombia: Legislative elections March 11th, Presidential Election May 27th
Under the Colombian Constitution of 1991, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) is in charge of the “supreme inspection, regulation, vigilance and control of all electoral activities.” The CNE acts as a consultative body to the government and can recommend laws or decrees regarding the electoral process.
After 1994 the CNE increased the number of magistrates from seven to nine. Magistrates serve four year periods. The sitting magistrates are:
H.M. Idayris Yolima Carrillo Pérez, President
H.M. Alexander Vega Rocha
H.M. Armando Novoa García
The CNE has four specific objectives: 1) promote the exercise of citizens’ constitutional right to vote by guaranteeing citizens’ access and participation; 2) guarantee the full transparency and effectiveness of elections and facilitate the establishment of an expedited electoral management; 3) ensure the quality and transparency of the election and the CNE by increasing the level of professionalism and training election workers servers and implementing a system of internal control and management; and 4) ensure the independence and autonomy of the CNE through effective and professional administrative, legal, financial and budgetary standards and processes.
Recently, the Electoral Criminal Policy Commission, or la Comisión de Politica Criminal Electoral—composed of the Ministry of Justice, the Fifth Section of the Council of the State, the police, the Prosecutor’s office, the Registrar’s office, and the CNE—announced that it will require all political parties to subscribe to a “transparency pact” to prevent and fight the illicit financing of campaigns.
Paraguay: Presidential and legislative elections April 22nd:
Paraguay’s electoral tribunal, the Tribunal Superior de Justicia Electoral (TSJE) was established by the nation’s constitution in 1992. The body is responsible for the convening, judging, organizing, directing, supervising, and monitoring processes and issues arising from elections at all levels of government.
The tribunal is composed of three members:
Minister Jaime José Bestard Duschek, President
Minister Alberto Ramírez Zambonini, Vice President
The TSJE is charged with the following responsibilities: 1) managing and overseeing the electoral process and apparatus; strengthening electoral institutions; 2) managing and ensuring the accountability of electoral institutions; and 3) promoting democratic values and civic education.
To compete in the April elections, political parties will have to officially registered with the TSJE before January 31st. Efrain Alegre and Leonardo Rubin, the presidential and vice presidential candidate for the opposition Grand National Renovating Alliance (Ganar), registered on Friday January 19th. The duo will challenge the ruling Colorado Party’s ticket of Mario Abdo Benitez and Hugo Velazquez.
Mexico: Presidential and legislative elections July 1st:
The Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) was founded in 1990 as a result of a series of constitutional reforms approved in 1989 and the Federal Code of Electoral Institutions and Procedures, a law passed in August 1990.
Within the INE, there are multiple branches that focus on the different jobs of the institution but the main organ of the INE is the General Council. It is the highest management body, responsible for monitoring compliance with constitutional and legal provisions as well as ensuring the legality, certainty, independence, and impartiality of the electoral process. The General Council is composed of two groups of members, those who can voice their concerns and opinions, but not vote—nine directors of the legislative branch, nine representatives of the nation’s political parties. And those who are allowed to vote—ten electoral counselors, elected by two-thirds of the members of Mexico’s Camara de Diputados, Dr. Lorenzo Córdova Vianello, President of the Council and Lic. Edmundo Jacobo Molina, the Council’s Executive Secretary.
The INE has three strategic goals: 1) to ensure that all activities carried out guarantee the periodic celebration of free and peaceful elections; 2) to increase citizen confidence in the electoral authority and strengthening mechanisms for their participation; and 3) to improve citizen attention at the time of processing voting credentials. The principal activities of the INE are: issuing voting credentials, organizing elections, auditing national and local political actors, conducting electoral training programs to promote civic culture, adjudicating electoral disputes, ensuring the transparency and accountability of electoral authorities and the process, administrating election resources, advising on electoral legal matters, and promoting and guaranteeing equality in the process.
So far, there haven’t been any red flags regarding the upcoming election according to Council President Lic. Vianello. However, to date the INE has received 28 complaints over alleged slander campaigns or the improper use of guidelines set by the Council.
Brazil: Presidential and legislative elections October 7th
The Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE) was established by the Federal Constitution and the Electoral Code in 1965. The TSE is a part of the Brazilian judicial system. As per the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, the decisions of the tribunal are un-appealable, except those contrary to the constitution or that deny habeas corpus or writs of mandamus.
The TSE works with the regional electoral courts (TREs), which are directly responsible for the administration of the electoral process in states and municipalities.
There are seven justices on the TSE: three from the Federal Supreme Court, two from the Superior Court of Justice and two representatives from the community of jurists—lawyers with extensive legal expertise. The President and Vice President of the TSE are selected from among the members of the Federal Supreme Court, and the electoral ministers from the Superior Court of Justice for a mandate of two years. Ministers are prohibited from being elected more than twice.
The current ministers are:
Justice Gilmar Ferreira Mendes, President
Justice Luiz Fux, Vice President
The TSE’s mission statement is to ensure the legitimacy of the electoral process and the free exercise of the right to vote.
This year too, the TSE will be left with the task of deciding whether former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva is eligible to run for the presidency.
An appeals court upheld a corruption conviction against Lula for accepting bribes from a construction company in a massive corruption probe known as “Operation Car Wash.” Lula has denied any wrongdoing and has accepted the Workers’ Party nomination as its presidential candidate.
This is where the TSE comes in. A 2010 law known as the “clean record law,” signed by Lula himself, bars candidates from running for public office for eight years if they have been convicted of a serious crime, lost their political positions due to corruption, or resigned to avoid impeachment. Having now been charged under the 2010 law, Lula appears to be banned from running for the presidency. Lula’s lawyers have said they will continue to appeal the ruling, which would delay a final ruling and delay the process long enough to register his candidacy by the mid-August deadline. Once registered, the TSE will make the final ruling and decide whether to accept or reject his candidacy.