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Democracy in Latin America on trial

February 25, 2016 • By Daniel Zovatto

In the recently-released Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Latin America’s performance is worrisome. Just one country, Uruguay, is classified as a “full democracy”. Costa Rica falls into the category of “flawed democracy”, which also includes Mexico and Brazil, both of which dropped since the last ranking. The assessment could be even more discreditable were it not for the good results of several Latin American countries on the indicator for quality of electoral justice. Brazil’s score is auspicious at 9.58. Only five countries in the world score better.

Many unanswered questions

Like other attempts to gauge democracy based on a given set of variables, the EIU’s assessment is susceptible to criticism. Yet it has the merit of reflecting the view of the current situation in Latin American politics shared by observers. We agree that the region has continued to leave unanswered questions crucial to the future of its democratic experiences. How can one update the models of representation, reinforcing their social resonance and the legitimacy of public action? What can be done to ensure that the state is more efficient and responsive to society at large? What are the paths to follow to advance the democratization of political parties, recovering their role as mediators between society and government authority - a function they share today with new mechanisms and new collective actors? Is it feasible to bring a halt to the sequestration of politics by economic power, looking out for the pre-eminence of the public interest?

In some quarters the discourse of democratic renewal took on a regressive tone in recent years. A supposed antinomy was preached between social change and representative democracy in the name of seeking less oligarchic and more inclusive models. New institutional arrangements were postulated, with a plebiscitary bias, while principles such as the independence of the branches of government and respect for fundamental freedoms and guarantees were neglected.

Two main problems

While the backward-looking discourse appears to be receding with the victory of the opposition in the Venezuelan elections and the fall of like-minded forces such as kirchnerismo, there are problems that are growing more intense, affecting the region from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. They fall into two main groups.

The first has to do with the impact of the economic crisis on patterns of social cohesion. With the end of the expansionist cycle driven by the high prices on commodities, the means for sustaining the widely disseminated programmes for income transfers and easy credit were becoming scarce. The emerging sectors lost the immediate prospect of their continued social ascent. More than a few analysts considered the dissatisfaction of those groups to be the fuse that led to the multitudinous demonstrations that took place in Brazil and other Latin American countries in 2013.

True, demonstrators in Sao Paulo held up banners that echoed the “networks of indignation and hope” (as put by Manuel Castells) that proliferated after the Occupy movement with the disenchantment of traditional politics. Yet their main demand, for better living conditions, will continue to go unaddressed in Brazil and elsewhere as long as the fiscal crisis of the state continues.

The second is that the agenda of Latin American societies goes beyond vindicating quality infrastructure services. It includes calls for a genuine updating of the institutions. They want public security, repression of organized crime, transparency in the conduct of public affairs, effective oversight organs, careful accountability by public agents, the end of patrimonialism, an end to practices that harm the national treasury, anti-corruption efforts, and an end to impunity. To summarize, a series of positions that cannot be addressed without a coordinated action by the state and citizens. It is that institutional deficit that justifies negative assessments such as the EIU’s.

Positive exceptions

Yet the exception pointed out by the Democracy Index should be highlighted. After more than 20 years heading up the regional office of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), I am happy to confirm that Latin America’s electoral justice system, except for topical cases such as Venezuela, is going against the trend. The electoral courts have effectively advocated the adoption of good practices and rules, from the use of new technologies at the service of greater transparency in elections to the endeavour to assure equity in electoral contests. Suffice it to turn to the Brazilian case, which became a reference worldwide in turning to electronic voting. How can one not testify in favour of a model which, in the first round of the 2014 elections, made it possible for 93.9 per cent of the votes to be counted one hour after the polls closed without any evidence of fraud? How can one not welcome the gains in biometric identification, which will eliminate the risk of a repeated vote and make it possible to establish a single national registry? Not to mention the judicious regulation of access by parties and candidates to the media by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Brazil’s electoral justice system has also highlighted the magnitude of the challenge of regulating campaign finance. The figures made available to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on the weight of financing by companies reveal contributions of more than tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in a single election campaign. It is an unparalleled phenomenon in the regional context and perhaps internationally. The anomaly is sufficient to justify a change in direction, such as that adopted by the Federal Supreme Court, at the request of the Brazilian Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), restricting private financing to natural persons. The adjustment in the party slates for the municipal elections next October will not be simple. Yet what is most important is that an important step was taken to affirm the autonomy of politics. And it happened, as it should, through the joint action of the state and society.

About the authors

Former staff member - Daniel Zovatto
Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
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