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The state of democracy in Latin America

September 19, 2014 • By Daniel Zovatto

Last year, Latin America celebrated the 35th anniversary of the third wave of democratization in the region. Simultaneously in a climate of significant stability, an unprecedented electoral marathon began, with 34 presidential elections scheduled over a period of eight years (2009-2016). So far, 26 elections have taken place. Never before has the region experienced such an intense and important electoral agenda in such a short period of time.

The International Day of Democracy 2014 was celebrated 15 September, with a central theme of youth and politics. This presents a great opportunity to review the current situation of democracy in the region.

Youth and Democracy

The United Nations topic of “Young People and Democracy” explores the challenges and opportunities young people face within democratic processes. Young people (15 to 25 years old) represent almost 20% of the world population, and in many countries (including several in the Latin America and Caribbean region) the percentage is even higher.

The UN points to research which suggests in consolidated and emergent democracies there is a lack of trust among young people. There is also a global decline of voter turnout and participation in political parties, and traditional social organizations

However, the same studies reveal an increase in informal youth movements promoting democratic change in many countries, interconnected and mobilized in non-traditional ways, especially within social networks. The impact on the quality of democracy and governability of these movements are not yet entirely clear.

Current opportunities and challenges

Both globally and in the Latin American region we are witnessing a sea change, accompanied by opportunities but also by new challenges and threats for the quality of democracy.

In The Economist, a recent article titled “How has Democracy failed?“, suggests out that although more people than ever live in countries with regular, free and fair elections, the global progress of democracy may have come to a halt. In some countries there may even be a regression. Democracy is going through difficult times. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies the flaws in the system are appearing and disillusion with politics rife. In addition, many nominal democracies have drifted towards autocracies maintaining an external appearance of democracy through elections, but without the rights and institutions that support it.

Latin America is radically different today from 35 years ago. Although the shape of democracy in the region isn’t perfect – displaying a high degree of heterogeneity – it is the most practiced form of government in Latin America. Today we have more consolidated democracies, more and better public policies in the social sectors and stronger and better integrated economies. In the past decade, 60 million people moved out of poverty, expanding the middle class to over 50 per cent. The great challenge now is how to maintain progress and ensure this is sustainable in a volatile global environment, full of challenges and uncertainties.

However, Latin America presents us with a paradox: it is the only region in the world that combines democratic governments in almost all of its countries, with large parts of the population living under the poverty line (27.9% in 2013, according to ECLAC). Globally, it has the most unequal distribution of income, with high levels of corruption and the highest homicide rate in the world. No other region has this unusual combination of democracy which ultimately impacts on its quality.

Major problems and serious challenges remain within the democracies of Latin America. Main issues include institutional problems that affect governability and the rule of law, the power play between fragmented political factions and the phenomena of hyper-presidentialism and re-elections. Other key issues include corruption, gender equity, lack of freedom of speech, poor performance of electoral and political systems, as well as security issues. This explains why 56 per cent of citizens support democracy but only 39 per cent are satisfied with its performance (Latinobarometro, 2013, a regional average). “The displeasure with progress” accurately summarizes the overall feeling that throughout Latin America. In spite of the progress made, Latin Americans are dissatisfied with the current situation and call for more from their democracies, institutions and governments. There is an increasing demand for more transparency, better leadership and efficient public policies.

As we can see there are reasons to be moderately optimistic but not complacent.

A new debate: the quality of democracy

In a Latin-American context of weak economic growth (in 2014, the region will not surpass 2 per cent according to IMF) and intense electoral marathons, governments have to meet expectations and needs in an environment of austerity. Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank’s chief economist for Latin America stated, “The golden decade, in which the region grew 5 per cent to 6 per cent as an average and with social equity, is over. This year the region will grow at most, 2 per cent, which may imply stagnation of social progress.” As a result social conflicts will remain present (and may even increase) and although democratic continuity should remain stable, governability will most likely become more complex.

It is therefore important to remain attentive to emerging phenomena or trends in the region. These include the presence of two models of democracy, a republican one and an authoritarian one, as a consequence of the shattering of the concept of democracy which was set forth in the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001.

My opinion: The complex and heterogeneous reality of Latin American democracy summons a new type of debate, not on traditional authoritarian regressions but about the new types of challenges stagnation processes, plateauing, or erosion. The new authoritarian modalities, which are more sophisticated and difficult to control, include “illiberal democracies” or “competitive authoritarians”.

The debate must focus on the quality of democracy and how to achieve the following:

  • Guarantee the legitimacy of origin and the legitimacy of execution, and that both be subjected to the rule of law (as set forth in Article 3 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter );
  • Go from an electoral democracy to a democracy of citizens and institutions; on how to reconcile democracy with economic development within the framework of societies with higher levels of social cohesion, less inequality and poverty, and more gender equity;
  • Look for a more strategic relation between market and state, and a more functional one between state and society;
  • Achieve that democracy deliver efficient answers to new types of demands coming from the more complex, more modern, more urban, and younger societies.

This is the agenda that Latin American democracy needs to debate in an urgent and intelligent fashion.

About the authors

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