The State of Democracy in Latin America

Editor’s note: This piece was translated into English by International IDEA.

Last year, Latin America celebrated the 35th anniversary of what came to be known as the third wave of democratization in the region. At the same time, and in a climate of significant stability, a second phase (2013-2016) of an unprecedented electoral marathon began, during which 34 presidential elections will take place in only eight years (2009-2016). So far, 26 elections have been held. Never before has the region experienced such an intense and important electoral agenda in such a short period of time.

This September 15th the International Day of Democracy was celebrated (Resolution A/62/7 of the United nations General Assembly, 2007). Its central theme this year is the participation of the young in politics and it is a propitious occasion to reflect upon the current situation and outlook of democracy in the region.

Youth and Democracy

The theme chosen this year by the U.N. is the challenges and opportunities related to a greater participation of youth in the democratic processes. The young (between 15 and 25 years of age) represent about 20 percent of the world population and, in numerous countries (including some in our region) this percentage is even greater.

As the United Nations points out numerous studies about consolidated and emergent democracies reveal the lack of trust of youth in classic politics, as well as a decline in their participation in elections, political parties and traditional social organizations throughout the world.

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

End of an era: opportunities and challenges

Both globally and in the Latin American region we are witnessing “the end of an era”, which brings opportunities as well as new challenges and threats for the quality of democracy.

The Economist recently published the essay “What’s gone wrong with democracy?” in which it is pointed out that, although more people are currently living in countries where fair and free elections are regularly held, the global advancement of democracy may have reached its end and, in some countries, may even be going backwards. According to this prestigious English magazine democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of power, the opponents have failed, in a majority of cases, to create viable democratic regimes. Even in the established democracies the failures in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusionment with politics has become  more widespread. Moreover many nominal democracies have slid towards autocracies maintaining an external democratic appearance through elections which lack, however, the rights and institutions that support their democratic claim.

Latin America today is radically different from what it was only three and a half decades ago. Despite all of its faults, democracy is the most common type of government practiced in the region, although it with a high degree of heterogeneity. Today we have more consolidated democracies, more and better social protection policies and stronger and more integrated economies. During the last decade, 60 million people escaped poverty, expanding the middle class by more than 50 percent. The great challenge is now how to keep progressing and how to make this progress sustainable in a volatile global environment, full of challenges and uncertainties. 

However, Latin America is a paradox: it is the only region in the world that combines democratic regimes in almost all countries with large sectors of their populations living below the poverty line (27.9 percent for 2013, according to ECLAC), the most uneven economic distribution in the world, high levels of corruption and the highest homicide rate in the world. Nowhere else in the world is democracy shaped by such an unusual combination of factors.

It is a fact that our democracies exhibit important deficits and symptoms of fragility. The main unresolved issues are institutional problems that affect governability and the rule of law, independence and interconnection between state powers, hyper-presidentialism and reelection, corruption, constraints to freedom of expression, poor performance of electoral and political systems, lack of gender equality, and citizen insecurity, all factors that undermine its functioning.

These factors explain why 56 percent of citizens support democracy but only 39 percent are satisfied with its performance (Latinobarómetro, 2013, a regional average). “The dissatisfaction with progress” summarizes well the particular feeling that prevails in Latin America. In spite of the progress obtained, Latin Americans are dissatisfied with the current situation and demand more of 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 (according to the IMF the region will grow below 2 percent) and intense electoral marathons, governments will have to face citizen expectations and demands in conditions of greater austerity. As Augusto de la Torre, Chief Economist of the World Bank for Latin America points out: “the golden decade, in which the region grew at an average of 5-6 percent per year with decreasing inequality, is over. This year the region will grow, at most, 2 percent, with potential implications of social stagnation.” As a result social conflicts will continue to exist (or even increase) and demands which may not threaten the continuity of democracy, will still make governability more complex.    

It is therefore important to pay attention to new phenomena or emerging trends in the region, among them, two models of democracy: one republican, the other authoritarian, illustrative of the fracture of the concept of democracy set forth in the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IDC) of 2001.  

My opinion

The complex and heterogeneous reality of Latin American democracy demands a new type of debate, not on traditional authoritarian regressions but on new types of challenges (processes of stagnation, plateauing or decline) and the new modalities of authoritarianism, more sophisticated and difficult to control, such as the “illiberal democracies” or the “competitive authoritarians.” 

A debate centered on the quality of democracy, on how to guarantee not only the legitimacy of origin but also the legitimacy of performance, both regulated by the rule of law (as established in article 3 of the IDC); on how to move from an electoral democracy to a democracy of citizens and institutions; on how to reconcile democracy with economic development in the context of societies with a greater level of social cohesion, less inequality and poverty and greater gender equality; on how to search for a more strategic relationship between the market and the state and a more functional relationship between the state and society; on how to make it possible for democracy to deliver efficient answers to new types of demands from more complex, more modern, more urban and younger societies – this is the agenda that Latin American democracy needs to debate with urgency and with intelligence.

This piece was initially published in Spanish by La Nación.