State of democracy in Latin America

By Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton

 

One of the striking features of Latin American democracy is that it is failing to connect representative institutions with citizens. There are clear indications of social polarisation and increasingly accepted practices of intolerance to dissent. According to Latin American Economic Outlook 2018 three out of four Latin Americans have a very low confidence in institutions and show little or no confidence in their national governments. Institutional mistrust is rising and risks deepening the disconnect between people and public institutions, undermining social cohesion and weakening the social contract.

According to a recent survey published by Intal/Latinbarometro, the most reliable institution in Latin America is the Church (65% confidence); followed in a comfortable second place by the Armed Forces, with 42% confidence; and the Police with 35%. Political parties ironically are the most disreputable institution (15% confidence). Even more disturbingly, asked about democracy as preferable to any other form of government, the level of support has dropped 8 poits from 2010 down to a slim majority of 53%. The percentage of those indifferent to political form grew from 16% to 25%. ‘Rule of law’ is not perceived as priority amongst the problems affecting social cohesion, although 80% think corruption is affecting the quality of democracy, a percentage that increased significantly since 2010. Finally only 18% of the respondents considered that the distribution of wealth is fair in their country.

Certainly, there can be little doubt but that the electoral compass in Latin America, and indeed in Western societies more broadly, is shifting to the Right at the time when the most central value of democracy, the tolerance of dissent, is subsiding.

For the past decade, as trust in institutions has declined around the globe, politics reveal a systematic and increasing deterioration, and in some cases de-consolidation, of democracies. Reconnecting public institutions and citizens is thus critical for a meaningful democracy able to serve as a step to greater inclusion and equality in society.

 

Democratic dissatisfaction and its manifestations

Since the UK referendum to exit (Brexit) the European Union (EU) in June 2016, and subsequent election of Donald Tump as President of the United States,   there was a plethora of questions related to the incentives and drawbacks of neoliberal democracy. Both events revitalised academic commentary on political disaffection, anti-politics alluding to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership and the failure of the political-economic project that seems to be cutting away, willfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Western societies (see Jennings et al 2016; Payne 2014). As societies, both the UK and the USA manifested some deeply disturbing moral, emotional and human issues of ‘national’ identity preceding any responsibility towards ‘others’, be those legal immigrants that contribute to economic activity and social life, or those ill-fated, dispossessed, irregular immigrants and asylum seekers who are simply trying to survive.

Focusing on Latin America, one place to start would be the rich debate about whether ‘post-neoliberal’ political economy, as a democratic project, is possible. The political-economic crisis in Latin America in the early 2000s led to calls for an end to neoliberal rollback, a new social contract negotiated and managed by a more active state, and the construction of a social consensus that was both respectful of economic growth and sensitive to urgent needs to address the legacy of poverty, invest in education, and create welfare. Policy makers in Latin America were ‘shaken up’ by unsustainable levels of inequalities, not just income inequality but cross-cutting gender and ethnic inequalities, and the political consequences that stem from them. Experiences of uneven development, exclusion and social injustices underpinned unbearable social costs caused by decades of market-led development and austerity.

As we have shown in Grugel and Riggirozzi (2018) so-called ‘post-neoliberal experiments’ have combined a pragmatic attempt by Leftist governments to refocus the direction and the purpose of democracy through state spending, increased taxation and management of exports with a project of enhancing citizenship through a new politics of cultural recognition in Bolivia and Ecuador and attempts to recreate the state-sponsored pact between business and labour in Argentina and Brazil. The extent to which post-neoliberalism as a political project delivered on these pledges is disputed though there were real achievements, particularly in terms of anti-poverty programmes, and creating new opportunities for human rights and activism. Yet post-neoliberalism failed to articulate a convincing and institutionalised alternative to the neoliberal model of market democracy. While the Left pioneered the generation of new resources for redistribution through tax it also failed to shift away from dependence from natural resources and agro business. How far they had real opportunities to do so is a matter for discussion. But their failure to this regard is linked to the disenchantment many civil society groups experienced with the Left. High (perhaps too high) expectations were not met, and traditional power assemblages that link agro-industrial elites with international business networks and in many cases the military found grounds to demonise the Left and reclaim governance.

 

Democratic failure might fail democracy

Politically, perhaps, the greatest disappointment has not been so much the fact that social conflict and political disagreements continued and even expanded under the Left– that is natural in democracy – but the fact that democracy in turn has failed to tolerate dissent accentuating the well known winner-takes-all dynamic.

Out of these failures and disappointments, fuelled by the distrust in public institutions, politics seems to be less about the value and meaning of democracy and more about ‘fighting the bad guy’, as far right, military Brazilian presidential forerunner, Jair Bolsonary, put it. The danger is that what bad as representations of ‘others’ has taken the form of anyone who is perceived as ‘draining national (economic) resources’, being quilombolas (descendants of communities of runaway slaves), women, the poor, indigenous people, migrants, scroungers who choose to live on benefits. The backlash has not only led to the decline of social democratic representation but, more seriously, the (re-)emergence of discriminatory narratives that poisoned the political climate; intolerance to the otherness of the other is undermining the social foundations of democracy.

As politics shifts right-wards, we need, as scholars and as citizens, to continue to explore places and repertoires of popular contention that may, once again, hold governments to account and lead social resistance to any attempt at the re-introduction of austerity and onslaught on civic freedoms.

Back in the 1980s in the early years of democratisation in Latin America, political scientists such as Norbert Lechner and Adam Przeworski asked whether it is possible to reach a cross-party or inter-societal consensus over some measure of social and economic redistribution or, whether on the contrary, an entrenchment of socio-economic privilege is the price that must be paid in Latin America for liberal democracy. Today the question remains all too sadly pertinent.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s