Oct 12, 2012

More years of solitude?

The Organization of American States (OAS), the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE, the electoral management body) and El Colegio de México (a top-level Mexican social science research institution) organized in Mexico City the Third Latin American Democracy Forum. The event, which began on October 10 and will end today in the afternoon, has the objective to analyze and exchange ideas to better understand and overcome challenges to democracy in the region.

The starting point for discussions has been a trait common to many of the Third Wave democracies: elections have radically changed the means to access power in many countries, accompanied by some kind of pluralism and institutional reforms that have granted citizen autonomy in front of power structures. However, the transformation of authoritarian into democratic political systems has not been enough. Elections have contributed to attending the challenge of legitimizing access to power, but not its exercise. Each government has the responsibility to improve the quality of life of its citizens, and many have fallen short of it as the large levels of inequality and poverty in Latin America show. Thus, citizens are disaffected by democracy. A critical pending issue is “the creation and development of cultural conditions so our democracies become a social habit”.

These problems were discussed in three thematic sessions. The first one was “politics”, and the guiding question, as summarized by Soledad Loaeza (a Mexican political analyst and scholar at El Colegio de México) in her briefing in this first meeting, was “Who wins elections wins power?” According to her, the answer is yes and no. Yes because elections grant access to power, but not all the power. It is diverse and has multiple origins. Political public democratic power is characterized by being accessed through elections (thus implying responsibility and accountability to citizens), and being autonomous (necessary to solve disputes among private actors and to enforce rules valid for all actors). But in societies political power coexists with other kinds of power, like economic power, which has different means of access, is not subject to accountability or responsibility, and is usually guided by private interests. Of course, a major challenge is not to separate political from economic power, as they mutually need each other, but to maintain a fragile equilibrium between them, avoiding extremes as centralized or oligarchy-controlled states.

The second perspective from which problems of democracy were analyzed was “representation”. Presentations seem to have pointed towards the discussion of a false dilemma: representation versus participation. Many citizens perceive political parties to be corrupt and ineffective, deciding they are not effective mechanisms to represent their interests. Nonetheless, citizens still need to participate in political processes  as they have demands to pose to public authorities. Without confidence in formal institutions, interests are canalized through informal institutions, namely corporatism, clientelism and, as Samuel Huntington called the phenomenon, praetorian politics. However, before concluding that parties and representative institutions are dead, some questions must be asked. Are those organizations and practices, fundamental for democracy and republican politics, incompatible with the needs, interests and perceptions of 21st century citizens? Are citizens today the same as they were when political party systems were established?  Perhaps the answer can be found in how minorities are represented, remembering that they have been largely neglected in Latin America. Impoverished groups, women, and people without internet access are almost systematically marginalized from public affairs debates. Even more, majority-based politics has become more complex, as citizens identify themselves with different groups, sometimes belonging to a majority and, usually following a completely different line, belonging to a minority. Representation and participation institutions must be able to take these issues into account.

The third thematic point of view from which to talk about contemporary problems with democracy in the region was “security”. Here, there was almost unanimity in the commentaries: organized crime undermines the capacity of the state to make autonomous decisions, evidently diminishing the democratic quality of societies. It leads to fear because the citizenry knows the state is not capable of protecting their physical security, it leads to impunity because the state is overwhelmed by the large number of criminal cases to solve and the lack of capacity to solve them, and it entails the risk of banality as violence and illegality become part of everyday life.

How to solve or attend to those issues? Of course, the answer is not easy, and discussions very easily risk becoming tautological (democracy is weak because democratic institutions are weak) or to go around in circles (to strengthen institutions citizen participation is needed, but citizens are not interested in participating). However, it is clear that citizens and institutions must change their interactions to improve the democratic quality of societies.


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