Browsing articles in "Democracy"
Nov 23, 2014
Erika Hernandez

A Once-Upon-A-Time, Now A Reality? Uruguay

Uruguay's President Jose Mujica arrives at a polling station in his Volkswagen beetle, to cast his vote in the general elections, in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica arrives at a polling station in his Volkswagen beetle, to cast his vote in the general elections, in Montevideo, Uruguay. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Once upon a time, a geographically forgotten, often belittled by its neighbors, a country called “Uruguay” became one of the most progressive countries in the world, raising the envy of many. It has a small population, 3.3 million people and is today one of the most effective democracies in the world. It holds economic stability, broadly respects human rights and has a seemingly functional political system, where consensus is possible between political parties. In short, Uruguay is a thriving democracy unlike other countries in Latin America, who are still facing innovative forms of authoritarianism like Venezuela. Citizens like me simply ponder whether political consensus across parties only belongs to fairy tales. In an ideal world, or Uruguay so to speak, politicians come to agreements after grueling negotiations lasting over 10 hours. Perhaps not all of the legislators attend to the sessions, but most of them do. Tough law initiatives like allowing abortion and gay marriage actually get discussed and stamped by most parties in, both, the lower and higher chambers of representatives. During the last 10 years, Uruguay’s income distribution policies have had a positive effect managing to reduce poverty from a 39% to an incredible 11%. Moreover, it has an exemplary President, Jose Alberto Mujica, who is really driven by public service rather than by power or money, like most politicians. He is often referred to as the “World’s Poorest President.” But why can Uruguay relish such an outstanding democratic system? Is it because it requires less effort to govern a small population? Or is it because, through having observed the income disparities of Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, it has learned that a set of political reforms can ensure a healthy economic progress? Or is it just that we need to make a wish and tap together our heals, like Dorothy, and expect it to come true?

Uruguay does have a President worth of endorsement. As a former guerilla fighter, he spent 14 years imprisoned, and was finally released in 1985. In 2009, he won a landslide vote for the Presidential seat with a 53.33%. He currently donates 90% of his salary to a charity organization that builds public housing and his motto is “To do politics we must live like the poor,” which he has put to action by living very modestly. Under his tenure, he has pushed highly controversial law initiatives that would hardly pass in other countries. The first one was legalizing abortion for women within the first trimester of pregnancy. The initiative seldom passed in the lower chamber with 50 votes in favor against 49. Another initiative consisted in legalizing gay marriage in 2012, which had a strong support by the Frente Amplio (a coalition of left-wing parties, under which President Mujica got elected). Since the Senate believed that the text needed further editions, the text was sent back to the lower house. The initiative underwent a total of 4 in-house voting rounds. And just last year, the country passed a law regulating the production and consumption of marihuana, for non-medical purposes. The law obtained 16 votes favoring it versus 13 against it. One way to justify these positive outcomes is alluding them to the fact that “Frente Amplio” held the majority in both chambers and that the President remained loyal to its ideals. In 2009, Frente won 50 of the 99 representative seats and 15 of 30 of the senatorial ones. What this means is that, in order to pass controversial laws like these, we can ascertain that there must be an agreement between the President and the Legislative branch.

Oftentimes, we citizens feel rather unlucky with the type of governments we have. Democrats fight Republicans in both US chambers; Democrats then having differences with the President Obama; Mexicans feeling cheated by having elected a President with presumable links with the organized crime; etc. But I believe that Uruguay’s status quo is not a question of luck. It is merely the natural result of programmatic parties that have become more professional, and that, at least, there is some level of institutional learning from the previous dictatorship. Such learning and reconciliation is palpable when one sees a former guerrilla member becoming a President. Indeed, holding majority seats in both houses might appear as an autocratic. But such assessment does not hold when other political parties are allowed to participate and when elections are free and fair.  Tensions arise in democracies when a broad consensus is required to implement policies tackling income inequality and addressing drug-related issues. It is then when parties are unable to arrive towards agreements with “rivals”. Regardless of rivalries and wanting to look better than the other party, one of the most efficient ways to ensure votes is delivering promises. Clearly, this is the case for Uruguay. President Mujica is now preparing to step down as his term is just about to end this month. He is unable to run for re-election, per the Constitution. As the second Presidential round approaches (November 30), the votes will reflect whether Uruguayans would like to continue vouching for Frente Nacional, as the first round demonstrates this. Its presidential candidate is Tabare Vazquez, who was president from 2005-2010. Meanwhile, Mujica declined the US$1 million offer to buy his old, rundown 1987 beetle and also plans to join Uruguay’s upper house in the coming elections. Hopefully, he continues to live happily ever after in his chrysanthemum farm.

Sep 16, 2014
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Call for Papers

Democracy & Society Vol. 12, Issue 1 (Fall-Winter 2014)

The Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University is seeking well-written, interesting submissions of 1,500 – 2,000 words for their Fall-Winter 2014 publication, Democracy & Society. The submissions can be new publications, summaries, excerpts of recently completed research book reviews, and works in progress. Submissions for this issue will be due by November 10, 2014. Please email all submissions along with a brief author’s bio to

Democracy, Conflict and Peace-Building:

Across the globe policymakers are faced with the daunting task of forging democratic institutions after severe conflict. Likewise, we have seen supposedly stable democracies falter into civil war. International peacemaking institutions face unforeseen challenges, and at times making peace and restoring democracy seems out of reach. With recent conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe in mind, what do we know about the relationships between democracy, conflict and peace building?

We are seeking articles that address the following issues and questions:

Forging Democracy after Conflict: If democracy is to be used as a conflict resolution measure, what practices have worked best and which have failed? How do you forge democratic institutions after severe conflict? What tools must we use to address these conflicts and promote stability and peace in volatile, post-conflict states?

Transitional Justice: What new insights are there into this longstanding question – how do you balance the need for accountability after conflict with the need to reach consensus in order to build new political institutions?

The Relationship between Democracy and Conflict: Does democracy foster stability, or rather, in certain contexts, does it lay the seeds for future conflict? Do democratic institutions actually solve conflict or simply reinforce and freeze existing tensions and divisions?

The Causes of Conflict: Are there new insights into the causes of civil conflict, and what new information do we have about the role of resources, state capacity, and sectarian division?

Variations on these themes will be accepted. Research on post-conflict societies, democratic proliferation, and analysis of war and peace are encouraged. Questions and comments are welcome.

Please visit, for more information about Democracy & Society and for more information about the M.A. in Democracy and Governance and the Center for Democracy and Civil Society.

Apr 28, 2014

40 Years, 11 Years, and 7 Years

Portuguese Military during the 1974 Carnation Revolution (from

Portuguese Military during the 1974 Carnation Revolution (from

Four decades ago, on April 25, 1974, a military coup overthrew the Portuguese military regime, inaugurating the set of transitions from authoritarianisms known as the third wave of democratization. In 2003, the Department of Government in Georgetown University opened the Center for the Third Sector, later renamed the Center for Democracy and Civil Society (CDACS). Its objective was to carry out original research and advocate for domestic and international policies to better understand and promote democratization processes. In 2007, the CDACS program of Master of Arts in Democracy and Governance received its first class, forming political scientists and policy makers specialized in democratic change. To celebrate these anniversaries, CDACS organized on April 24 the panel discussion “The State of Democracy and Democracy Studies”, with the participation of Thomas Carothers, Steven Heydemann, and Sharon Wolchik.

Thomas Carothers noticed the presence of “disappointments” with democracy in several regions of the world. In many countries, as in the post-Soviet area, or Africa, democracy has not taken root. But, as noticed earlier by himself and other authors, something else, not between, but different to democracy and authoritarianism, has emerged. And in other places, as the U.S. or Europe, democracy is facing performance crises and major social protests, as citizens perceive political parties are nor responsive to their demands or interests. Yet, Carothers observed, these problems have confirmed the central importance for democratization of an agreement on national identity and of a civil society with a democratic culture. For some time, these concepts were thought of as being given in all countries or as fads in the literature. But empirical evidence has shown otherwise.

Steven Haydemann questioned the extent to which uprisings with the intent to democratize have challenged authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The answer relates to the institutionalization of authoritarianism in the countries of these regions. There, generals in positions of power tend to operate elections as military campaigns, pushing towards the outcome that will be the most beneficial or less damaging to them. Furthermore, authoritarian regimes have adapted (or “upgraded”, following Haydemann’s terms) their exclusionary techniques. Now, they have to try to control civil society, manage contestation, or capture economic resources, as opposed to using blatant and open coercion. In the end, social protesting in the region have brought about changes; not for democracy, as demanded, but to strengthen authoritarian tools.

Sharon Wolchik discussed problems for democratic consolidation in post-Communist Europe. She commented that it was thought that constitutional reform would be more difficult to undertake than political culture reform. While this was true, constitutional reform was still very complicated. There is a noticeable party volatility in many countries in the region. Some parties, even those which have been in office, sometimes disappear after being voted out, and new incumbents make radical changes to the constitution, diminishing its democratic features. Without a transformation in political culture both in society and in elites, democracy will not only be at problems to take root, but can also be reverted, as in Hungary. Additionally, Wolchik commented that the international community should not forget how important it was to foster change immediately after the fall of Communism. By giving money, organizational help, or sharing experiences it was essential to give a democratic breath to the changes in the early nineties. There is no reason to believe that its help is less necessary now.

These presentations seem to have ended in a rather gloomy tone on democracy. It appears that this system of governance is failing in one of its essential components: linking governors with governed. Are politicians behaving in ways unacceptable for democratic norms, or are theories and their derived institutions challenged by reality? What is needed: new mechanisms to facilitate interactions between authorities and citizens, or the enhancement of the existing tools? What are the chances for democracy in countries suffering from major social unrest? Forty years after the beginning of the third wave of democratization, Georgetown University’s CDACS and its MA program in Democracy and Governance will continue to address these questions in an attempt to improve the world state of democracy.

Apr 13, 2014

Elections in Hungary: Fidesz Round Two

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Fidesz

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Fidesz (from The Guardian).

Hungary held general elections on Sunday 6. As expected, the ruling party, Fidesz (Hungarian Civil Alliance), jointly with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), won 44 percent of the vote, which translated into 133 seats in the 199-member parliament thanks to the rewarding electoral laws. This represents a reduction in the vote share for this party in the 2010 election, when it got 53 percent. Still, Fidesz maintains the control of 67 percent of the parliament (versus 68 percent of the outgoing legislature). With this position, Fidesz and its leader, Viktor Orbán, will continue unmatched their series of reforms that many domestic and international observers have classified as increasingly authoritarian.

Fidesz first came to power in 2010. The vote for this extreme-right party was a punishment to the Socialist Party (MSZP). In 2006, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány gave a supposedly confidential speech, which was recorded and made public by the media, in which the recognized he had lied about the state of the government, that he had nothing to be proud of during his tenure, and that the economy was in a really bad shape. Fidesz, the second party in parliament at the time, made the best of this leaking and managed to win its second government (the first one being from 1998 to 2002) in the 2010 general election.

Back in office, Fidesz promised to bring the strength back to Hungary. Orbán renationalized industries, supported by an aggressive discourse saying that foreign capital was stealing the wealth of the country away from Hungarians, succeeded in reducing unemployment, increased wages, and cut energy bills. However, Hungary is still greatly reliant on loans from the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although Hungary has not seen the severe austerity measures in countries as Spain or Greece, which have also received help from these organisms, the government has had to implement some reforms to ensure the fiscal viability of its social security system, including eliminating early retirements and forcing welfare recipients to get back to work.

The apparent success of Fidesz in the economic arena, mostly in comparison to the antecedent Socialist government and the turmoil in other assisted European countries, has prompted citizens to vote again for it. Yet, Fidesz has also managed political institutions to secure its position. Since his 2010 inauguration, the Orbán government made more than fifty changes to the constitution, finally adopting a new one in 2012. Most of these changes are aimed at reducing counterweights to the government. For instance, the power of the courts, especially in reviewing legislation and questioning the constitutionality of the administration’s actions, has been curtailed. Also, the party has put at the heads of expectedly autonomous agencies (such as the state audit office, the public prosecutor’s office, or the budget council, which can veto the budget) party members or figures close to Orbán. Further, a new media law prompts broadcasters to limit government criticism under fears of sanctions from the politicized regulating agencies. Under this scenario, official electoral publicity and pro-Fidesz coverage flooded this campaign, leaving little space for the opposition. In spite of this, there were no acknowledged vote fraud or coercion. With the ruling party working to entrench itself in state institutions and leaving little margin of action for its opponents, some foreign observers have called this Saturday’s election “unfair but free”.

This label and many of the political developments in Hungary are fit the description of the so-called hybrid regimes or electoral authoritarianisms. While democratic practices, such as elections, continue to happen, the government is imposing a series of controls to limit the plurality that is expected to exist for multiparty contests to take place. By attacking the autonomy of agencies and changing the laws to its favor, the Orbán government is limiting the possibilities for contestation. There is no way to know if this is a first step in becoming more exclusionary. For some, the fact that the power of churches to carry out social work has been diminished, or that Roma are being left out of some of the government’s policies, indicate attempts to secure the party’s and ethnic Hungarian’s position at the expense of other social actors.

Yet, this leads to other question. Are these changes to be explained only by the authoritarian desires of the incumbents? Orbán has repeatedly used the electoral fallacy that as people freely voted for him, it must be understood that everything he does is what Hungarians want. Thanks to his economic performance, Orbán could be authentically popular, to some extent. Even more, his project is accepted by Hungarians as opposed to what? Socialists, as commented above, are punished by voters. Yet they are the second force in parliament, with 38 seats, almost a hundred less than Fidesz. The third party is another extremist, Jobbik, the Union for a Better Hungary. It proposes privatization, rejects the EU, and constantly attacks Jews, Roma, socialists and homosexuals. In this election it got 23 seats, increasing by 5 percent its vote share. Thus, the opposition represents no clear, or acceptable, alternative to Fidesz for Hungarian voters. Theorists of democracy tend to emphasize the coercive capacities and coercive state building of incumbents in trying to explain the rise of authoritarianism. But as the Hungarian case points out, for voters the choice might not necessarily be between democracy and no democracy, but between bad or worse. And, as has been the case in other countries, parties failing to appeal electors coinciding with other parties able to capitalize such discontent is a formula that easily steps away from democracy.

Apr 5, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Surviving and Thriving. France’s Front National


Marine Le Pen celebrating FN's electoral success at a press conference. Source: AFP/ Huffington Post

Marine Le Pen celebrating FN’s electoral success at a press conference. Source: AFP/ Huffington Post

The most recent municipal elections in France suggest that the right has gained ample ground in elections, mostly favoring the National Front (FN) and the Union for Popular Movement (UMP) parties. Despite Marine Le Pen’s considerable work in having the FN embrace a more conciliatory discourse, the FN is still considered as an extreme-right party around the world. The UMP, a center-right party, also performed fairly well as it was reported to have been taken “some hundred cities” from the left. President Francois Hollande’s party, the Socialist Party (PS), had major losses (150 towns were lost) that appear to be related to very poor economic performance and lack of political expertise.

The rise of the right in France came as early as the Third Republic and it has risen in moments of crisis. Several scandals triggered the emergence of the extreme right, such as the well-known “Capitan Dreyfus” affair, when this Jewish captain was forced to lifetime jail for having allegedly sold state secrets to the enemy. Antisemitist feelings became obvious for the first time in France. Eight years later, the sentence was reversed as it was discovered that document was forged to deliberately blame him. France’s right has slowly penetrated political circles. Today, the rise of the French right is strongly related to poor economic performance. Such a situation also comes along a very low voter turnout –61.5% of voters showed up. It is assumed that right-wing voters were more motivated to vote than their left-wing counterparts. French citizens are also disappointed with President Hollande in that his party has been unable to deliver political and economic promises. Doubtlessly, such as situation has taken a toll. The strength of the right is such that it has penetrated cities that have been predominantly left since 1912 –Toulouse, Roubaix, Amiens, Tours and Reims. During the second round, the combined left vote was 40% while for the mainstream right was 46%. Furthermore, a study showed that in 15 cities where the unemployment rates had been the lowest, the FN is present in only 11 cities. In the 15 cities with the highest unemployment in France, the FN systematically presented a candidate list and scores as high as 20% of votes –almost double.

FN’s good performance is also related to negative perceptions about immigration. During the period of 1975-1999, immigration in France was stable at an average rate of 7.4%. However, starting 2000, the French national statistics institute (INSI) reports higher immigration rates at an average of 8.6% per year. In periods of economic downturns like the one France is undergoing, immigrants tend to be regarded as job-stealers by nationals. Thus, citizens with these perceptions vote right as a way of rejecting immigration and embracing national identity. In addition to immigration, France’s unemployment rate is very telling in evaluating the reason why the extreme right won greater ground. When Francois Hollande came to power, unemployment was at 9.5. Today, France’s unemployment rate is about 11%. Yet, could it be possible that inequality has influenced the emergence of the right despite its welfare state? France is one of the major countries that prides itself for having a broad welfare system, through which it seeks to mitigate inequalities. Yet, data from the European Commission shows that there exists a rising trend of inequality – in 2002, its Gini was 27 and in 2012 was 30.5.

Will France’s future fall into right-wing hands? Current gains by the right can tell us about France’s future panorama. As a solution to the crisis, one austerity measure could be to cut state welfare provisions. Nevertheless, French people highly value their welfare system and many of them rely on it, particularly for medical emergencies. By mid-April, France needs to submit its spending plan to the European Commission, along with a plan for public-spending savings of 2015-2017. But how will public-spending will be reduced? The coming weeks will tell. If the economic cycle in the following years does not improve, it is likely that we will see some major cuts to France’s welfare state. Such policy-making would be supported by the continual rise of the right (FN) that advocates for a small state. Only if the leading left-wing party in the future, the PS, is elected once more and matches a period of good economic performance, then France’s welfare system could remain strong.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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