Browsing articles in "Governance"
Jan 9, 2014

Twenty Years Later

A meeting of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in January 2007 commemorating the anniversary of its uprising (from La Jornada).

A meeting of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in January 2007 commemorating the anniversary of its uprising (from La Jornada).

During the first minutes of 1994 a surprising event took place in Mexico: in the southern state of Chiapas an insurgency announced its existence and declared war against the national government. The Zapatista  National Liberation Army (EZLN) came into light the very moment in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) entered into force. The NAFTA was publicized by the still ruling PRI as the touchstone of modernity for Mexico: the country would cease being a third-world nation and would become a privileged partner with the richest economy in the world. The EZLN reminded everyone that, despite the pomp of the Agreement, there were very large sectors of the population which were illiterate, undernourished, did not enjoy access to health services, or were ignored in public decision-making; no modernity could exist under such circumstances. Twenty years later, is the anti-modernity claim of the EZLN still valid?

In its initial communiqués, the EZLN made it clear that it was serious about the armed way. Its members took over some towns in Chiapas, and its leader, Subcommander Marcos, announced the intention of the group to being a march towards Mexico City in order to oust President Carlos Salinas, who had just begun his last term in office. However, the EZLN was quickly surpassed by the Army. Combats lasted twelve days and the rebels were not able to make substantial advancements beyond their initial positions. The military side of the rebellion and its war against the Mexican state were defeated. In any case, the message persisted: despite being a trade partner of the richest country, Mexico could not be said to be modern because of the great poverty under which a lot of people lived.

Afterwards, the insurgency reinvented itself as a pro-indigenous people’s rights movement. This made sense: indigenous groups are the most marginalized sectors in Mexican society across practically any indicator, and Chiapas is one of the states with the largest diversity of indigenous population. In a way, the discourse of the EZLN remained the same. Its confrontational tone against the state and the PRI was substantially erased, but its substance, marginalization and poverty, remained. Lengthy negotiations between the EZLN and the government ended in the so-called San Andrés Agreements, which explicitly acknowledged to indigenous people the same rights given to Mexicans in general. Even more, in an attempt to foster democracy, some further changes were introduced. For instance, the new figure of “usages and customs” was included in electoral legislation, allowing communities to elect their authorities according to their own traditions, not necessarily under the party system. Additionally, state and national authorities agreed to grant some government autonomy to municipalities where there was a considerable indigenous population. Finally, policies were designed and implemented to protect the cultural identity of these groups (such as language preservation) and to improve their life conditions.

Two decades have passed since the initial uprising and, in spite of the San Andrés agreements, it is not clear at all that such changes have produced an improvement in the life conditions of indigenous people. For instance, the government recognizes that around fifty percent of the country’s population can be considered as poor, very likely including most of the indigenous people. In occasion of the 206 and 2012 presidential elections, Subcommander Marcos participated in a series of meetings throughout the nation retrieving some of the EZLN’s anti-systemic features. Although at that time the PRI was no longer the ruling party (in 2000 and 2006 the rightist PAN won the presidential election, to be defeated in 2012 by the PRI) and the authoritarian system was being dismantled, Marcos noticed that little had changed for those who were marginalized. Joblessness, illiteracy, and lack of access to health services were still prevalent throughout the poor and indigenous. Even more, these groups had a very hard time to make their voices heard in mainstream media and political parties, for which many Mexicans were not aware of the dire situation of marginalized groups. The party identified with authoritarianism left the presidency but poverty continued; the problem was not the party, but something to be found deeper into the system which democratization did not alleviate.

What had failed for the EZLN? Was it that the Mexican government (because of sheer negligence, true complexity of those issues, or something in between) failed in improving the life conditions of the indigenous and the poor? Or was it that the EZLN should have followed another, more effective, strategy, such as formally entering politics as opposed to resembling a social movement after its military defeat? With the set of energy, electoral, and fiscal reforms approved during the last months, the government has insisted that Mexico will now become a modern country (the same claim made in relation to the NAFTA two decades ago). Whatever the answer to the question mentioned above, it cannot be overlooked that claims of modernity must be taken with caution when none of the reasons that fueled the rise of the EZLN in 1994 has substantially changed.

Dec 16, 2013

The Catalonian State?

Artur Mas, President of Catalonia, announcing the celebration of a referendum to decide the independence Catalonia. He is accompanied by representatives of the parties that form his coalition government (from El País).

Artur Mas, President of Catalonia, announcing the celebration of a referendum to decide the independence Catalonia. He is accompanied by representatives of the parties that form his coalition government (from El País).

Last week, the President of the Catalonian government, Artur Mas, announced the questions that will be included in a referendum scheduled for November 2014 in relation to the creation of a Catalonian state and its eventual independence. Is Catalonia heading towards sovereignty?

The current trend for full autonomy in Catalonia appeared in 2011 as a reaction against the national government’s budget cuts on appropriations to local administrations in the midst of the financial crisis. Artur Mas used sovereignty as one of his re-election campaign banners in 2012. Although it is not possible to know if the determining factor was the financial issue, Mas and his Convergence and Union (CiU) Catalonian nationalist party won. However, they got just 30% of the vote, and were forced to negotiate with other parties the formation of a coalition government.

As 2013 came to an end, Mas was unable to get his budget for next year approved. As in other countries in crisis, the question was to find some kind of balance between more taxes and more cuts without affecting citizens up to the point that the government could fall down. In the last weeks, Mas struck a deal with the Catalonian Republican Left (ERC): more taxes to the rich, confirmation of cuts in health, welfare and education done in previous budgets, privatization of public assets, and a re-allocation of public spending. The first two features of the budget were damaging for Mas and CiU’s support. In exchange for this, they required that no additional cuts were included and that the banner of sovereignty was relived and formally supported by ERC. It was then that Mas, accompanied by other members of his coalition government, announced the two questions for the referendum (“Do you want Catalonia to become a state?”, “If so, would you like it to be independent?”) and its proposed date.

Mas’ statement was not an entirely unexpected event for the national government, as that had been his campaign banner and he had made reference to the topic throughout the year. At the same time, his determination was rather surprising for the Spanish government because, in contrast with the Scottish devolution, there is no agreement of any kind between local and national authorities. Even more, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, was quick to say that the referendum would not take place because it was illegal (the process for having a legal referendum is lengthy, requiring, among other things, the approval of the Supreme Court and the King). In addition, Hermann von Rompuy, President of the European Council, commented that if Catalonia seceded it would have to build from zero its relation with the European Union, as none of the benefits that Spain has with the EU would be translated to an independent Catalonia.

As well, many analysts are skeptical about the referendum. First, there have been some critiques to the possibility that it is just a recourse used by Mas to strengthen his coalition government and to prevent losing support from its allies or Catalonian citizens. Although he could truly believe in the idea of an independent Catalonia, the rush with which the referendum was announced, even though he is aware of the legal requirements he is violating, could strengthen the thesis that, at this point, sovereignty is more a tool of discourse and coalition-making than a sound project. Furthermore, others have looked at the proposed questions, noticing that some people could associate “independence” with more administrative autonomy instead of sovereign statehood, which would complicate the interpretation of whatever result of the exercise.

The critiques to the referendum have led many to think that the referendum will not take place. Mas himself, for instance, has mentioned that if the national government takes action to stop the referendum from being carried out, he will desist in it. As any other politician, Mas has an array of resources to defend his goals, among which staying in power and maintaining the ruling coalition together could be paramount. However, as other historical experiences show, using nationalist feelings for political purposes can turn out to be a very risky bet whose consequences are not easily controlled.

Dec 12, 2013

Divided Rule

A polling station in Venezuela during last Sunday's municipal elections (from BBC).

A polling station in Venezuela during last Sunday’s municipal elections (from BBC).

Venezuela held municipal elections last Sunday. The ruling Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV) got 49% of the votes, accounting for 263 local victories, while the largest opposition alliance, the Table for Democratic Unity (MUD) obtained 43% of the ballot and won 74 mayoralties. What do these results mean for each of the contending parties? What are the prospects for democracy in Venezuela?

A first issue to address is who, if anyone, really won on Sunday. The government has been quick to say that the tally represents citizens’ endorsement of its project. In a way, of course, this is true. But the opposition won in the largest urban areas of the country, including Caracas and the capital of one of its stronghold states, Miranda. The PSUV received its largest support from the rural parts of Venezuela, where the bulk of the population resides. Intentionally or not, President Nicolás Maduro has divided the country into two blocks: the urban opposition and the rural pro-government.

Since last year’s presidential election, Chavismo has faced a new challenge: the emergence of a united opposition. In contrast to the first years of Hugo Chávez’s rule more than a decade ago, in which, except for the PSUV, the party system was very volatile, Henrique Capriles and his MUD have managed to remain a constant presence in the electoral ballot. Not only that, but they have been a close competitor to the PSUV. In spite of aggressive campaign methods from part of the government, including celebrating the Hugo Chávez day on Election Day or accusing the business urban elites of intentionally causing product scarcity and raising prices, it is a notable achievement that there is a relatively small difference (or not so large, compared to previous elections in which the closest competitor to the official party was 20 or 30 percent points below it) in the share of votes between the PSUV and the MUD in this electoral contest.

The challenge posed to Chavismo by the MUD is double-faced. First, how to prevent the party and its leader from attracting voters and consolidating as the head of the opposition. Second, how to prevent them from really posing an electoral threat to the PSUV. For the time being, the government failed in the first part of the challenge, but has succeeded on the second. On the one hand, it can be argued that the party system has stabilized in Venezuela. Although it might be too soon to affirm so after a little more than one year after Capriles and the MUD made their breakthrough appearance, three electoral processes have gone by, and in each of them they had done reasonably well (again, in comparison to the fleeting presence of previous opposition parties), obtaining a rough average of 45% of the votes. Further electoral iterations would be needed to confirm this. On the other hand, the stabilization of the party system seems to have a very strong geographical and socioeconomic component, as noted above. The bases of each party are more or less split and fixed throughout the Venezuelan society. The extent to which the PSUV can increase its appeal among the elite businessmen, targeted as “enemies” of the national economy, or to which the MUD can increase its appeal to the poor and rural classes, who benefit the most from Maduro’s policies, is still an open question. Given the constant numbers of the last three elections, it appears that the parties have failed in crossing the boundaries of their core electorate, thus reaching.

This apparently fixed division of forces in Venezuela is not necessarily damaging for democracy. Although one group will remain a minority at the national level, it still has a notable presence and voice there and, perhaps more importantly, obtains electoral victories at the local level. It is here, though, that concerns appear, as the government has made some reforms to remove capacities from these administrations. For instance, in Caracas, one of the strongholds of MUD, the mayor was stripped of most of his responsibilities, which were transferred to an officer appointed by the central government. In spite of MUD winning elections, their elected candidates are not able to make substantive decisions in many cases. With this situation in mind, democracy is being distorted: the PSUV is transforming its electoral majority into political hegemony.

Dec 5, 2013

Protests and democracy in Ukraine

Demonstrations in Lviv, Ukraine, against President Ynukovych's decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (from CNN).

Demonstrations in Lviv, Ukraine, against President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (from CNN).

This week thousands of people have been on the streets of Kiev, Lviv and other large cities in Ukraine to protest against the government. First, it was because President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU), which would be a major step in the process of Ukraine’s integration into the organization. Demonstrators argued that the President had yielded to Russian pressure preventing Ukraine to strengthen its ties with the EU, instead of listening to citizens’ claims of becoming closer to the West. As the government neglected these arguments and used the force against mobilizations, Ukrainians now demand the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov. However, the government won a no-confidence vote in parliament and protests continue.

It has been widely acknowledged that the current demonstrations echo those of 2004, the so-called Orange Revolution. Back then, citizens protested against a fraud in the presidential elections managed by incumbent Leonid Kuchma. After a long campaign of marches, sit-ins, pressure from the international community, and intense negotiations between the President and the opposition leaders (mostly Viktor Yushchenko, the most popular candidate) the Court declared that the election should be repeated. In the end, Yushchenko became President. The comparison between the Orange Revolution and the present mobilizations comes from the fact that in both cases citizens demand their will to be respected (in 2004, who they wanted to be President; now, the desire to join the EU), as opposed to the government acting according only to what its top figures decide.

The comparison is correct because in both cases protestors want their interests to be taken into account in government decisions. At the same time, it is compelling that, almost ten years after the Orange Revolution took place and apparently succeeded, citizens are out on the streets for a similar reason in the broad sense. The fact that the 2004 protests put pressure on the Courts to decide that the because of the evidence of fraud the election had to be annulled, that the opposition candidate won, and that the incumbent respected these events would suggest a strengthening of democracy in Ukraine. Citizens had a specific demand, the judicial system made a decision, the separation of powers was maintained, and a power transition took place. Even more, when it was his own turn to run for reelection, Yushchenko lost to his opponent in 2004, current incumbent Yanukovych, because of discontent for his policies. Democratic institutions seemed to be working. Is it that democracy has now failed in Ukraine?

Not exactly. In 2004, mobilizations were for electoral reasons: votes were stolen. Now, mobilizations are for representation reasons: the government, whose democratic origin is not called into question, is not acting as an agent of citizens’ interests. These are two related, but different, aspects of democracy. In fact, representation institutions, such as parliaments or parties, are going through similar crises in other countries, many of them with clearer democratic credentials. There are frequent complaints that citizens do not feel attracted to any of their country’s mainstream parties, or that they feel utilized by governors, who only approach to them during the time of electoral campaigns. If this relatively common failure of democratic institutions is paired with Ukraine’s young democracy, this country’s problems should not appear as too worrisome. It is only natural that Ukrainians want their voices to be taken into account in the policy process, and new patterns of interaction between governors and citizens, in which no part can act by itself, must be stabilized.

A more serious concern is that the Orange Revolution is assessed as a successful and somewhat inexpensive mechanism of political action because of its possible negative effects in democracy. In 2004, protests had the support of the international community, there were no casualties of any kind, and citizens got what they were fighting for. But now, there is not a unanimous support throughout Ukraine for joining the EU (what is more, the re-run of the election in 2004 also made it clear that not everyone supported the opponent Yushckenko): the east of the country has usually been clearly pro-Russian, and the western part tends to lean to the EU. As well, using the streets to defend interests might not always be a very good idea: these are disruptive events, costly to the economy, and whose outcome depends on a large number of factors (sometimes including chance) which are not easy to put together again.

This, of course, does not imply that citizens should not go out to protest if they feel their interests are being affected in any way. On the contrary, protests represent an alternative of participation to the usually rigid electoral calendars. But the expectation of protests and the way in which they are carried out could also play against democracy. Big topics should not always be decided by protests. National, inclusive, and open debates cannot be replaced by large crowds on the streets. Although the concerns of demonstrators are legitimate, they are not necessarily truly representative of the interests of all citizens. Even more, there is the risk of repression and threats to physical integrity, which are not always worth taking. These mechanisms of participation could be useful to defend protestors’ interests, but, if not carried out with caution or if too much is expected of them, they could have pernicious effects for Ukraine’s young democracy.

Dec 1, 2013

Mobilization vs. Corruption in Thailand

Protestors in Bangkok against Prime Minister (from BBC).

Protestors in Bangkok against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (from BBC).

For one week anti-government protests have been taking place in Thailand. Demonstrators, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, former Deputy Prime Minister, seek to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of power. She is the sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by the military in 2006 under accusations of corruption. Now, mobilizations began because the PM attempted to pass a law that would allow her brother, currently in self-imposed exile in Dubai, to return to Thailand without facing any kind of trial. The lower chamber of Parliament initially approved the legislation, but the Senate rejected it; in spite of this, people continued in the streets. Thaugsuban accuses the PM of being nothing more than a puppet of her brother, and that with their corruption the siblings have made a lot of damage to the country, for which it is imperative that they leave.

Notwithstanding perceptions of corruption, the Shinawatra siblings have maintained support in Thailand. Thaksin was elected by a landslide in 2001, and re-elected five years later. During his second term he faced serious challenges, including judicial corruption accusations and assassination attempts. It has been suggested that behind this opposition to Thaksin and his ousting in 2006 was the economic elite of the country, who despise what they call his populist policies of, for example, maintaining a very high (yet expensive, inefficient, and export-damaging) rice subsidy. At the same time, he was the source of controversy for allegedly allowing the use of death squads in the fight against drug trafficking and for failing to neutralize a small insurgency in the south of the country. A large portion of anti-government protests in 2010 demanded Thaksin’s return from exile to Thailand and that he resumed his political career. In such occasion, the government decided to use the force against the protestors, causing many injuries and deaths. This fueled support for Thaksin’s sister Yingluck electoral campaign, who became Prime Minister in 2011.

Yingluck has insisted she will not yield to protests. Now, demonstrators demand anticipated elections. She has refused saying the country is in such a state of upheaval that there are no conditions to go to the polls. And, possibly learning the lessons from 2006 and 2010, she has refused to use the force: as they sacked her brother out of power, the military could not have a firm commitment to defend her either, and using the security forces could only bring about more violence and opposition against her. Furthermore, in an interview Yingluck spoke of defending Thai democracy, mentioning institutions should prevail over force. She might or might not believe this, but this statement suggests she is aware that Thais support democracy and are not willing to stand corruption, abuses of security forces, or the imposition of a ruler by some sort of mediator. For the time being, caution has been her strategy.

In spite of the opposition she generates, the most valuable asset of Yingluck, in fact, could be her expressed defense of democracy. Although the accusations of corruption against her and her brother cannot be simply dismissed, she cleanly won the election in 2011, accepted the defeat in the Senate of the law granting amnesty to her brother, and has not made any evident move to damage the media that sides with the protestors. In contrast, the protests leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has spoken the idea that a non-elected council should appoint the immediate successor of Shinawatra, and has made it clear that he is willing to go as far as it is necessary to fight the Shinawatra corruption. It is unclear what his role would be in such a non-elected council neither on the successor government (for each case: would he help to pick its members?, would he be a member?). Anyhow, he seems to be much more risk prone than the PM.

Protestors want Shinawatra out. But it is not clear what they want instead, neither that the process of Yingluck leaving power would be very democratic. Furthermore, the siblings receive support from some sectors of the population, mainly the most impoverished. Yet mobilizations are becoming increasingly violent, up to the point that today there was their first fatal victim. Ousting rulers does not necessarily contribute to maintain or to strengthen democracy: they are very disruptive events, extra-institutional, and their outcome is very uncertain. Instead, enhancing accountability mechanisms, which was in part what originated protests this time, helps to improve the institutional environment for a democracy. Reforms keeping this in mind could contribute to calm down the current instability in Thailand.


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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