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Internet and political innovation in Latin America’s representative democracies

The model of representative democracy in Latin America presents a vital problem: elected representatives are, in general, unable to respond to the demands of those they represent. Español Português

Demonstration in Brasília outside of the National Congress Building against Brazilian government corruption on 15 March 2015. Image: José Cruz / Agencia Brasil, CC BY-2.0.

Although most Latin American democracies are not - as in the past - under the grim threat of possible military coups, it seems evident that the lack of stability of democratic regimes is still a significant feature of the region, which still show the influence of authoritarianism. In general, the impression in Latin America is that the rulers not only do not respond to the expectations of the citizens who elected them, but, when assuming their positions, make an explicit and institutionalized use of the public powers for strictly personal benefit. 

Some thinkers have faced the theoretical challenge of analyzing the roots of the fundamental problems of Latin American democracies. Guillermo O'Donnell, for example, points out the fragility of mechanisms of accountability, while Przeworski points to the weaknesses of Latin American democracies as a result of low educational and socioeconomic levels in the countries of the region. It is important to keep in mind that the current Latin American reality can only be understood from a historical social inequality perspective, which was impacted by and has impacted the political models adopted in the region. The result of this construction is a constant widening of the abyss between those in power and those in the streets.

One cannot defend a system in which those who should benefited the most are, in practice, the most disadvantaged. The crisis of representativeness that the system is undergoing produces two types of effects for citizens: 

The result of this construction is a constant widening of the abyss between those in power and those in the streets.

1-         From a pessimistic perspective, the development of a sense of political apathy and lack of interest in the universe of politics as a reaction to a system in which most representatives only seek to use institutions to extend their privileges Individuals.

2-         On the other hand, taking a more optimistic perspective, the use of this reality as an incentive to search for solutions (not institutional) that aim to bring citizens and governments closer, connecting them more effectively reducing the costs of participation and presenting new forms of political representation. 

There is no doubt that representative democracy is the most advanced and acclaimed model among democratic regimes. The central point here is not to suggest its end in the Latin American scenario. On the contrary, the point is to strengthen it by finding solutions based on a basic premise: that people should be able to express their demands and be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.

The practical application of theoretical solutions to real political and social issues must occur through experimentation. It is, above all, a matter of redefining ways of representation and political participation. To do this, one of the hypotheses consists in using the available tools, testing their applicability in democratic regimes –  especially in regions where they are not yet fully consolidated, as is the case in Latin America.

History of political regimes offers innumerable examples of this. Without going any further, the twenty-first century is showing what can be interesting and shocking instruments of political innovation: the internet and information technologies. Concepts such as "cyberdemocracy", "digital democracy" and "virtual democracy" attempt to account for the role of the internet and information technologies in democratic systems: their power and influence in social dynamics is already a fact today as is its influence in the political world. 

It is important to note, however, that instead of seeking solutions based on the false premise that the Internet will promote a total and utopian revolution in the political world and then having to deal with the frustration that it is not and will not be, it is preferable to understand that the Internet and information technologies are tools that can be used to refine and broaden political participation. The best use of these technologies in the political sphere can only be discussed under this premise. 

The different ways in which citizens use the Internet indicate that, as studies show, it can be a particularly positive tool for political participation – either because it allows for the exposure of opinions and ideas, for the decentralization of information, or for the ability to mobilize socially through social networks – there is no guarantee that a citizen that has access to the Internet, necessarily participates in a more active way in politics.

The essential thing is to encourage experimentation of initiatives that allow inclusion and rapprochement between governments and citizens. 

If we consider that representative democracy in Latin America should continue to be based on the logic of those who represent and those who are represented, the question then is about the contributive role of the Internet and information technologies. First, such technologies and the Internet, in a general way, are able to make political information more openly available, allowing citizens to express their opinions and criticisms. Since the cost of getting information and expressing criticism of governments is diminishing, it seems logical that this will have a positive impact on political participation. 

Another significant impact the Internet has on representative democratic systems, especially in Latin America, is the reduction of representation requirements, since the Internet and digital media can amplify the voices of representatives of political and social causes that are much closer to the groups they represent. However, a possible problem in this case would be the fact that these "representatives" (in the broadest sense of the term) would not be subject to the formal control mechanisms that do exist in the case of elected representatives.

In Latin America, in recent years, examples of non-institutional solutions generated by the use of technologies that reduce the costs of political participation and provide new forms of representation have multiplied significantly. An example is the Brazilian platform Update Politics!, which aims to map initiatives that seek to reduce the distance between civil society and public power. Or the project of the Network of Political Innovation in Latin America, based on the idea of political inclusion, and the South Affairs platform, both responsible for launching the publication Retrieve politics in 2017, which presents the agendas of Political innovation in Latin America.

The process of developing more open and inclusive Latin American democracies, with the expansion of political participation and new forms of representation, can help generate solutions for structural, social and institutional issues. From a strictly political point of view, it seems clear that solutions to the system’s failures must be found. Of course, some solutions are better than others, but the essential thing is to encourage experimentation of initiatives that allow inclusion and rapprochement between governments and citizens. The Internet and information technologies can undoubtedly contribute to this.

About the author

André Costa Lucena holds a master's degree in Political Science from the Federal University of Campina Grande in Brazil and dedicates his research to political innovation through new models of participation and representation through the internet.

André Costa Lucena es politólogo y estudiente de maestría en Ciencia Política en la Universidad Federal de Campina Grande, en Brasil, y dedica sus investigaciones a la innovación política a través de nuevos modelos de participación y representación por medio de internet.

André Costa Lucena é mestrando em Ciência Política na Universidade Federal de Campina Grande, no Brasil, e dedica as suas pesquisas à inovação política através de novos modelos de participação e representação por meio da internet.

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