Latin America’s eroding democracy: the view from Argentina

Celia Szusterman
31 May 2006

The fashionable current narrative of a "swing to the left" in Latin America, espoused by commentators of left and right alike, appears to have a lot of evidence to commend it: the election of centre-left governments in Brazil and Chile, of more radical figures in Venezuela and Bolivia, and the wave of social protests and convulsions in countries as different as Argentina, Ecuador and Mexico in the first years of the 21st century.

The narrative, however, is only skin-deep. It overlooks a key factor: the populist, nationalist and authoritarian currents that have resurfaced in many places. A full account of this factor reveals that the deeper Latin America story is not a renascent left but a populist resurgence that is further eroding already damaged political institutions.

Celia Szusterman is senior lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster and an associate fellow at Chatham House

Also by Celia Szusterman in openDemocracy:

"Argentina: the state we’re in"
(October 2005)

An extract from this article:

"After twenty-two years of democratic rule, the quality of democracy and of citizens’ rights in Argentina shows worrying deficits. The Peronist political culture and its exercise of power has exacerbated the worst characteristics of a hyper-presidentialist system. The president's own mode of rule – labelled "style K" – has not contributed to strengthening Argentina’s weak institutions.

"Style K" is not pretty. Kirchner prefers confrontation over negotiation; employs bully-boy tactics when dealing with the opposition, his own minsters, the press or foreign businessmen; refuses to hold cabinet meetings or give press interviews or conferences; and rules by decree rather than with congress. All this can be interpreted as revealing an ignorance of civic culture at best, or a lurking authoritarianism at worst. After all, both were key features of Peronism at its inception.

The result is the insidious propagation of a culture of fear."

A democracy in trouble

A clear indication of this more fundamental trend is apparent in a comparison of the qualitative performance of institutions of governance across the region. Chile and Uruguay have historically been top of this particular league, followed (at some distance) by Brazil; at the bottom are Venezuela and Bolivia, perhaps soon to be followed by Peru; somewhere in the middle, but with strong indications of a downward movement, is Argentina.

The governments of Chile and Uruguay (and a Brazil moving in their direction) can be readily understood as social-democratic polities, administering to a society at least aspiring to some of the classic features of a democratic order: a shared political culture where the rule of law, and established institutions and freedoms are respected, and a society where equality of citizenship and inclusion is guaranteed.

It is more difficult to define the societies, political cultures and institutions of the countries at the bottom of the league. A historical perspective helps to identify the roots of such divergence: longstanding democratic traditions (albeit interrupted by military intervention) in the countries at the top, enduring populist and nationalist traditions in those at the bottom.

In this context, Argentina is doubly unfortunate: both populist and Peronist. It must be recalled that the periods of a truly liberal and democratic republic in Argentina lasted not more than a total of twelve years until the restoration of democracy in 1983 after seven years of military dictatorship. However, since 2002, the regression and involution has been relentless.

Why is Argentina's democracy in trouble? Part of the problem is that the fate of "democracy" (whether in its social, liberal and republican definition) is in the hands of those who neither care for nor understand the importance of the core institutions of democracy: the rule of law, separation of powers (including, crucially, an independent judiciary), accountability of government, freedom of the press, and a culture of compromise and tolerance. These are dismissed by Peronists and populists alike (the categories of course overlap) as "rightwing concerns": not what "the people" need or demand, but what "the enemies of the people" use to conceal their evil intentions.

The impressive economic growth which has enabled Argentina to recover from its virtual collapse in December 2001 cannot disguise that a sort of "decadent" or "low-intensity" democracy has taken hold under its president, Néstor Kirchner.

Kirchner celebrated three years in power on 25 May 2006 at a mass rally in Buenos Aires which was widely seen as a marker for his re-election campaign in 2007. True to the definition of the post-1945 populist leader Juan Perón himself, Kirchner conceives politics as "the art of leading men". Yet this "art" is conceived in military and authoritarian rather than democratic or relational terms: it is all about the personification of power, strict discipline and obedience to the "leader", accumulation of power and hegemonic dominance.

Ricardo Lagos, the predecessor of Michelle Bachelet as Chile's president, said that "populism cannot survive without a fiscal surplus". The proliferation of funds distributed by executive fiat as a means of patronage – bypassing legislative accountability – is just one instance of the lack of transparency of Kirchner's administration. There are others: from the breach of campaign-funding rules to the appointment of piquetero leaders who burned down a police station to government positions.

The co-optation of the radical, strike-leading, factory-occupying piqueteros into the government might be rationalised as part of a strategy to involve them in non-violent democratic politics. In practice it is rather a surrender to intimidation. The same mentality is seen in the politicisation of judicial appointments, which erodes the principle of pluralism and effective checks and balances in the public realm (Human Rights Watch sent a letter to President Kirchner in February 2006 expressing its concern at his "reforms" in this area).

Meanwhile, Argentina's congress is virtually inactive, and where it does meet it pays remarkable inattention to the country's 1994 constitution. This document stipulates that the chief of cabinet should report to congress at least once a month; he has done so on only seven occasions since May 2003, and just once in the whole of 2005. Legislators frequently invoke the phrase "awaiting presidential orders" before attempting even to initiate a debate.

The congressional revision of more than 1,000 laws and executive decrees, overdue since 1999, has not started. The body's committee for constitutional affairs – chaired by Cristina Kirchner, the president's spouse and a considerable, ambitious figure in her own right – has taken no steps to begin the process. These laws will lapse in August 2006, throwing the country into legal chaos – unless the revision is postponed yet again.

Argentina's public life is subject to an array of authoritarian measures. The respected, independent Association for Civil Rights highlights attempts at press manipulation and intimidation; these include indirect as well as direct pressures, such as the efforts of public officials close to Kirchner to persuade private companies to withdraw advertising from critical and independent media.

A region against itself

Political culture is difficult to define: yet much of what is going on in Argentina can only be understood against a background of violent, fractious confrontation between groups divided not by ideological or programmatic identities but by a ruthless pursuit of the apparatus – and financial resources – of the state.

In its misplaced focus on radical parties and policies rather than institutions of governance, the narrative of leftist revival – in Argentina, as elsewhere in Latin America – fails utterly to capture such realities. So when populist leaders rant against the "market" and praise the "state", they are not really trying to understand what the role of the state should be. Rather, they are defining a chosen "enemy of the people" (businessmen, foreign and domestic – but especially foreign; the pantomime-devils of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; several hues of ill-defined, and in some cases non-existent, oligarchies).

The logical conclusion of their imaginings is a "state" in the hands of "the people" (i.e. the ruling party, its clienteles and friends), spending public funds when they are available (for the lack of funds, pace Lagos, spells the end of populism), but without feeling the need to account for such spending. After all, the new controllers of the state are "the people"; they represent the "good", and those who question their spending are the "neo-liberal" enemies and their lackeys in the press.

This type of politics is very familiar in Latin America – albeit in other guises. It has led to economic chaos, social hatred, poverty, rampant corruption, lawlessness and hyperinflation. It is far from clear that this path is not again being followed.

Those who would like to see what is going on in Latin America as the dawn of a "fraternal" leftwing politics based on ideological affinities and solidarity of "the people" might benefit from registering the difference between the much-reviled "neo-liberal" 1990s and today. Today's period of instability and confrontation contrasts with the last decade's markedly stable period in intra-regional relations.

The resurgence of the politics of nationalist populism comes hand-in-hand with the search for enemies rather than allies. As the independent institutions that can guarantee a healthy public order are left to corrode, Latin America's populists are plunging the region into a new era of suspicion, embitterment, accusation and xenophobia. For whom is this progress?

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