#Democracy2019: Democracy in decay, political participation on the rise

Yet again democracy is under threat everywhere, however political participation is on the rise and particularly among women. Español

democracia Abierta
7 March 2019, 12.01am
Protest, April 2018 Albany New York. PA Images: All Rights Reserved.

According to the bi-annual democracy indices (those from Freedom House and The Economist), yet again democracy is under threat everywhere. The northern hemisphere has proven particularly vulnerable to negative trends affecting the quality of democracy. In the Global South, Latin America continues to represent the most democratic region, but 2018 (a year of presidential elections in key countries like Colombia, Mexico and Brazil), has largely consolidated deterioration.

Corrupt elections, attacks on freedom of expression, and a rise in digital authoritarianism and surveillance of citizens have been worldwide worrying trends. Furthermore, the disregard for international human rights standards for migrants and refugees adds to the deterioration of liberal democracies.

In Europe and the US, societies are seemingly losing their trust in traditional political parties, and we are witnessing the rise of worrisome populist and autocratic trends, and similar scenarios are developing in Latin America.

However, both indexes also detect that, as a reaction to the increasing frustration regarding traditional politics, many citizens have taken action, with political participation on the rise.

Let’s see what this year’s democracy indices can tell us about it.

Democracy is in descent across the globe and populism is on the rise

Both Freedom House (FH) and The Economist’s Intelligence Unit Democracy Index (EIU) have found democracy around the globe to be deteriorating. While FH described democracy “to be in retreat”, the EIU index, while agreeing with the former, also acknowledges that 2018 marks the first instance since the last three years where the steadily falling democracy score did not plummet even further, but instead retained its score from 2017.

The silver lining, according to the EUI, was the encouraging increase in the level of political participation, in particular the increased participation of women in politics across the globe.

FH uses an index based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through which it determines whether the people of a country are free, partly free or not free. The EUI index looks at five categories - electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture - and establishes whether a country can be considered a full democracy, a flawed democracy, a hybrid regime or an authoritarian regime.

Both indices identify the causes for negative developments that have led to this point of crisis of confidence in democracy, where citizens across the world are beginning to question whether democratic institutions still serve their interests.

As FH puts it, ‘we are in a new phase of globalisation’, one marked by a shift in the global balance of power with the arrival of newly industrialised economic giants such as India and China to the international arena and the enormous amount of wealth created globally as a result. This wealth, however, has been extremely unevenly distributed and, while the governments have failed to confront the rising inequality, people have begun to lose faith in their representatives.

Adult literacy has increased, the interest of people following politics and the news has improved, and we have seen a rise in the number of people engaging in lawful demonstrations across the globe.

Particularly relevant for the case of Latin America, the vacuum has been filled by new competitors who have successfully blamed the existing elites for the downfall in the living standards of their citizens. The most successful have been the right-wing populist movements, using the language of national sovereignty or a stern stance against immigration to attract their electorates. We have been witnessing these shifts in Europe, the US, and now most recently with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as the president of Brazil.

The EUI index proposes a slightly different view. The only category that experienced a positive development has been political participation. What we are seeing therefore is not disengagement with democracy but quite the opposite: the disillusionment with formal political institutions has prompted the people to act. Adult literacy has increased, the interest of people following politics and the news has improved, and we have seen a rise in the number of people engaging in lawful demonstrations across the globe.

The EIU index, contrasting the FH analysis, concluded that while the people have become disillusioned with traditional political parties and the shortcoming of democratic processes, this “has fed through more broadly into support for democratic values, into belief that democratic systems support greater economic prosperity and security, and ultimately, into confidence in democracy itself”. Indeed, in Latin America, where society is exhausted by news of corruption scandals and political schemes, the voter turnout in 2018 has been particularly high.

In line with the FH report however, EIU index acknowledges that much of the increased political participation ended up in support for anti-establishment politicians, who have the potential to significantly alter the practice of democracy as we know it and put our democratic institutions at risk. The problem here, as the EIU highlights, is that although the citizens have become more engaged, they are also deeply divided.

The state of democracy in Latin America

Contradictorily, in terms of the leMievel of democracy in individual states, in 2018 the region presented both the biggest improvement and the biggest deterioration.

Costa Rica was applauded as one of 2018’s greatest achievements, with the country moving from ‘flawed’ to the ‘full democracy’ category and joining Uruguay as the only other state in the region enjoying the status. Overall the EIU’s top twenty list for the total democracy rankings for 2018 places Uruguay on the fifteenth place, and Costa Rica on the twentieth. Spain, a country often used as a European reference of successful transitions to democracy, and that has been recently dubbed by domestic separatists as a non-democratic and neo-fascist state, has scored nineteenth place

Good news came also from Ecuador as FH highlighted the country as one of the positive developments of 2018. The country’s new president Lenín Moreno broke away from the antidemocratic practices of his predecessor Rafael Correa. The changes reflect the newly elected president’s anti-corruption stance, his more relaxed attitudes towards the media and civil society, and for successfully passing a constitutional referendum through which presidential term limits, dissolved under Correa, have been re-established.

Populism makes a comeback

Both Indices place a significant focus on explaining the revival of populism in Latin America, drawing special attention to the recent elections in Brazil and Mexico.

While both lament the danger to democracy that Bolsonaro’s mandate could represent, the EIU identifies Mexico’s new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s populism as potentially more disruptive to democracy, mainly due to the uncertainties his ambiguous campaign has brought to the country.

AMLO's left-wing Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena) coupled with its allies now represent the absolute majority in both houses of Mexico’s Congress, while Bolsonaro’s right-wing Partido Social Liberal only has 10% of the seats in Brazil’s Congress.

The threat that Bolsonaro represents to democracy is clear but, as the index explains, Mexico, as a far stronger economy than Brazil with lower levels of foreign debt, has a bigger potential of destabilisation if things go wrong. Obrador is stronger. His left-wing Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena) coupled with its allies now represent the absolute majority in both houses of Mexico’s Congress, while Bolsonaro’s right-wing Partido Social Liberal only has 10% of the seats in Brazil’s Congress. This makes Obrador the most powerful president Mexico in decades, and whether for good or for bad, his position will definitely have a significant influence on the region and beyond. While the FH index takes a positive stance towards Obrador’s political promises, particularly his focus on tackling corruption and violent drug gangs in the country, it remains sceptical as to how exactly he plans to accomplish this.

Shifts towards authoritarianism

While Brazil and Mexico will be closely watched this year, both indices acknowledge that the biggest democratic declines occurred in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and stress the alarming migration rates in the region that the crisis in the two countries has fuelled. The EIU index moved Nicaragua from a hybrid to an authoritarian regime joining it to the category’s veterans, Venezuela and Cuba.

Nicaragua’s fall is a result of president Daniel Ortega’s (in power since 2007) violent repression of anti-government protests, which began in April last year. Over 300 people were killed by regular and irregular security forces and more than 500 taken as political prisoners according to local NGO, Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

Both indices also commented on the authoritarian situation in Venezuela, where an economic collapse pushed the country into humanitarian crisis, while president Nicolas Maduro, in power since the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, won allegedly rigged elections again through voter intimidation and the exclusion of prominent opposition candidates in his run for power. The situation has deteriorated even further with Maduros’ inauguration in January 2019 considered illegitimate by the opposition and a significant part of the international community.

Lastly, the EIU index also places spotlight on El Salvador where the growing democratic malaise is turning many supportive of military rule in the country. Here, the situation has evolved somewhat positively since the recent election of Nayib Bukele and his promise of regeneration, breaking more than 30 years of corrupt bipartisanship.

The road ahead

Latin America is a region of political innovation. Although the recent trends point to a steady fall in democratic standards and institutions - particularly the rise of populist leaders and the increasingly authoritarian stance of an increasing number of countries in the region - the fact that we are witnessing more political participation across the world is a very promising evolution and offers hope.

Democracy goes beyond voting and is also composed of values, practices and institutions, and that is what democratic participation must reinforce reinforce. If this increase in political participation in elections means that those determined to bring democratic ideals like transparency and accountability back to the core of the political discussion, this will be very good news for Latin America, and everywhere.

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