Mauricio Macri. President of Argentina. Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Latin America has been showing in recent years a growing progressive government fatigue. Not so much with the policies of these governments, but with their way of doing politics. Mauricio Marci’s victory in Argentina seems to confirm the change of direction of the Latin American pendulum. However, it is unclear whether these changes will affect politics, as society is demanding, or only policies.
As we learned in school, socio-political transformation processes in Latin America tend to go in waves. So it was with the independence revolutions, the conservative republics, the military coups, the return to democracy and, more recently, the new left movement set in motion by Hugo Chávez in 1999. Dilma Rousseff’s poor electoral showing in Brazil, the loss of major cities by the governing Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism – MAS) in Bolivia, and social mobilization in Venezuela and Ecuador, all seem to indicate that a new wave is coming.
The presidential election in Argentina, Nicolás Maduro’s almost certain setback at parliamentary elections on December 6, and Rafael Correa’s announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2017, are confirming that the pendulum has already changed direction and is moving towards more conservative governments and policies.
I want to contribute some elements to this debate on the basis of the results of an online survey of 1094 activists from across the hemisphere and of focus groups with political parties and social leaders of Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil. I conducted them in October 2015.
Political crisis, corruption, political parties
The first thing to be noted is the confirmation of a sense of crisis existing in almost all Latin American countries. It is surprising that even in a general context of economic stagnation and, in some cases, of economic crisis, what is gathering more momentum is the political crisis.
The main problem arising is corruption, even in countries that are being penalized by drug trafficking and violence and where the levels of economic inequality are among the highest in the world. And when you try to find out why, what comes out first is the crisis of representation.
When people in the focus groups were asked about the politics and democratic performance in their countries, the kindest answers were "ominous", "this is an exhausted model", and "democracy is not giving any answers."
It is not surprising that political parties, which are considered to be part of the problem, are in the eye of the storm. Massive demonstrations across the continent, and the low level of legitimacy of the presidents of countries being governed by both left and right, are clearly symptoms of this phenomenon. "Since nobody is in jail, we take to the streets," said a Honduran social leader.
So far, no surprises: we can confirm the "democratic recession" that Larry Diamond warns us about and the intellectual establishment and the media in the region keep on hammering.
Positive opinions, unfulfilled expectations
The second point to be made, which often does not come in the analyses we read, is that the opinion on the democratic performance is more positive when people are asked to compare the current situation with the past. In the survey, the participants’ response was much more nuanced (fifty-fifty), and in the case of the Southern Cone countries, 73% said that democracy had progressed, even though some did point out some setbacks.
There is more democratic maturity in the region, more democracy, and even the more conservative sectors are now competing for public spaces, organizing marches or creating new political parties (PRO in Argentina, NOVO in Brazil, CREO in Ecuador, the Anti Corruption Party in Honduras), instead of hitting the gates of the barracks as they did in the past.
The focus groups showed this progress even more clearly: “Women now have another role in politics”, “institutional developments have occurred, such as the referendum”, “there is greater inclusiveness, more gender parity and social agendas.”
Figure 1 – How democratic is your country compared with 10 years ago?
Source: the author
However, unfulfilled expectations and broken promises by many progressive governments keep coming up: “they announced the advent of citizens’ power, but in the end they controlled it through their political party” (Ecuador).
What is happening here is simply that politics has failed to see that we are facing deep social and political transformations. On the one hand, we have 70 million people who are now a new middle class, 33% of the population is young and democratic-native, and we are experiencing a triple technological revolution (internet, cell-phone, social networks) that we do not fully understand.
These factors prompt the emergence of a different kind of political animal. If we analyze the protests that have spread throughout the region, and also the emerging political actors, we can clearly see a texture and a way of doing and understanding politics by a demos that is quite the opposite of the cratos we have. In the focus groups of community leaders and those of the political parties it became evident that these two worlds are shifting increasingly apart: a participatory vision of democracy vs a representative one; network construction vs my own militant group; horizontal power relations vs hierarchy; experimenting vs procedures. These are often embryonic, but nevertheless deep changes.
Figure 2 – Protests in Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina
It is not about policy, but about politics
The third point I want to make is about the representation gap.The Yasunidos, # YaMeCansé, #PasseLivre, and Antorchas protests are rebellions against power concentration, discretionality, corruption, neo-extractivism: they are a buildup of frustration with governments that were supposed to change what they have not changed. The core of their demands is the rejection of a way of doing politics.
An activist captured the spirit of time: "I agree with Correa’s Inheritance Law, but I shall never support it because it was done behind closed doors and precisely now that there is no money." That is, the main demand is not about policies, but about politics.
To make things worse, the reaction of the oficialismos (officialisms) or, as Salvador Schavelson says, the “gobernista” (governist) sectors, has been to antagonize further the protesters. I have even heard Marco Aurelio Garcia, a great mind from the Brazilian governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party – PT) say that protesters were being "ungrateful", and I have seen the Brazilian government come down on them with repression and organize parallel marches.
The Yasunidos have been accused of being enemies of their country and those who complain about national chains and the discretionary distribution of the State resources have also been underestimated. The message was not read correctly: people want a different way of doing politics. Today, citizens understand nuances, they are capable of drawing up complex and plural agendas, and they want to participate in governance beyond voting every two years and handing over a blank check.
The last point, but perhaps the most important one, is what’s next. We are in a state of confusion due to the growing disconnection between a changing demos, with a variety of demands, and a cratos with a very low responsiveness. In this confusion, the concerted interests and the media establishment manage to impose their agenda.
The alternative narrative being offered to these "populisms", as some are fond of stigmatizing them, is the "republic." A Von Hayek fan like Guatemalan political scientist Gloria Alvarez tours the region like a rock star. Many think and vote in this direction with the best intentions, thinking of the need for political alternation, for decentralization of power, and for institutional counterweights.
However, the results of the survey I conducted and also the focus groups (it should be clarified that a majority of the people in them were in the opposition) warn us that in this political crisis, those who win in the end are the powers that be.
As one Brazilian citizen said: "They showed us a fiction of a mass movement. The truth is that there are other interests behind it." Asked about the obstacles to democracy, the spontaneous answers were to the effect that corporate groups, banks and elites are the actors which have the capacity to influence decision-making.
That is, against a backdrop of weakened and discredited politics, largely due to the failures of its own practitioners, new political actors seeking different policies are emerging, with a discourse of political change. When you look at Salvador Nasrallah from Honduras, Alejandro Maldonado in Guatemala, the banker Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, Aecio Neves in Brazil and Mauricio Macri in Argentina, it is clearer that they will change policies but not too clear is they will change politics.
It does seem that it will not be long before we find out.