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Democratic quality in Latin America.

The tenth anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter provides a good opportunity to reflect on the state of democracy in Latin America. The situation is mixed. On the one hand, the countries of the region have safeguarded the foundations of electoral democracy and implemented mechanisms for the peaceful turnover of power, at times with OAS support. On the other hand, the quality of governance (the way in which public power is exercised) remains poor and has declined in some countries. Latin America does not have a passing grade in the area of democratic quality and good governance.

As far as electoral democracy is concerned, Latin America is better off now than ten years ago. Not only are there periodic elections anal greater freedoms, but the temptation to use violence anal coups d'etat to undermine democracy has been avoided, despite the exception of Honduras. Among the governance categories assessed by the World Bank, Latin America fared best in "voice and accountability," that is, the enhanced ability of citizens to elect and oversee their leaders, through freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and a free press.

However, aside from its high marks for electoral democracy, the region is at the same level or slightly worse off than ten years ago in terms of other democratic quality indicators. According to the same World Bank governance indicators (political stability, rule of law, government effectiveness, control of corruption, regulatory quality, and voice and accountability), it is dangerously lacking in almost every category. Of course the paradigms of democratic quality continue to be Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, which had satisfactory ratings in every category. But all the other countries were in the mid or low range.

The poorest grades are for the rule of law. This is critical because lawfulness is the cornerstone of a liberal, sound, consolidated democracy. Without it, democracies crumble and become populist, demagogic, or authoritarian.

Absence of the rule of law results in impunity and corruption. It seems contradictory in theory that corruption has remained in place and has even worsened in some cases in the presence of increased democracy. It doesn't make sense that greater freedom of expression has not led to greater honesty in government. In other words, freedom of expression, a better balance of powers, and increased civil society participation have not been sufficient to improve the rule of law and combat corruption.

Another disturbing phenomenon affecting democratic institutions is so-called "neo-caudillismo," or, the attempt to remain in power by manipulating constitutions, the rules of the game, and the judiciary. Not only does electoral democracy require periodic elections, it also needs to rotate its officials in order to retain stability between administrations and avoid a concentration of power. Any attempt by leaders to amend laws to benefit themselves and be eligible to run for re-election calls into question the principles of impartiality and legal certainty.

The achievements of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in safeguarding and expanding democracy in the hemisphere cannot be measured in terms of the region's shortcomings in democratic quality. Obviously, the problem cannot be blamed on the OAS but on the way democracy has evolved in the hemisphere, where electoral democracies have been built on the same clientelistic and corporatist structure as in the past, with new democratic institutions based on a precarious rule of law and a culture of incipient legality among the peoples of the region. Periodic elections are held, but votes are still bought in many countries; increased checks and balances exist among the branches of governments, but legislative votes are purchased in some countries; there is greater freedom of expression, bur some media collude with governments to obtain favorable regulation in exchange for editorial support. There is greater transparency but at the same rime more corruption.

Democratization often exacerbates clientelism in countries because the political actors (parties, labor unions, legislators) have greater independence in exchanging favors anal obtaining payoffs. As a result, corruption anal nepotism are at times higher during periods of democratic transition than under authoritarian governments. This is the situation in Latin America.

Unfortunately, the type of economic growth in the region over the last decade has hindered the rule of law and the construction of liberal democracies, because governments have more resources for clientelism, political control, and corruption. Since a portion of the growth is attributable to high commodity prices, there is a tendency to use those exceptional revenues more for current expenditures than for investments.

Waste and corruption aside, higher government revenues have made it possible to create jobs and alleviate poverty in many countries. And these positive results tend to distract attention from governance problems. With expanding economies, higher rates of employment, and poverty programs, people are not overly focused on problems of democratic governance. "If they're doing a good job governing, what does it matter if they're stealing!" is a saying heard in many countries of the region. The problem is that economic expansion is often more a result of exogenous factors than a product of good governance.

Luis Carlos Ugalde is the Director General of Integralia Consultores, a firm dedicated to public affairs, transparency, and accountability. He was president of Mexico's Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) from 2003 to 2007. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Ugalde, Luis Carlos
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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