Following the inertia of recent years, the world continues to turn autocratic according to the main indexes that evaluate the state of democracy. 2022 was the sixth consecutive year of democratic regression, according to the report of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). In our region, the most pronounced setbacks are those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, while there are no upward trends to celebrate. Meanwhile, according to the global alliance of civil society organizations dedicated to strengthening citizen action (CIVICUS), more countries are restricting and violating civic freedoms and almost a third of the world’s population lives in countries with closed civic spaces, rising from 26% in 2018 to 30% in 2023. Finally, the latest V-Dem study mentions that the planet today has more closed autocracies than liberal democracies and that the progress achieved during the last 35 years has been annulled. As a consequence, 72% of the world’s population currently lives under autocratic regimes.
In Latin America, the situation is no different. We have three consolidated autocratic regimes (Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua) and several in clear democratic regression (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Bolivia). Added to this is the generalized democratic disaffection of its inhabitants. According to the latest Latinobarómetro survey, only 48% of people support democracy in the region, a decrease of 15% points in the last 12 years. Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who would not mind having a non-democratic government if it could solve problems rose from 44% in 2002 to 54% in 2022.
Democracy or state aptitude failure?
Different scholars, including Adam Przeworski in “The Crisis of Democracy” (2022), have warned about the accuracy of surveys measuring the acceptance of democracy. This is due to the great methodological difficulty in conducting them. If academics do not reach an agreement on the subject, much less can we expect the general public to reach a consensus on its scope and limits. In other words, when people talk about democracy, they are not referring to the same thing. Depending on the context, they will refer to prosperity, security, employment, access to education and health, freely electing their representatives, or the rule of law.
This brings us to a second problem in measuring perceptions of democracy: linking it to state ability. From a procedural perspective, a democratic regime is one in which competitive elections are held, with plural options, freedom of expression, association, demonstration, and conditions that guarantee the fundamental principle of democracies: that governments lose elections (Przeworski).
From this reductionist perspective, democracy would not necessarily guarantee welfare, equity, economic development, employment, or social programs, issues that have to do with state capacity and not with the political regime. This is why we find autocracies or theocracies with high rates of economic development and democracies with very poor economic and social indicators.
This is why it should be considered that when the inhabitants of Latin America are asked about their perception of democracy, they are likely to respond by valuing their governments.
The autocratic threat
It is precisely the low state capability of Latin American countries that has led to frustration with the expectations of democracy after the third wave of democratization.
Although in his famous speech, within the framework of Argentina’s democratic recovery, Raúl Alfonsín stated that “with democracy we eat, we cure, and we educate”, Latin Americans know that although they live under democratic regimes, food, health, and education are not guaranteed. According to ECLAC data, one out of three Latin Americans lives below the poverty line, and one out of ten lives in extreme poverty.
The malaise is not limited to countries that have not been able to escape poverty. Even those that have grown uninterruptedly for decades and have lifted a large part of the population out of poverty, such as Chile, have recently undergone institutional crises as a result of the frustrated expectations of their inhabitants. This context is a breeding ground for autocratic experiments where, behind re-foundational and populist discourses, leaders emerge who pretend to embody the suffering people and defend them from the establishment, the caste, or whatever term is in vogue.
The curious thing about this process of de-democratization or autocratization is that the initial kick-off is made under democratic rules. They are candidates who form a political force, compete electorally, and win elections. Often, they are quite popular and have direct communication with citizens.
The problem arises once they take power since they interpret that electoral support and their circumstantial majority translates into a blank check, a valid coupon to re-found the country and make minorities invisible. This hegemonic vocation is reproduced, according to experts Ginsburg and Huq, through three practices that gradually erode democracy. First, the incremental decline of competitive elections, liberal rights of expression/association, and the rule of law. Second, discrete changes in the informal rules and procedures that shape elections, rights, and accountability. And finally, the loss of checks and balances.
As this process advances, the opposition becomes incapable of winning, the established institutions lose their capacity to control and the demonstrations lose strength as they are repressed. Thus, paradoxically, democratically elected governments can dismantle the institutional framework that allowed them to come to power, sometimes without clear constitutional violations.
As long as economic growth expectations in Latin America are poor and state capability cannot satisfy basic citizen demands, democracy as a political system will be at risk, and autocratic experiments will endure.
*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.