Editor's Letter: Democracy and Elections in 2006

By John H. Coatsworth  

A quarter century ago, ReVista could not have published a special issue devoted to analyzing open and competitive elections in Latin America. ReVista did not exist then (it was founded in 2000), but even if it had existed, an elections issue would have excluded most of the region. Only Costa Rica and Venezuela were still holding regular, peaceful democratic elections. Military dictatorships, civilian-led authoritarian regimes, and internal strife dominated the rest of Latin America.

The new era that began with the Malvinas/Falklands War and the economic and financial crises of 1982 culminated with the Chilean referendum of 1989 and the peace accords in central america in the early 1990s. The democratic trend of the past two decades now exceeds in breadth and duration all previous waves of democ ratization in latin america.

One clear indicator of democratic consolidation can be seen in the critical scrutiny that Latin Americans, and their friends, are now directing at the quality of the democratic institutions that have evolved in the past two decades. Elections—even relatively open elections where the votes are accurately counted—do not make a democracy. They may be a necessary condition most of the time, but they are far from sufficient. Criticisms fall into three categories. The first questions the fairness of the elections themselves, especially those in which candidates with vast sums of money from self-interested contributions are corrupting the process. The second holds that the advantages of incumbency skillfully manipulated can turn elections into mere plebiscites that inevitably favor the party or president in power. The third argues that elections are merely the tip of the institutional iceberg; democracy means not just elections but effective protection of the human, civic, and property rights of all citizens.

Another indicator of consolidation of democracy is the shift to the left in recent election results. Voters are no longer fearful that the military will return to power or that foreign intervention will make them pay for their choices. In most countries, the election of left-wing candidates reflected the poor economic performance, persistent inequality, and other problems that voters have always wanted their governments to fix. Many blamed the conservative and centrist regimes that predominated in the first decade or so after the return to democracy. An exceptional pattern emerged in Chile, where strong economic growth, new social policy initiatives, and efforts to come to grips with the lingering effects of the Pinochet dictatorship moved the electorate to return the incumbent socialist party to the presidency. The trend to the left could continue for some time, but since the left will be judged by the same standards that brought it to power, its current popularity comes with no guarantees for the future.

The insistence of Latin American voters on improvements in the quality of democracy, both in electoral procedures and in governance, and on better economic and social outcomes, has created tensions, particularly when these two categories appear to be in conflict. Irregular changes of government in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru occurred during the past decade when social and political protests erupted against under performing presidents. In several countries, presidents made popular by economic and social policy successes have moved to concentrate power in the executive. Too often, elected governments, civil "servants," police, and judicial authorities still treat the rights of citizens as negotiable, like rewards to be provided in exchange for support or payment.

In the coming decade, Latin America will strive to deepen and extend democratic procedures while improving economic and social outcomes. the pattern and sequencing of these changes is likely to vary considerably from country to country. New developments may be difficult to read, because the leftward drift in recent years has broadened the political spectrum, raised some new issues, and favored a certain amount of experimentation. It is unlikely that the paths chosen will be straightforward. For example, elections (or even legislatures) tainted by corruption may so anger voters that policy and regulatory outcomes could actually improve. Centralizing populists who manage to avoid inflation could have the effect of raising citizens' expectations so that subsequent administrations will be compelled to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public services. Voter demands for more responsive, transparent, and respectful treat ment for ordinary citizens could improve the climate for business as well as the safety of poorer neighborhoods.

What is certain amid the uncertainties is how much Latin America has changed for the better since the end of the Cold War in 1990 facilitated the consolidation of democratic regimes. this sentiment helps to explain the question mark in the title of Alejandro Poirè s introductory essay—despair at how far there is yet to go is tempered by recalling how far Latin America has come.

Professor Poiré graciously agreed to serve as guest editor for this issue of ReVista, while the intrepid June Carolyn Erlick takes a well-earned leave as a Fulbright Fellow in Colombia. a former senior official at Mexico's federal electoral institute (IFE), Alejandro Poiré came to Harvard this year as the Robert F. Kennedy visiting professor of latin american studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has recruited an outstand ing group of contributors, including Luis Carlos Ugalde, former DRCLAS Visiting Scholar and now Councilor President of IFE. Each of the essays adds to knowledge of the electoral systems, the main contenders for power, and the meaning of the results.