Jared Abbott: Can Citizens Save Democracy in Latin America?

Jared Abbott is Ph.D. Candidate in Government at Harvard. He studies the causes and effects of different forms of citizen participation, primarily in Latin America. 

Can Citizens Save Democracy in Latin America?
By Jared Abbott

I turn on the television. Massive protests  in Chile calling for fundamental political reforms; Constitutional crisis in Peru as President Vizcarra dissolves congress; Dangerous showdown in Bolivia after disputed elections and the subsequent forced resignation of President Evo Morales; Ongoing political and economic catastrophe in Venezuela as dueling governments vie for power; the list goes on… 

Democracy is in crisis across Latin America. The legitimacy of traditional political parties is in decline, opening the door to a host of anti-establishment, populist political movements. Over the past several decades we have seen leaders arise both of the left and the right who view democracy less as an end in itself, and more as a means of consolidating their own political dominance. These leaders may hold elections, but they do not hesitate to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor, nor to violate the political and civil rights of their political opponents.

fed
A big turnout for participatory budget planning in Kepashiato, Peru. Photo courtesy of the district municipality of Echarati, Peru.

While many factors—political, economic and social—have helped to produce this trend, there is a general sense that existing political institutions are incapable of or unwilling to respond effectively to the needs of ordinary people. The vast distance many citizens from Chile to Mexico perceive between their day-to-day needs and the political priorities of their elected officials has left many dissatisfied with the status quo, and increasingly open to outsider, populist alternatives. When these alternatives come to power—often buoyed by their reliance on a pro-democratic, anti-elite rhetoric – they tend to pursue political strategies that result not in increased democratic responsiveness and accountability, but rather in a severe weakening of democratic institutions. These include undermining constitutional checks and balances, centralizing executive authority and challenging the legitimacy of their political opponents.

Anti-establishment political parties succeed in large part because they identify very real deficits in the quality of democratic institutions, but the solutions they offer are often worse than the disease. My research starts here: how can we imagine political alternatives that address the poor quality of democracy in many Latin American countries while also respecting the fundamental importance of liberal-democratic political institutions? Several decades ago, a range of leftist political parties—the Brazilian Workers’ Party, the Uruguayan Broad Front, Venezuela’s Radical Cause, among others—  took up this challenge through innovative experiments in local-level participatory democracy. 

These began as exercises in participatory budgeting in which a certain percentage of a municipality’s investment budget is allocated through citizen assemblies that prioritize which specific projects the municipal government will carry out. The experiment started out in a handful of cities, before ultimately spreading to thousands of cities across the region. A vast panorama of other participatory institutions, from municipal citizen oversight committees to advisory councils that include citizen voices directly in national-level policymaking also began to take part in this search for meaningful citizen participation and inclusion. 

While no comprehensive datasets exist, our best estimates suggest that nearly 3,000 different participatory institutions have been established in Latin America since the early 1990s, including the participation of hundreds of millions of citizens throughout the region. And there is a growing body of research to suggest that many of these experiences have had a meaningful impact not only on the quality of democracy, but also on citizens’ access to public services, as well as government transparency and accountability.  

At the same time, however, a large body of research suggests that the success of participatory institutions varies dramatically across and within Latin American countries, and that in certain contexts participatory institutions can actually undermine, rather than strengthen the quality of democracy. More broadly, it is clear that the massive expansion of participatory institutions we’ve seen across Latin America has been weakly, or even negatively associated with citizens’ opinions about quality of democracy. According to data from Latinobarómetro, for instance, satisfaction with the quality of democracy in Latin America in reached its lowest point in 2018 since the early 1990s (24%).  

def
Neighborhood meeting on budgets and road repair in Los Cartones neighborhood in Las Matas de Fanfan, Dominican Republic. Photo courtesy of the municipal government of Las Matas de Fanfan.

There is no doubt that a wide range of factors explain the increasingly negative view Latin Americans have of how their democratic systems function. At the very least, however, we can say that participatory institutions have had little success providing an alternative to antiestablishment populists who prefer to use citizen discontent as a pretext for undermining democratic institutions, rather than address this discontent by offering workable participatory reforms to strengthen democracy.

My work tries to explain why participatory institutions haven’t succeeded in improving the quality of democracy as much as their many promoters had hoped.  In a nutshell, I argue that participatory institutions have had limited success improving the quality of Latin American democracy because only certain types of participatory institutions are up to task—those that offer citizens real, rather than merely symbolic decision-making authority—and these are comparatively rare. My work examines the political factors that explain why weak, toothless participatory institutions are so prevalent in Latin America while strong participatory institutions that enjoy real authority are not. In turn, I examine the fate of strong participatory institutions, specifically why many fall prey to different forms of political exclusion and manipulation. 

I argue that strong participatory institutions face a paradox: the conditions needed to ensure they are set up on a large scale ultimately undermine their capacity to improve the quality of democracy. One the one hand, strong participatory institutions are generally only set up on a large scale if they are championed by political parties, and parties only invest seriously in participatory institutions when they expect to benefit electorally. On the other hand, parties with an incentive to set up strong participatory institutions also have an incentive to politicize them. This politicization leads to the exclusion of large segments of the population from participation, and undermines participatory institutions’ capacity to carry out their most basic function: representing the interests of the communities they serve. 

Despite these somewhat troubling conclusions, my research also reveals that there are conditions under which political parties have incentives to set up strong participatory institutions on a large scale, without engaging in political exclusion or manipulation. This is especially true in the case of outsider parties hoping to build electoral coalitions around a reputation for good governance and improving the quality of democracy, rather than relying primarily on the charisma of popular anti-establishment leaders. Finally, my research shows that in certain contexts networks of non-governmental organizations and municipal governments have enough political influence to ensure strong participatory institutions are set up on a large scale and to convince politicians that it is not in their interests to manipulate participatory institutions for political gain.  While to date these positive experiences are comparatively rare, there is no reason why they cannot be expanded in the future, and many reasons to believe their success could play an important role in the future of Latin American democracy.