December 6, 2013
Healthy LatAm democracy
For the Herald
Latinbarómetro polls shows stability in region
NEW YORK — The 2013 Latinobarómetro poll confirms that democracy in Latin America is stable. Though recent street protests have fuelled claims of a crisis of representation, polls show a high level of stability in the evaluation of democracy in the region. Street protests and social movements might very well indicate that people want democracy to work better and not that they sense that the quality of democracy is decreasing. Precisely because people perceive democracy to be stronger and more resilient, they now want their governments to tackle more complicated issues, like inequality and insufficient opportunities.
In polls conducted in 18 Latin American countries, Latinobarómetro reports stable support for democracy. The average support for the phrase “democracy is preferable to any other form of government” was of 56 percent in 2013. Though that is a decline from 2010, the year with the highest support for democracy (61 percent), it reflects a steady pattern. Since 1995, average support for democracy has been at 54 percent. The lowest support for democracy occurred in 2001 (48 percent), a year when the region was just coming out of an economic crisis. However, even in years when support for democracy declined, support for authoritarianism has remained weak (lower than 17 percent). Nostalgia for authoritarianism is just not there. Some Latin American countries may have weak democracies, but Latin Americans are strongly committed to democracy.
People in the region are keenly aware of the shortcomings and problems of their democracies. Forty-six percent believe that democracy has big problems (while only 30 percent believe that democracy has small problems). In fact, only 39 percent are satisfied with democracy. However, with small ups and downs in between, the level of satisfaction with democracy in 2013 (57 percent) is similar to that of 1995, the first year Latinobarómetro was conducted. To be sure, people don’t want to look for alternative forms of government, yet they do want democracy to work better.
Economic conditions have a lot to do with the levels of satisfaction with democracy. In the critical year of 2001, only 25 percent of Latin Americans indicated that they were satisfied with the way democracy was functioning in their countries. In 2010, the number increased to 44 percent — the highest ever. The small decline observed in 2013 partly reflects worsening economic conditions. People perceive their countries are growing, but a majority continues to feel excluded from the benefits of economic development.
Latin Americans sense that their governments are making an effort. Presidential approval averages 49 percent, with the governments of Costa Rica (22 percent), Chile (29 percent), Paraguay (30 percent), Honduras (32 percent) and Peru (39 percent) standing as notable underperformers. In countries undergoing political and economic instability, people are more interested in politics than in nations that are experiencing rapid economic growth. More people are interested in politics in Venezuela (49 percent) than in Chile (17 percent) or Peru (19 percent). To understand this apparent anomaly, we can think of politicians as physicians and the political arena as a hospital. The least you need to interact with doctors and hospitals, the better. Naturally, you want your doctors and hospitals to be professional, capable and honest whenever you do need to see them. But it is always worrisome when you have to spend too much time with doctors. In countries with a dysfunctional political system, people spend more time and energy worrying about what their political leadership will do.
Latin Americans also perceive that their countries are making progress. Whereas only 27 percent believed in 2000 their countries were moving in the right direction, the number increased to 37 percent in 2013. Though the perception of personal progress (33 percent) is the highest ever in Latinobarómetro polls, the number is still below the perception of progress at the national level. People know life is improving, but they see their country doing even better and observe that the benefits of progress are not justly distributed.
As Latin America prepares for an economic slowdown in 2014, the optimism reflected in Latinobarómetro might soon vanish. Support for democracy is likely to remain as strong as it has been over the past two decades. However, as in the biblical parable, people fear that the years of the seven fat cows may be coming to an end. That in turn might lead to growing discontent among those who have historically felt marginalized from the fruits of economic growth.
Latin American democracies are in a stronger position than what some might fear after seeing street protests in several countries. In fact, democracy has grown so strong and stable that people who have been long marginalized feel empowered to raise their voice and demand that the promise of opportunities be extended to them as well. Because of the mismatch between the perception of personal and national progress, there is an urgent need to decisively move forward in securing stable growth for the coming years, extending the benefits of economic development and reducing persistent inequalities. People know that good things do not last forever. Hopefully, Latin American leaders are also preparing for the time when the fat cows are replaced by seven ugly and gaunt cows.