Essay on the Democratic Consolidation in Latin America

Countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela have written new constitutions, while others such as Mexico and Argentina have amended their constitutions. Alongside, new democratic institutions have been created or the existing ones revamped. In particular, consolidated democracies have tried to rework the executive- legislature relations.

In a marked departure from the past, legislatures have begun using their constitutional powers to check and balance the presidents. In some of the countries, this has been on account of the fact that presidents had to build coalitions in the legislatures to carry out their policies.

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Sometimes, they find opposition parties commanding majorities in the legislatures; at others, contentious issues particularly those related to the privatisation of public sector enterprises had required constitutional majorities in the legislatures.

Be that as it may, the interesting aspect of institutional renovation was the ascendance of the legislatures and checking the arbitrary powers of the presidents. Presidents in Brazil and Venezuela had even to face the impeachment; elsewhere in Guatemala and Bolivia, their actions have been censured by the legislatures.

Revamping judiciaries has also been underway in most countries. Here, perhaps not so much respect of civil liberties and constitutional norms of governance but imperatives of economic liberalisation have fostered the process of judicial reforms.

An independent judicial system that is premised on the rule of law is among the first of the prerequisites of economic liberalisation process. Foreign investors look for institutional guarantees and a transparent judicial system for their business operations. Another area of notable change is the relationship between the federal and provincial governments.

Larger Latin American countries had been formally federal but had never experienced any real division of power. One of the areas of reform under democracy is the restoration of provincial and municipal jurisdiction.

In the case of Brazil, the 1988 Constitution recognises three-tier government with municipalities having their own revenue-generating and expenditure-related responsibilities. Many other institutional innovations have also been effected in the consolidated democracies.

Nearly a dozen countries have created the office of ombudsman with varied responsibilities including receiving complaints from the citizens and developing legislation to advance human rights.

There is a greater sensitivity towards gender equality and representation. A 1991 law in Argentina stipulates that 30 per cent of candidates on each party’s list for the chamber of the deputies would be women. From 1991 to 1993, the share of seats in the lower house held by women had risen from 5 to 21 per cent; and by 1995, it had gone up to 28 per cent.

In 1995, the Brazilian congress had also issued comparable electoral rules for municipal elections; and Costa Rica and Uruguay have had similar proposal to grant 30 per cent of legislative seats to women.

For the first time, many countries are describing themselves as multicultural societies, and according constitutional guarantees to the collective rights of land and governance of the indigenous communities.

Peru has elected an indigenous as its president, the vice president of Bolivia was an Ayamaran Indian, and Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela have representation of the indigenous in the national, legislatures.

Enfranchisement has expanded with the removal of literacy requirement, reduction in voting age, and voting rights for the indigenous communities, etc. In the ‘second wave’, voting right had not extended beyond one third of the regional population.

Between the presidential elections of 1980s and 1985 in Peru for instance, the size of the electorate did increase from 25.7 to 39.4 per cent of the national population.

Similar expansion of the electorate, besides high turnout of the voters on the Election Day, has been witnessed practically in every country. Some other institutional innovations are also being experimented with a view to ensure transparency and accountability in democratic governance.

The 1991 Constitution of Colombia, for instance, provides for tutelas, which guarantees citizens recourse to judicial remedy in case of infringement of fundamental rights. Leading countries have instituted human rights commissions and investigative mechanisms to ensure administrative compliance with human rights.

While the abovementioned innovations are welcome, scholars continue to express skepticism about the effects of these constitutional and institutional innovations. The truth is that consolidated democracies continue to be shaped by the patterns, mechanisms and processes that were involved in the transition. The role and position of presidency has become even more entrenched.

Transition regimes in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua were initially fragile civilian- some even militarised civilian-regimes. They were faced with the overwhelming problem of sheer survivability, with the omnipresent threat of a military coup.

It was argued that a coup might be provoked by intense partisan political disagreements, by the inability of political parties to manage the national economic crises, by the actions of anti- system elite, by mass mobilisations intended to escape the domination of traditional elite, or by the threats to the corporate interests of the military itself.

While in countries such as Chile, military had ensured its control over the economic resources and immunity for its intelligence agencies, there was always the possibility of military getting indicted for its human rights abuses.

Uncertainty over rules of the game had prevailed in these fragile democracies. Civilian rulers were hard pressed to find mechanisms that could limit this uncertainty especially by reducing incentives to the military.

This suggests that there were two critical tasks that initially faced the Latin American democratisation: first to arrive at a sufficiently strong consensus about the rules of the game (including institutional formalities guaranteeing respect for certain crucial but minoritarian concerns) so that no major elite felt tempted to call upon the military to protects its vital interests.

Secondly, to begin to design conscious strategies for the establishment of qualitatively new civil-military relations appropriate to future stable civilian rule.’ This was probably easier to accomplish in the economically more developed countries where the armed forces know the importance of managerial and bureaucratic elite than in smaller ones where the armed forces might still entertain the self-belief in their own ability to come to power.

The relationship between survivability and who benefits may well be the central dilemma of consolidated democracies in Latin America. But there are innumerable problems here.

To ensure the survivability of a fragile democracy, actors had entered into all kinds of compromises and agreements, but those compromises and agreements have become permanent affecting as to who gains and who loses during the consolidation of democratic regimes.

Now, for instance, given the domination of corporate business, any attempt to alter the pattern of economic distribution may affect the survivability of the regime; thus vast sections of populations might lose their previous standards of life. This is also true of political and citizenship rights.

How long can democracies remain illiberal and authoritarian? There are popular expectations and pressures for democracy to shun arbitrariness and subject itself to the rule of law. In the long run, commitment to democracy in part rests on the widely held convictions that economic benefits will be more fairly distributed or the general welfare would overall be improved through democratic methods and manners.

It is assumed and argued strongly that democracies, when further down the road, are capable of self-transforming both the economy and the polity. Ironically, the conditions that permit democracies to persist in the short term may constrain their potential for resolving the enormous problems of poverty and inequality that continue to characterise the continent.

Indeed, it is reasonable to hypothesise that what occurs in the phase of transition or early consolidation may involve a significant trade-off between some form of political democracy on the one hand and equity on the other.

Thus, even as these democracies guarantee a greater respect for law and human dignity when compared to their authoritarian predecessors, they may be unable to carry out substantive political and economic reforms that address the question of participation and well-being of their poorest citizens. And this, precisely, is happening.

i) Democracies are becoming ‘frozen’ democracies unable to address the redistributive and participatory issues.

ii) Second, while this may be the central dilemma of elite-ascendant processes of democratisation, there may be important differences between countries like Uruguay a pact transition and Brazil a unilaterally imposed transition.

Pact democracies, whatever their defects, have been done through compromise between at least two powerful contending elite. Thus, their institutions should reflect some flexibility for future bargaining and revision over existing rules.

In Uruguay, for instance, while the agreed-upon rules made it very difficult to challenge agreements between the military and political parties on the issue of amnesty for crime committed during the military rule, the left opposition excluded from this agreement was nevertheless able to force the convocation of a plebiscite on this major issue, which it subsequently lost.

iii) Third, the attempt to assess possible consequences of various modes of transition is most problematic where strong elements of imposition, compromise, and reform are simultaneously present; that is to say, where neither the incumbent elite nor the newly ascendant power contenders are clearly in control and where the armed forces are relatively intact.

This is the case in Argentina and Peru. Given the defeat of the Argentina military in the 1982 war over Malvinas/Falklands Islands, the high levels of mass mobilisation during transition, and the absence of pacts between civilian political elements and the armed forces on one hand and unions and employees on the other, Argentina combines elements of several modes of transition.

Such a mixed scenario, while perhaps holding out the greatest hope for political democracy and economic equity, may render a consistent strategy of any type ineffectual and thus lead to the repetition of Argentina’s persistent failure to consolidate any type of regime. The prospects for failure are even greater in Peru.

Given the absence of explicit agreement between the leading political parties, the possibility of mass mobilisation in the midst of economic depression, the presence of armed urban and rural guerilla struggles, and a unified military, Peru remains the most fragile of democracies in South America.

iv) Fourth, because democracies generally arise from a compromise between contending organised elite that are unable to impose their will unilaterally, or the unilateral action of one dominant group usually the armed forces remains decisive, this does not bid well for democratisation in situations in which the armed forces are inextricably tied to the interests of a dominant and anti-democratic agrarian classes.

Guatemala and El Salvador in particular are characterised by a landowning elite whose power, for centuries, is based on labour repressive policies and a partnership with military, thereby making it unlikely that their military will tolerate comprehensive political competitiveness, civil liberties or accountability.

Given the US pressures and international mediation in the on-going peace process, at the most likely, these countries will be examples of electoralism-regular elections even as the regimes restrict certain key political and civil rights of the citizens.

These observations lead to the types of democracies, which are largely shaped by the modes of transition in Latin America.

These observations suggest that democratisation by imposition is likely to yield conservative democracies that cannot or will not address equity issues. To the extent that imposition originates from outside governments or/and agencies the result is likely to be some form of electoral authoritarian rule.

Such regimes are likely to institutionalise sooner than later. The point is whether these should be considered as democracies at all. Democracies which are the outcome of pact transitions are likely to produce corporatist arrangements in which party competition is regulated to varying degrees determined in part by the nature of foundational bargains.

Such democracies are also likely to institutionalise sooner rather than later. Transition through reform is likely to bring about competitive democracies whose political fragility paves the way for an eventual return to authoritarian rule. Institutionalisation is a contested issue and becomes subject to partisan competition.

The notion that one type of democracy may gradually evolve into a qualitatively different type suggests that the dynamics of democratic consolidation must differ in important ways from the dynamics of transition if ‘freezing’ is to be avoided.

Because, the overriding goal of the transition was to reach some broad social consensus about the goals of society and the acceptable means to achieve them, successful transitions are necessarily characterised by accommodation and compromise.

But if this emphasis on caution becomes an overriding political norm during consolidation, democracies may find it difficult to prove that they are better than other forms at resolving fundamental social and economic problems.

Thus, consolidation, if it is to be successful, should require skills and commitments from leading actors, which are qualitatively different from those exhibited during the transition.

In this later phase, these actors must demonstrate the ability to differentiate political forces rather than to draw them all into a grand coalition; show the capacity to define and channel competing political projects rather than seek to keep potentially diverse reforms off the agenda; and also demonstrate the willingness to tackle incremental reforms especially in the domains of the economy and civil-military relations rather than defer them to some later date.

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