Electoral Authoritarianism in Latin America: Important, but Not “New”

Today’s Washington Post includes a long piece by journalist Juan Forero on what he calls Latin America’s “new authoritarians”:

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

I’m glad to see the Post devote a bunch of column-inches to a comparative analysis of democratization in a region to which the U.S. really ought to be paying more attention. Most of what we in the U.S. hear about Latin America deals with immigration or drugs, so any thoughtful attempt to grapple with the domestic politics of our nearest neighbors is welcome. I also think the article accurately identifies important patterns in governance in several of the countries it describes.

That said, I have two major beefs with this piece.

First of all, this is not a “new kind of authoritarian leader.” The cases the story emphasizes fit into a broader category of regimes that has become more prevalent in many parts of the world in the past two decades, not just recently and not just in Latin America.

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call this phenomenon “competitive authoritarianism,” and Andreas Schedler calls it “electoral authoritarianism,” but whatever label we use, the basic form is the same. In these regimes, multiparty elections occur regularly, and ballots are counted correctly, but ruling officials harass political rivals, constrain civil liberties, and bend state resources to ensure that they win anyway. Other important examples can be found in most of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Russia, Armenia, and Georgia), in Asia (e.g., Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore), and in Africa (e.g., Cameroon, Gabon, the Gambia, and Republic of Congo).

This pattern is not even new to Latin America, and in that region, there’s a lot of variation across cases and over time in the extent to which these self-aggrandizing strategies have been employed. Among the cases the article discusses, Venezuela arguably slid from democracy into electoral authoritarianism as far back as 2000, and almost certainly not later than 2005. Ecuador probably fell below the line in 2007, when president Rafael Correa steamrolled the legislature and supreme court to produce a constitution more to his liking, but general elections held in 2009 were substantially fairer. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has tried to push in a similar direction, but those attempts have been partially rebuffed, and the regime has remained basically democratic. Probably the newest cases of electoral authoritarianism in Latin America can be found in Nicaragua and Honduras, the latter since its 2009 coup and the former since Daniel Ortega resolved the constitutional crisis of 2009 in favor of his own ruling party.

Second, charisma and populism do not explain how or why these regimes arise. Neither of these qualities is necessary or sufficient for the emergence of electoral authoritarianism. In Honduras, for example, the post-coup president is not particularly charismatic, and the regime’s policies are more oligarchical or laissez faire than populist. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is beloved by his supporters but reviled by many of his detractors, and those detractors are numerous.

Personally, I think we get a lot farther if we think of these regimes as the end state toward which most attempts at democracy will slide because incumbent officials usually have strong incentives to consolidate their hold on power. As I have discussed again and again on this blog and elsewhere, most attempts at democracy end in a return to authoritarian rule, sometimes by military coup but now more often when elected officials rig the system in their own favor. Those officials don’t need to be particularly charismatic to pull this off, and in many cases, they don’t pursue populist agendas after they do. Above all else, what facilitates this process is the incumbent’s institutional advantage. It’s easy to pull the levers of power when you already have your hands on them, and it’s often quite hard to mobilize resistance against these moves when you’re stuck outside the halls of government. Instead of trying to explain this phenomenon with reference to the personalities and tactics in the many cases where backslides happen, we would probably do better to focus on the idiosyncrasies of the rarer cases where democracy manages to persist.

In fact, I think the over-reliance on charisma and populism as explanations for the emergence of these regimes speaks to a common error in the way many U.S. observers think about the nature of the problem. I get the sense that many U.S. analysts and officials still view Latin America through a Cold War lens that conflates leftist and anti-American policies with authoritarianism. This bias causes them to err on the side of including leftist governments on this list of “bad guys” while excluding more conservative ones. Thus, Bolivia and Ecuador keep landing on the roster of “new authoritarians” in spite of their ambiguities while cases like Honduras are more often overlooked or explained away. In 2003, when Brazil elected a staunchly leftist president for the first time since democracy was restored in the mid-1980s, there was a lot of grumbling in Washington about the threat of an authoritarian turn without a shred of real evidence to support it.

Until we do a better job distinguishing between these various dimensions of politics, we’re going to have a hard time understanding what’s happening—not just in Latin America, but also in the Arab world, Africa, Asia, and even in Europe nowadays. More generally, while I’m always happy to see journalists engaging in this kind of comparative analysis, I would be even happier if they would talk to fewer politicians and activists and more analysts when they do.

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7 Comments

  1. Granten

     /  July 23, 2012

    What about the unity of the groups behind the authoritarian leader/party? You don’t necessarily need populism and generous make-work projects if you have enough business leaders, enough officers and enough bureaucrats devoted to you to make up the difference.

    Of course this also brings up a question, since the U.S. and western Europe are generally considered strong democracies how did they get there in the first place? Admittedly the U.S. has had some brushes with authoritarianism such as the late 19th century and possibly late 1960s but what’s kept it from going the same way as Venezuela or even soft authoritarianism like Singapore?

    Reply
  2. Very nice piece.

    Reply
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