Monday, July 23, 2012

Electoral authoritarianism

Jay Ulfelder notes Juan Forero's piece in the Washington Post on Latin American countries with democratically elected leaders who use a variety of non-democratic means to consolidate power. He notes that there is more than meets the eye.

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 staunchly a 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.

I would add that an additional problem is that in these putatively authoritarian countries, the opposition has either a) been too weak and disorganized to win recent presidential elections; or b) simply overthrown left-leaning presidents it does not like. In practice this means we don't actually see a truly democratic end game, which would be a leftist president losing an election to someone more right-leaning. All of these analyses seem to assume that the left would never let it happen, but we don't yet have a case study.*

In other words, consolidation of power is not solely a matter of using the machinery of the state, but also is tied to the failures of the opposition. In the countries most commonly cited--Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador--the right is in shambles, deeply discredited for past failed policies. In small countries with weak institutions like Honduras and Paraguay, the right refused even to wait for the next presidential election.

* Chile is a partial case, but the Concertación is much more centrist than the other cases, so the switch to the center-right did not entail significant change.


Russell 8:53 PM  

I know you're quoting, but just wanted to offer this minor correction: Lula was elected in 2002, taking office in 2003.

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