Monday, November 24, 2014
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Disgruntled Democracies

MEXICO CITY – In 2011 and 2012, tens of thousands of students demonstrated in Santiago, Chile, demanding greater access to higher education. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians marched in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, calling for improved public-health services, better schools, and cheaper, more efficient public transport. And Colombians and Peruvians from all walks of life (especially peasants, farm owners, and mineworkers), as well as Mexican school teachers, now occupy the centers of Bogotá, Lima, and Mexico City, disrupting inhabitants’ daily lives and creating serious problems for the authorities.

These countries, once models of economic hope and democratic promise in Latin America, have become examples of democracies without legitimacy or credibility. Although they have made significant social progress in recent years, they have become centers of popular unrest. And their presidents, despite their undeniable competence, are watching their approval ratings plummet.

These paradoxes are both perplexing and revealing. For starters, they reflect an economic-growth problem. Chile’s economy has performed well over the past two years, despite low world copper prices; but its annual growth rate is nowhere near that of the previous 25 years. The economic balm applied to old social and cultural wounds is losing its effectiveness.

Similarly, while Brazil’s economy remained relatively resilient after the 2009 recession, growth slowed almost to zero last year. Growth rates last year in Colombia and even Peru, which has performed better than any other Latin American country since 2000, also dropped significantly. And Mexico, the worst-performing of the five economies over the last 15 years, has outdone itself; this year, growth is expected to reach barely 1%, if that.

At the same time, while all of these countries built the political and judicial institutions needed to consolidate their transitions to democracy – from Brazil’s in the mid-1980’s to Mexico’s in 2000 – these institutions have become (and in some cases always have been) remarkably insulated from popular demands. As a result, the protests took these countries’ seemingly responsive presidents by surprise.

Indeed, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos Calderón and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff – both skilled and experienced politicians – were utterly unprepared for their countries’ protests. Likewise, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto and Peru’s Ollanta Humala, who have otherwise seemed to be perceptive leaders, failed to sense the gathering storm.

As the Chilean economist and politician Carlos Ominami put it: “The children of democracy have become the prime movers of change; the social movement they represent lacks political leadership, and the country’s political forces have practically broken off all their connections to the social world.”

This year, Chile will hold its sixth consecutive democratic election, with two women – former Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei and former center-left President Michelle Bachelet (both daughters of high-ranking military officers) – currently leading in the polls. Whoever wins will have to choose between deeply transforming Chile’s institutions and letting social unrest spin out of control.

Brazil faces a similar trial, as next year’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics test the resilience and adaptability of the social and macroeconomic frameworks that have shaped the country’s development for almost two decades. To be sure, pro-active anti-poverty programs, loose credit, a commodity-export boom, and heavy government spending (financed by an equally heavy tax burden) lifted millions out of poverty. But the expectations of the emerging middle class – including efficient infrastructure, high-quality education and health services, and well-paid jobs – have not been met. If they cannot even enter the luxurious new stadiums to see their national team play, they will not be happy.

Similarly, although Mexico has experienced rapid population growth and significant standard-of-living improvements over the last 15 years, many believe that they are not getting what they deserve – or what they were promised. Teachers are furious at being blamed for the wretched state of the country’s education system and view Peña Nieto’s “educational reform” law as an excuse to limit the power of their unions while avoiding genuine institutional reform.

Mexico City’s middle-class residents – who wield disproportionate influence countrywide – are also incensed, both at the teachers for disrupting their lives and at the federal and local authorities for failing to restore order. Against this background, the credibility of Mexico’s political institutions is rapidly eroding.

But there is a more fundamental issue at play that stems from the accumulated imperfections of representative democracy in countries where social and economic conditions are less than ideal. When post-authoritarian excitement abounded and rapid economic growth prevailed, these imperfections were manageable; now, with the former fading and the latter a memory, they have become immense challenges.

This problem transcends Latin America. As observers like Joshua Kurlantzick have pointed out, a global shift away from representative government, driven by increasingly disillusioned middle classes, is underway. For elected leaders, the dilemma is that there are no simple solutions – and little public patience for more complex ones.

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    1. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      The finest isolated supercomputer is just plain dumb when compared to any smartphone with internet access. We are in a globalizing world that will uplift those components on its "Internet," and crush any that do not find their place in the machinery as it closes. We must slow the flywheels of our national and regional egos long enough to lock into place, or we face continued grinding and spark flying failures and aborted attempts. Worse comes the explosions with flaming parts flying off in possibly their own isolationist to violently imperial military/terrorist national socialist regimes -- as, for example, would likely have been the result of a sustained Muslim Brotherhood Egypt, and might yet prove the case under an extended rule by the Egyptian Army. Goodness knows what will yet result with Syria (which actually is already long Ba'athist, in fact the first Ba'athist regime--unabashedly modeled after Hitler's Nazi party itself, back in the 1940s). --Its tragic that the "Arab Spring" has proven itself the most likely candidate for generating this danger, but it appears that Europe and South America may not be too far behind. --And the end of a fireball is its destruction along with anything unprepared with the misfortune of being in its path. Those with the power to do so must act. And how they must act is with courage in the coordinated insight into the need to share that very power to result in global coordinated decision making on global actions as a whole. At minimum, international effort towards integral education must become a priority.

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      We are in unprecedented times when things we are used to seem to turn upside down. The "disgruntled democracies", and resulting public unrest the article describes could actually be favorable for these countries as opposed to the "solid democracies" the western world "enjoys". It is more and more clear even in the leading western countries, in the US or Europe for example, that we cannot talk about "freedom" and "democracy" as these notions were initially intended. Although the superficial structure is the same, the actual power is concentrated and handed over to each other within a very thin layer of people, who are cautiously guarding their privileges, modifying, adjusting the "democratic system" to maintain their hold on power. And those who are visible on top are actually manipulated and driven by powerful lobbies and interest groups from behind in a premeditated manner. The actual public is kept "occupied" by the precisely tuned "circus and bread" machinery, and at least so far, despite the insane social inequality, rising unemployment and lost future prospect the western public is too comfortable in their shiny cages to protest or do anything, accepting this modern slavery in exchange to the flood of "necessary" mass products and global media entertainment. At the same time in countries where the usual "freedom" and democracy" is very obviously missing, and people know for certain that they are kept on leash, the public has already showed its discontent, and these countries actually have a better chance to turn their lives around, or at least force discussions with their leaders. We really need to start looking at the world from different perspectives, to see the true pressure points if we want to prevent volatile and sudden changes.

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