Illiberal Democracies in Latin America

The 20th century ended amid well-founded optimism that Latin America had taken firm steps toward democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Only the island of Cuba seemed stuck in the era of military dictatorship and authoritarianism. But in the last 15 years, things have changed. Political violence has reappeared in many Latin countries and criminality is on the rise, with concomitant erosion of respect for individual rights.

Some of the erosion can be put down to the insufficiently independent judiciaries in most of these countries. But in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and (to a lesser degree) Argentina, we have seen something more: a distinct turn toward an authoritarian populism that denies the essential values of democracy and prevents any advances in the rule of law.[1]

Of course it would not be accurate to say that, in the wider region, democratic government is flourishing, or its political principles firmly established. To cite but one measure, in Freedom House’s annual report for 2014, only three Latin countries—Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay—qualify as electoral democracies that accord their citizens full liberties and respect for human rights.[2]

This resurgence of authoritarianism is neither new nor exclusive to the Americas. Since the beginning of the millennium, political scientists have begun to speak of a new category in the study of political systems. Some call it “competitive authoritarianism,” others speak of “neoauthoritarianism,” or “hybrid regimes,” or “delegative democracies.”[3]

Also we find the term “illiberal democracy,” which implies a differentiation of two kinds of democracies: those that are liberal, and those that are not.

Fareed Zakaria, upon introducing the idea of “illiberal democracy”[4] in 1997, distinguished between “democracy” and “constitutional liberalism.” This last concept presupposes a set of liberties that are not necessarily linked with democracy, nor with its theory, nor with its history. According to Zakaria, the term “democracy” denotes governments that have come to power through free elections. Within that category are some nations—but only some—in which elections come as part of a constitutional liberalism entailing the rule of law, the separation of powers, and guarantees of respect for citizens’ rights.

Then there are others. Zakaria argued that, increasingly, governments in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America that originated by means of democratic elections, were breaching their constitutional boundaries and exercising power at the expense of the liberties and rights of their citizens.

For a government to be considered democratic, the elections that brought it to power, he conceded, had to be open, fair, and free, and this necessarily implied citizens’ being able to exercise freedom of association and freedom of the press. But that’s it. The long list of social, political, economic, and religious rights that come with constitutional liberalism is not, for Zakaria, part of the essence of democracy.

Hence he could posit the existence of  “illiberal democracies” and, for that matter, “liberal autocracies.”[5]

Earlier, and on a somewhat different theoretical basis, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) argued that liberalism and democracy were distinct. Schmitt maintained that Bolshevik and fascist dictatorships, like all dictatorships, were anti-liberal but not necessarily anti-democratic. In the history of democracy, according to Schmitt, there were ways of effectuating the popular will that were alien to the liberal tradition. He argued that “acclamation” could express the will of the people as well as, or even better than, the “statistical apparatus” of elections. Dictatorial and caesarist acclamation would be a vital form of direct democracy quite superior to the “artificial machinery of Parliament” that liberal reasoning had devised. Schmitt concluded that “there exists an inescapable contradiction between liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.”[6]

Let us examine these propositions that deny the link between democracy and political liberalism.

We know Schmitt aimed to give a theoretical grounding to the popular will that expressed itself, by acclamation, through Adolf Hitler. Once Hitler had the reins of power, he suppressed the parliament, parties were prohibited, and rights were curtailed. Zakaria’s “illiberal democracy” may seem more attractive by comparison, but it in essence ends up in the same place.

Of course the standards to which we hold democracy today are not those that prevailed in mid-19th century England, much less in the Athens of Pericles.

The present essay will not introduce a new concept of democracy to compete with the many different theories already in existence.[7] We will proceed from the understanding of democracy that is within reach of the general reader. Abraham Lincoln’s concise formulation at Gettysburg in 1864 will serve. Lincoln expressed the hope that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Those few words are clearer than hundreds of political theory texts and by restricting ourselves to them, we capture at once the most essential and the most widely accepted attributes of democracy.

A government of the people and by the people assumes the participation of all the people. It is evident that the England of 1840 practiced liberal constitutionalism, as understood in that time, but today a system in which only two percent of the citizens chose the House of Commons, would hardly be considered democratic. The United States’ government in the years following the Civil War did not fulfill the understanding of a government of the people and by the people, since women could not vote and equal access to the ballot for Americans of all races was a full century from being achieved.

Revolutionary France brought another aspiration: liberty, in all its dimensions, and equality under the law. These were considered essentials for the expression of popular will and for permitting free thought, free expression, respect for contrary opinions, tolerance, and the triumph of reason over force.

Society imposes on human beings obligations, but if we recognize that human beings are free, these obligations should be the product of consent. Governments, to be legitimate, should be the product of the citizens’ free expression, of the will of the majority. The will of the majority can be registered in a direct or an indirect manner. To channel the opinions of the majority, and amplify them, and harness them for the purpose of governing, citizens can group themselves into political parties, with the real possibility of parties’ taking turns in exercising power.

In a liberal democracy, those who govern should govern “for the people,” which is to say they have to manage public affairs in an efficient, transparent, and honest way.

Zakaria, noting that the right to vote had gradually been extended to more and more people, took it as a given that liberal constitutionalism conduces to the spread of democracy but that democracy does not necessarily come with liberal constitutionalism since there could be governments—freely elected ones—that do not practice liberal constitutionalism.

Studying actual systems of governments teaches us otherwise. For meeting the demands of a free election presupposes complete liberty of thought, of expression, and assembly, political pluralism, open availability of information, equal access to participation, and the existence of an election authority that is impartial and whose decisions will be respected.

There cannot be free elections if the citizens are not absolutely equal before the law or if there is no separation of powers to keep one branch of government from undue control of political life or of the election process, which disequilibrium soon makes a clean election impossible.

As Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way have written, there are countries in which the political opposition uses democratic institutions

to contest vigorously, and on occasion successfully, for power. Nevertheless [the elections] were not democratic. Electoral manipulation, unfair media access, abuse of state resources, and varying degrees of harassment and violence skewed the playing field in favor of incumbents. In other words, competition was real but unfair.[8]

Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán add:

In fact, the extent to which elections can be fair without a significant liberal component is limited. Electoral procedures need liberal components in order to have democratic content.[9]

Truly competitive elections are only held in liberal democracies. One can cite cases of governments coming to power through free elections, as in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador or Bolivia, but those held thereafter failed to qualify as free.

Democracy has to be liberal if we characterize democracy by the citizens’ exercise of their civil rights; the holding of elections in which the popular will has in broad terms manifested itself, where citizens have equal opportunity to participate; civilian control of the nation’s military; a public power whose exercise is constitutionally limited in duration, subject to checks and balances, and absolutely tolerant and open to criticism. Elections held by a government not meeting these conditions necessarily fall short of being free and fair elections.

This does not mean that an “illiberal” regime cannot achieve successes or make progress for its people, or that “democracy” would necessarily follow liberal economic policies. But history also teaches us that there is a correlation between real democracy and the right to property, free competition, and a market economy, although the market can be subject to regulation.

Recalling Lincoln once again, we can say that a democracy has to be “of the people and by the people.” It is not enough that it be—or be said to be—“for the people.” Despotism—enlightened or not enlightened, with or without elections—is not compatible with real democracy. The very phrase “illiberal democracy,” in fact, is redolent of the “people’s democracies” of Central and Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century.

This leads us to ask just what kind of regime we are talking about when we encounter situations like those of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua in the year 2015, or the Peru of Alberto Fujimori after 1992, or the Argentina of Carlos Menem and the Kirchners. If these are not democracies, are they dictatorships?

Dictatorships are not all the same, but share in some basic traits. They can appear in different guises, change their forms and formalities, their rites and rituals, their practices, and their justifications. Some of them use the trappings of democracy—elections—and some do not.

According to the Argentine author Guillermo O’Donnell, the three definitive traits of what he calls a “delegative democracy”[10] are:

  • The prevalence of the democratic principle of majority support over the liberal principal of juridical limitation of governmental power;
  • Presidential personalism that encarnates the nation;
  • The president is only responsible to the people.

To these we might add the violation of human rights, the snuffing out of due process, and naked electoral opportunism. What O’Donnell has described is dictatorship by another name.

The birth of these regimes, according to O’Donnell, is linked to profound crises accompanied by messianic leaders who claim a unique ability to interpret the popular will. Once lifted up by that will, these leaders move away from the very thing that empowered them—elections that are free and fair— and try to disable the other powers whose job it is to check them. We find ourselves back in the land of Carl Schmitt —and so can only ask whether the führerprinzip is compatible with democracy.

In the end we must affirm that democracies that are not liberal do not exist, or have an ephemeral existence. The “illiberal democracy” falls into what the political scientist Terry Lynn Karl has called “the fallacy of electoralism”[11] and ends by being an oxymoron.

[1] The recent elections in Argentina and Venezuela may change this situation.

[2] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2014: The Democratic Leadership Gap, www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2014.

 [3] See, inter alia, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010); Guillermo O’Donnell, Contrapuntos: Ensayos escogidos sobre autoritarismo y democratización (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1977); Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13 (January 2002), 5-21; Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder/London, 2000); Larry Diamond, “Elections Without Democracy: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002), 24-35; Andrea Cassani, “Hybrid What? Partial Consensus and Persistent Divergences in the Analysis of Hybrid Regimes,” International Political Science Review (November 2014).

[4] Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 1997), 22-43.

[5] Zakaria’s views are shared by Larry Diamond, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) and Wolfgang Merkel,Embedded and Defective Democracies,” Democratization 11.5 (2004), 33-58.

[6] Carl Schmitt, Die geitesgeshichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus, Berlin, 1923, English edition: The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, translated by Ellen Kennedy (MIT Press, 1985), pp. 16, 17.

[7] See Diamond, Developing Democracy, p. 21.

[8] Levitsky and Way, Competitive Authoritarianism, p. 3.

[9] Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 66.

[10] O’Donnell, Contrapuntos, p. 297.

[11] Terry Linn Carl, “Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America, Comparative Politics 23 (October 1990), 14–15.