Following global trends, Latin America slides away from democracy

. Feb 17, 2021
Anti-government protest in Mérida, Venezuela. The smoke at the back comes from a police truck burned by demonstrators. Photo: Sebastorg/Shutterstock Anti-government protest in Mérida, Venezuela. The smoke in the background is from a police truck torched by demonstrators. Photo: Sebastorg/Shutterstock

Democracy is under assault in Latin America. 

For the fifth consecutive year, the region’s Global Democracy Index score — compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit — has fallen, slipping from 6.13 in 2019 to 6.09 in 2020. With democratic backsliding in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti, The Economist reckons that Latin America is now home to three democracies, 13 flawed democracies, five “hybrid regimes,” and 3 authoritarian regimes.

</p> <p>This pattern follows a global trend of <a href="">autocratization</a>, corroborated by other democracy measurements such as Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy.&nbsp;</p> <p>While the numbers are alarming, they only represent a snapshot of political development in the region and the world as a whole. The reality is a far more dynamic and contested process.</p> <p>The Global Democracy Index compiles data on five dimensions to classify countries’ <a href="">political regimes</a>: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. The decline in Latin America’s overall score has been driven by deterioration in two of these categories, namely electoral process and pluralism, and civil liberties.&nbsp;</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>As an example, the Central American nation of El Salvador has been downgraded from a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime following President Nayib Bukele&#8217;s consistent disregard for institutional checks and balances. The region has also performed poorly with regard to the functioning of government, as it struggles to tackle high levels of corruption and violence. </p> <p>The pandemic has played a role in this process, particularly for authoritarian and hybrid regimes such as Nicaragua and Haiti, which took advantage of public health emergency powers to increase their process of de-democratization.&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the wider global context, the retreat of democracy in Latin American is hardly surprising. In 2019, <a href="">Varieties of Democracy</a> (V-DEM) identified that democracies were no longer the majority around the world for the first time since 2001. According to the V-DEM measurement, there are currently 87 electoral and liberal democracies, and 92 autocracies.&nbsp;</p> <p>Likewise, <a href="">Freedom House</a> has highlighted a 14-year trend of democratic backsliding. In other words, countries with net declines in their aggregate Freedom House score have outnumbered those with gains across the same period.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Democracy is not so simple to measure</h2> <p>While these numbers are alarming, they provide only a static picture of political development in Latin America and the world. In the current wave of autocratization, democratic backsliding tends to occur by way of the election of illiberally-inclined populists — such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — who seek to dismantle democratic institutions. However, the path towards autocracy is not a linear one.</p> <p>Political scientists Licia Cianetti and Sean Hanley <a href="">recently pointed out</a> that such elections do not constitute democratic backsliding, in and of themselves. Highlighting East-Central Europe, they show that not all countries are doomed to follow the autocratic patterns seen in Poland and Hungary. In nations such as Estonia, the entry of an illiberal party or actor into government — in this case, the far-right Conservative People&#8217;s Party of Estonia, EKRE — has not been dominant enough to prompt backsliding.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="democracy &quot;Military Intervention Now!,&quot; says demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest in São Paulo. Photo: Juliana C/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-56817" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>&#8220;I Want Military Intervention Now,&#8221; says demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest in São Paulo. Photo: Juliana C/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>The best example of the dynamic nature of political development in Latin America is El Salvador. In 2019, The Economist upgraded the country from a hybrid regime to a flawed democracy. The justification for this change was an improvement in El Salvador&#8217;s political participation score, as “more than 500,000 people reportedly joined Nuevas Ideas, the party of the president, <a href="">Nayib Bukele</a>.” </p> <p>However, in 2020, El Salvador was downgraded back to a hybrid regime as a result of Mr. Bukele’s efforts to concentrate power in the Executive branch. Thus, within a single year, the country’s outlook for democratic backsliding improved for one reason and then deteriorated for another.</p> <p>In Brazil&#8217;s case, the country&#8217;s Democracy Index score slightly increased in 2020, bumping it up to 49th place in the overall ranking, largely due to falling scores for India, Bulgaria, and Suriname. In any case, it is classified as a &#8220;flawed democracy.&#8221;</p> <p>While on the one hand, President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s continued threats against the democratic order have raised alarm bells in the press about Brazil&#8217;s potential for backsliding, the country&#8217;s institutions remain relatively healthy. Tuesday evening&#8217;s <a href="">arrest of high-profile pro-Bolsonaro Congressman Daniel Silveira</a> may be an indication of this. After successive instances of attacking the country&#8217;s Supreme Court, Mr. Silveira was arrested for &#8220;inciting the subversion of public order.&#8221;</p> <h2>Opposition response is key</h2> <p>One of the key factors to understand developments in countries that have elected illiberal populists seems to be the reaction of the opposition. For <a href="">political scientists Matthew Cleary and Aykut Ozturk</a>, the relationship between backsliding and actual democratic breakdown rests on the decisions of opposition actors during the process of decline.&nbsp;</p> <p>As populists dismantle democratic institutions, more moderate responses offer the possibility for democratic survival, with the hypothesis that the opposition can bide its time until the next election. More extreme opposition strategies, on the other hand, contribute to democratic breakdown by spurring additional aggrandizement in an illiberal Executive branch.&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus, indices such as the Global Democracy Index can only take us so far. To better understand political development in specific countries or regions, we need to examine more detailed evidence.

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Beatriz Rey

Beatriz Rey is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University and a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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