Type: Review
Pages: 6 | Words: 1755
Reading Time: 8 Minutes

The last two decades has seen a growing interest by scholars in the politics of Latin America. Like most of other countries in the world, public concern in the region is usually centered in the relations with the US and its internal organization as far as democracy is concerned. These countries face many challenges in their democracies like most countries in the world. A research conducted by the Research Department at the Inter-Development Bank in 2006 evaluated the challenges faced by the Latin countries and democracy was considered as the most challenging. The challenges that were identified as far as democracy is concerned were: weak democracy culture, crisis of representation and real enforcement of rules and political accountability. In this paper, we are going to look at these challenges facing Latin America while being aware of the diversity in the democracies of the region. I will start with the political institutions, populism and democracy in the Latin America and conclude the paper with the recent developments in Latin America and relations with the US and with the Obama administration. 

Latin America is made of several countries whose democracies will be discussed according to the democratic development. Countries like Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay have mature democracies which can be compared to that of Europe while panama is not badly off. Another batch of the countries have a functioning democracy but the functioning of these democracies when compared to such countries like Europe have deficient democracies in many respects. These countries include: Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru. The third group of countries like in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Guatemala has an inferior level and quality of democracy as compared to the first group of democracies. These countries’ democracies possess more democratic flaws and are characterized by problems than the second group of countries listed above.  Lastly in the list is a single country, Venezuela, which has a whole lot of problems as far as democracy is concerned. The review above highlights the differences and diversity of democracies in Latin America. While some countries have the best democratic institutions like in the developed countries of US and Europe, others have deficiencies in their democratic institutions and yet some have so deficient systems that the question of classifying the country as democratic need to be reconsidered. (Jones M. Pg 4-5)

The challenges that the countries in the Latin America face are numerous and in this paper I will examine the serious challenges faced by these countries. This will include: the weak and declining level of party systems and institutionalization of these political parties. This is because most of the challenges that these countries face are lined to the crisis of the region’s party systems. The other challenge that I will discuss is few women and other marginalized groups representation in the region’s legislative assemblies. I will look on the issues that are related to the women’s underrepresentation (Jones M. pg 6).

Political institutions and Latin America and democracy

The end of cold war coincided with a sweeping wave of democratization in Latin America and as the 20th century was drawing to a close, democracy was the ‘new kid’ in almost all the countries in Latin America. But two decades later, the democracy progress in these countries has been met with mixed reactions as the quality of democracy in some of these countries has been unsatisfactory. Although two decades ago most of the countries in this region were clamoring for democracy, today the main challenge they have is consolidating that democracy. This is because some populist leaders undermine democratic consolidation when they are elected. We will discuss the quality of democracy in Latin America since the 1990s and analyze the recent evolution of the democracies in this region (Navia P. and Walker I Pg. 250). I will start by defining democracy in the next sentence.

Democracy is defined as a system whereby elections are held and legitimate leaders and their parties are elected by a majority vote to legislative assemblies. There are rules to ensure a level playing ground for the participating candidates and also the existence of political parties. (Navia P. and Walker I. Pg. 251). In Latin America, presidential systems are the norm and questions have been raised as to the stability of the system because a parliamentary system of governance has been seen as being more stable.  Populism is defined as “a pattern of personalistic and anti-institutionalistic politics, rooted mainly in the appeal to and/or mobilization of marginalized masses”, Mayorga Pg. 134. Therefore it can be said as a personalistic leader seeks to exercise power followed from support of large number of people.

Economic reforms in Latin America and their outcome

In the 1990s, most of Latin America was characterized by heavy debts of foreign debt, high rates of inflation and budget deficits mainly due to economic policies implemented which were not working, and countries like Argentina (1983-1989), Brazil (1985-1990) and Peru (1985-1990) suffered heavily. In the 1990s, the region experienced a neoliberal type of economic reforms that considered as originating from Washington. The Washington consensus gave out proposals on how to turn the economy on a growth path: control of fiscal deficits, public spending priorities, tax reforms, market centered economy, opening up to foreign investment, deregulation, privatization of public enterprises and the strengthening of property rights. (Navia P. and Walker I. Pg. 257). Some of the Latin American countries implemented the above proposals with support in some cases but the outcome of the reforms fell short of the promised objectives. Later in some countries like Venezuela, it sparked riots especially the famous “Caracazo” of 1989 in Caracas that were aimed at neoliberal reforms of the then incumbent president Carlos Perez and also in Bolivia through the act of repression that brought into an early end the term of Gonzalo Sanchez in 2003 (Navia P. and Walker I. Pg. 257).

These neoliberal reforms of 1990s brought about disruptions to the Latin American regions especially to countries that had weak governance systems as they could not meet the several demands such as: deteriorating living conditions of middle-class, unemployment, social movements and this resulted to a successful discontent which became a driving force in the region. These neoliberal reforms gave rise to a strong opposition especially in countries which were heavily implementing the reforms but had weak institutions like in Venezuela from 1998 to present, Argentina in 2003-2007, Bolivia in 2006 to present. (Navia P. and Walker I. Pg. 258).

The above type of reactions were not however felt in non-populist countries like those of Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and in Chile. Most of these countries after a failed neoliberal reforms, they introduced corrections of less dogmatic but more heterodox kind and also strengthening institution building. The results especially in Chile where coalitions endeavor to implement “growth with Equity”. (Navia P. and Walker I. Pg. 260).

Political party institutionalization

The functioning of a country’s democracy is directly linked to an institutionalized party system of such a country. In such a setting, different parties have their own programs and have a healthy competition against each other on policy proposals. Such a system provides greater policy to the electorate and good accountability. This is sharply contrasted with weak institutions in which systems are more based on personal appeals populist proposals, these types of institutions tend to have shorter life spans and are less accountable and tend to be unpredictable to the voters. This means that voters in weak institutionalized party systems will not easily hold those in power to be accountable, the opposite of what is in institutionalized party systems.

Mainwaring S. and Scully T. identifies some four main components that influence the level of party systems institutionalization in party systems in Latin America. These are: stability in patterns of inter-party competition, legitimacy of parties and elections, party roots in society and party organization. I will briefly discuss these components for the Latin America democracies. (Mainwaring S. and Scully T. pg 6-10). I will briefly discuss at these components individually below.

Stability in patterns of inter-party competition

In institutionalized party systems in Latin America, it has been observed that relevant party systems tend to be the same throughout the years and tend to garner approximately the same share of votes with a similar pattern and seats over time when elections are held. This situation can be said of Chile, Honduras and El Salvador with stable volatility. For the weak institutionalized party systems, it was discovered that parties that may be popular this year may not be necessarily be popular the following year or during next elections, their popularity plummets after a short stint in power. This is associated with the most volatile systems like that of: Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala (Jones M. pg 9)

Party roots in society

Institutionalized party systems have stronger roots and their presence is felt in society while the electorate tends to vote for the same party in subsequent elections. In weak institutionalized systems, voters tend to pick candidates based on their message campaign messages and traits rather than on party lines. Latin America has Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay as the countries with deeply rooted parties while Chile, Guatemala and Brazil show shallowly rooted parties.

The legitimacy of political parties and elections

For institutionalized party systems, it has been observed that competing parties and elections are seen as legitimate by the people. The citizen’s confidence is higher in: Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela. In countries like: Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have serious legitimacy issues.

Political party organizations

For political party organizations in institutionalized party systems, the political parties have enough resources with procedural selection of one leader. But for the weak systems, parties have fewer resources and dominated by individual leaders. Here, institutionalized party systems can be found in Argentina, El Salvador and Uruguay but weakest in Bolivia, Colombia and Guatemala. (Jones M.  pg. 12)

Party institutionalization index

A party institutionalization index is created when the above four components are combined to create a Party Institutionalized index. Using the index, countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Chile and panama have well institutionalized party systems while their counterparts in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala and Venezuela have weak institutionalized party systems. Some other countries like Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina and Costa Rica occupy an intermediate position. Important factors for a country such as corruption and the democratic systems have a strong link with these scores such that the score is nearly the same for weak institutions at around 3.2 (Freedom House Freedom Score) as also for corruption cases and 1.8 for strong institutions (Jones M. pg 12).

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