SANTIAGO – In an influential 1997 essay, Fareed Zakaria coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe those countries that hold elections (of varying fairness) to choose their leaders, yet restrict civil liberties and political freedom. At the time, such practices were common mostly in Asia and Africa, with a sizeable concentration of illiberal democracies among the ex-Soviet states.
Zakaria described illiberal democracy as a “growth industry,” and he was right: in the past 15 years, it has come with full force to Latin America.
This might seem surprising, because most countries south of the Río Bravo (known to North Americans as the Rio Grande) moved from right-wing dictatorship to democracy in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Some of these democracies were initially imperfect, to be sure, but optimists hoped that it was only a matter of time until all elections would be fair and restrictions on civil liberties fully lifted.
That was not to be. On the contrary, the quality of democracy has deteriorated sharply in several countries in the region. Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, was the chief exponent of this trend. According to the democracy watchdog Freedom House, in the 2012 election, “the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, was able to hold rallies and engage in traditional forms of campaigning.” But “Chávez benefited from massive use of state resources that enabled him to dominate media time by a margin of 25-to-1, distribute household goods to constituents, and convince many voters that the state could punish them for casting a ballot for the opposition.”
Much the same – along with accusations of widespread vote-counting irregularities – could be said about the recent election held after Chávez died, which installed his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Press freedom is also on the decline. In another report, Freedom House notes that the number of Latin American countries classified as “not free” when it comes to the media has risen to its highest level since 1989. The report highlights deterioration in Paraguay (where a “parliamentary coup” removed an elected president) and Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa’s government withdrew “official advertising from privately-owned media that are critical of the government” and “placed limitations on media coverage of electoral campaigns.” He has also engaged in “legal and regulatory harassment, and physical intimidation of journalists.”
Argentina is another country where journalists are on the defensive. A 2009 law that aimed to diversify media ownership has been used to put pressure on media outlets that are critical of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Fernández’s supporters in Congress recently attempted to limit the judiciary’s independence and pack the upper echelons of the court system, but the country’s Supreme Court struck down their law as unconstitutional.
Illiberal democratic policies and practices are present almost everywhere in Latin America: a distortive electoral system in Chile, persistent violence in Mexico and Colombia, and endemic corruption among lawmakers in Brazil all limit citizens’ ability to express their views effectively and shape policy.
But the left-wing populists influenced by Chávez – who ruled Venezuela for 14 years – have perfected a particularly illiberal practice: bending constitutional rules to allow themselves to be reelected again and again. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales’s new 2009 constitution banned reelection to a third consecutive term, but now the Constitutional Court has allowed him to run, arguing that the Bolivian state has been “refounded.” Morales’s previous terms, according to this reasoning, occurred in a different state and thus do not count toward current term limits.
In Ecuador, Correa used the same trick right from the start: his 2008 constitution explicitly stated that the time Correa had served as President under the previous constitution did not bar him from seeking reelection, enabling him to remain in office until 2017.
Similarly, in Nicaragua – like Ecuador, also in Venezuela’s sphere of influence – the Supreme Court decided that President Daniel Ortega can run again, even though many legal scholars believe otherwise. In Argentina, Fernández and her late husband Néstor Kirchner have held power for 12 years combined, and it remains unclear whether she will attempt to amend the constitution in order to seek yet another term in 2015.
The phenomenon of quasi-constitutional reelection has become so widespread in Latin America that Georgetown University professor Héctor Schamis has dubbed it “the new authoritarianism” in the region.
Other elected leaders in Latin America have been curiously tolerant of these anti-democratic practices. Speeches at regional summits can go on for hours, but hardly a word is uttered about democracy’s decay. Capriles, who claims that victory in the post-Chávez election was stolen from him, was recently in Chile, but President Sebastián Piñera agreed to meet with him only at a private dinner, not at an official meeting in La Moneda Palace. Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the front-runner in the country’s upcoming presidential election in November, did not meet with Capriles at all, citing “agenda problems.”
Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former dictator, ruled for 16 years in the name of “authoritarian democracy,” and then attempted to leave behind what he called a “protected democracy.” Today’s would-be strongmen speak of “popular” or “Bolivarian” democracy. Times have changed, but one thing remains the same: true democracy needs no qualifiers.