Ri Insights

Two Blows Against Illiberal Democracy

By Andrés Velasco

Exclusively published in Kuwait by: Rai Institute


SANTIAGO – The number of elected governments competing to be the world’s worst has now fallen by two. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe remains in office, as does Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Poland is slipping into illiberalism, and regimes stretching from North Africa to the Hindu Kush are already there.

But 12 years of arrogant autarchy under Néstor and Cristina Kirchner have just ended in Argentina. And a stunning defeat in parliamentary elections surely marks the beginning of the end of 16 years of churlish chavismo in Venezuela. That is cause enough for cheer.

In Venezuela, all cards were stacked in favor of President Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s hand-picked successor: arbitrary imprisonment of opposition leaders, intimidation of anti-government protesters by thuggish gangs, and what Human Rights Watch politely called “aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming.”

Yet the opposition managed to win two-thirds of the seats in the single-chamber parliament. That gives Maduro’s opponents the qualified majority needed to amend the constitution, remove politicized judges and regulators, and, if it comes to it, hold a referendum to remove Maduro.

Two weeks earlier, voters in Argentina’s presidential election had also defied the odds, narrowly giving a second-round victory to Mauricio Macri. The Kirchners never went to the chavista extremes of locking up opponents or shutting down television stations. But they did not hesitate to use the power of the state to perpetuate themselves in power, harassing opposition newspapers, manipulating judicial investigations, and abolishing the independence of the central bank.pa1691c

With the economy flat in Argentina and in free-fall in Venezuela, and inflation rates in both countries among the highest in the world, pocketbook issues obviously influenced these election surprises. The standard boom-and-bust cycle provides a plausible interpretation: incumbents could win elections only so long as commodity revenues remained high. Once oil and soybean prices collapsed, according to this view, no anti-democratic antics short of suspending elections (which was intensely rumored in Venezuela) could save the populists from defeat.

Yet this interpretation is too simple. Despite falling revenues, both governments spared little effort to spend their way to victory. In Argentina, the budget deficit is 7% of GDP. In Venezuela, no one is quite sure, though some believe it could be a whopping 24% of GDP. But voters would not let themselves be bribed.

That is understandable. After all, no government handout could offset the feeling of insecurity at home and on the streets. Venezuela’s murder rate, at nearly 54 per 100,000 people, is more than twice that of Brazil and Mexico (both countries with frightening numbers of homicides). In Argentina, traditionally a tranquil country, drug-linked crimes have been on the rise. Defeating drug gangs was one of Macri’s three campaign mantras (zero poverty and ending corruption being the other two).

But, again, no single issue can explain the election results.

In his influential 1997 essay “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Fareed Zakaria coined the term to describe countries that hold elections (of varying fairness) to choose their leaders, yet at the same time restrict civil liberties and democratic freedoms. Under Chávez and Maduro, Venezuela became a fully illiberal democracy. Under the Kirchners, Argentina was on its way there. Yet the autocrat-wannabes were soundly defeated.

In the end, what Argentina and Venezuela show – and this is bad news for the likes of Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin – is the inherent fragility of illiberal democracy as a political system. Under outright autocracy, public intellectuals, liberal parties, and the institutions of civil society are crushed; under illiberal democracy, they are harassed, but mostly survive.

Add to that modern technologies that make communicating and organizing cheap and easy, and an aspiring autocrat faces a volatile mix. When objective circumstances and the correlation of forces (to use two old-fashioned concepts) permit, citizens spring into action.

That is exactly what happened in Argentina and Venezuela during the run-up to the recent elections. In Buenos Aires Province, home to nearly 40% of Argentina’s voters, María Eugenia Vidal, a 42-year-old from Macri’s party, soundly defeated Cristina Kirchner’s former chief of staff to become the province’s first woman governor. Neighborhood organizations proved key in defeating the local Peronist political machine, reputedly Argentina’s most potent. In Venezuela, university students and NGOs designed election-monitoring systems to make potential fraud by the government easier to detect.

Attempts to make democracy illiberal are also foundering elsewhere in Latin America. Ecuadorian citizens took to the streets to protest President Rafael Correa’s attempt to have himself re-elected indefinitely. In Nicaragua, Sandinista President Daniel Ortega’s alliances with questionable local businessmen and his deal with a mysterious Chinese entrepreneur to build a new canal through Central America are not going unchallenged.

And Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, arguably the wiliest of the populist lot, is quietly switching camps. He played a friendly football match with Macri the night before the new president’s inauguration.

In Argentina and Venezuela, what plausibly mattered most in the end was voters’ desire to live in what one might call a normal country. That means a country where government institutions quietly do their work, presidents neither threaten citizens nor give three-hour speeches that television stations are forced to carry, people can walk down the street without fear, and the economy is not perennially teetering on the brink of financial collapse.

Beloved Argentine children’s songwriter María Elena Walsh once penned a ditty entitled “The World Upside Down,” in which thieves serve as judges, years last only a month, babies sport moustaches and beards, and dogs fall up, not down. In Argentina and Venezuela, such a world could be coming to an end; for the sake of their citizens, may it right itself very soon.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile, is Professor of Professional Practice in International Development at Columbia University.

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