The social insistence on the long term, permanent change that leads to an egalitarian and inclusive society should lead to the strengthening of the foundations of democracy in the region.
By Dr Aparaajita Pandey
The Latin American continent has had a strange relationship with democracy. The two have never quite found their balance and seem to oscillate between periods of the celebration of the institution to complete disenchantment with the socio-political framework. A global pandemic thrown into the mix only makes the situation more volatile. When Frank Tannenbaum wrote about the continent in 1955, he stated that there was no reason to believe that democracy in the region in the 1950s was any greater than it was a century ago. Latin America has changed greatly since the fifties and as we begin the new decade in the middle of a recession, political protests, and a pandemic; the need for a new assessment seems to be in order.
The pandemic has shattered and reshaped polities and economies around the world in the past year and Latin America has not been left untouched. While the initial reactions to the pandemic were cementing of authoritarian regimes; Ishan Tharoor of Washington Times wrote on the 1st of April,2020 – ‘Corona Virus Kills its First Democracy’ while talking about the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his less than constitutional ways of prolonging his position as the Prime Minister. A similar theme was followed by an opinion piece in The Hindu on May 17th,2020 where the Corona Virus has been compared to the plague of Athens and the destruction of the historic Athenian polity has been held akin to the impact the present pandemic has had on the democratic polities around the world.
The Latin American region showed similar symptoms of weakening of democracies and a proclivity towards authoritarianism, though this trend was carried forward into 2020 from 2018-19; the pandemic and its devastation of the region certainly bolstered people’s belief in imperious and dogmatic rhetoric as they believed that such machismo might lead to effective changes in the public health systems and eventual respite from the pandemic. However, something changed in the later half of the year and as Eduardo Levy and Andres Malmud put it in their Brookings op-ed; Latin America shifted gears from ‘Pandemic Backsliding’ to ‘Pandemic Forth-sliding’. While the term pandemic backsliding is quite self – explanatory; a growing lack of trust in democratic processes due to the extreme pressure that populations have been under owing to the pandemic. Democratic forth-sliding, however, needs to be explored in greater detail especially in the context of the socio-political workings of the Latin American region.
The phenomenon of pandemic forth-sliding can be described as people’s need to hold their governments accountable to their functions and promises. A growing penchant for demanding better governance and democratization of society rather than concentration of power, marginalization of communities and/or widening chasms of income inequality. The Latin American region is displaying an uncanny similarity to the broad themes of pandemic forth-sliding. The year began with political protests and ended with surprising election results, constitutional referendums and unprecedented repealing of orthodox and antiquated laws despite the devastating loss of life, crumbling public health systems, and colossal losses to the economies of the region.
As the world enters 2021 though a headway in vaccines has been made; it is safe to say that health concerns with regards to Covid-19 shall continue for a large part of the year if not more. Even with this prediction and a massive shrinking of the economies in the region; a mild recovery is speculated. It is being projected that certain countries of the region shall see slight economic growth which would also help the regional economic statistics.
More importantly, the elections in Bolivia and the Chilean referendum have become emblematic of the citizen’s demands not just for political change but the democratization of society at large. Often termed as ‘maximalist democracy’, its an approach to the political framework where democracy is not limited to the election of representatives, rather it is the percolation of democratic principles in every strain of society. A similar demand is being made by the people of the Latin American continent as they grow tired of the fragility of their politics and traditional concentration of power within specific socio-economic classes in the region. The region witnessed several protests in the past year however, they had a common and prevalent underlying theme. The need for widespread social change that leads to an equal and egalitarian society. Though these demands have been made for decades, some of those demands of social change came to fruition in 2020 and if the trend continues the world would see a greater change in the Latin American society and polities in 2021.
The social insistence on the long term, permanent change that leads to an egalitarian and inclusive society should lead to the strengthening of the foundations of democracy in the region. The hubris of political predictions has been made clear by the unpredictability of 2020, but faith in people and their faith in their future is necessary for change.
(The author is an Asst Professor at the Dept. of Public Policy at Amity University, Noida and PhD from Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.)