This year has been as disturbing as it has been enlightening for democracies in Latin America.
Political events in Peru and Brazil and troubling trends in Mexico and El Salvador offer a warning of what happens when party systems fail and outsider leaders take power promising to put an end to establishment corruption.
Consider recent events: Peru has seen widespread social unrest and large protests demanding the resignation of the president. Brazil is trying to figure out how to tame a far-right movement unwilling to behave loyally to democracy. That refusal was on full display on Jan. 8, when some supporters of Jair Bolsonaro stormed the nation’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices after voters rejected his bid to remain president. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador championed a series of measures that the Congress — dominated by his political movement — approved in February and will constrain the agency that oversees elections. And, since coming to power in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has gutted practically all checks and balances and last year declared a state of emergency suspending key constitutional rights.
Although these cases are each very different, they are examples of the bitter harvest that the region is reaping as a result of the spread of a virulent strain of populism over the past three decades. That strain, largely rooted in the citizens’ legitimate exasperation with corruption, has wreaked havoc with party systems and weakened the very institutions necessary to fight corruption and channel social demands in peaceful ways.
Today, the results are painfully clear in Latin America: The prescription offered by anti-corruption populism has become worse than the disease it was intended to fight.
The crippling of political parties and the embrace of messianic leaders to avenge corruption have nothing to show for themselves. They have spawned deeper mistrust of all institutions, particularly those that check power and peacefully process social conflicts. As a result, the region is experiencing democratic backsliding, political instability and, yes, more corruption.
Peru, in many ways, was a forerunner in all of this. It started in 1990 with the ascent of Alberto Fujimori, who ran an electoral campaign against the political and wealthy elites of the country and stayed in power for a decade. It gained steam with the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela a few years later. Ever since, different versions of anti-corruption populism have appeared in country after country in the region.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s 2018 election to become Brazil’s president cannot be understood but in the frenzied anti-corruption atmosphere created by the Lava Jato scandal, the huge scheme to direct siphoned-off money from the state-owned oil company Petrobras to politicians and politically connected construction companies. It ended with the imprisonment (and eventual release) of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was president from 2003 through 2010 and defeated Mr. Bolsonaro at the polls last year to retake the office in January.
Nor can be understood the route to power of other outsiders who ran under the promise of eradicating the corruption of the political establishment, such as Mr. López Obrador in Mexico, Mr. Bukele in El Salvador or Rodrigo Chaves in Costa Rica.
The rise of populist outsiders is not just an unfailing sign of a party system afflicted by severe credibility problems. It is also a powerful accelerator of the process. By now, in several democracies in the region, party systems have indeed been pulverized.
For the past two decades, Peru has had no stable parties, but rather a merry-go-round of emerging leaders fighting over ever-diminishing shares of power. The two candidates who made it to the runoff in the 2021 presidential election — Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori — had a combined vote of only about one-third of the total in the first round of voting. Mr. Castillo won, but he was impeached in December and replaced by the vice president, Dina Boluarte, who does not belong to any political party.
In Brazil, Mr. Lula is dealing with a Congress where 21 parties sit. He should count himself lucky — 30 parties were represented during his predecessor’s administration.
The fatal weakness of party systems makes building legislative majorities and governing a very tall order. The almost inevitable result is the proliferation of unmet social demands and increasing levels of political disaffection. Unsurprisingly, in many places in Latin America, the street has replaced representative institutions as the natural venue to convey long pent-up pressures for better public services and the redressing of profound inequalities.
Peru illustrates this story well: It has had six presidents since 2016, and it has had an implosion of public order that led to at least 48 civilians killed since the beginning of protests in December.
The perception that the establishment is just a self-serving cabal that must be obliterated is a major driver of populism in Latin America. AmericasBarometer, a large survey across the Americas, shows that in 2021, 65 percent of Latin Americans believed that more than half of all politicians were corrupt, including 88 percent of respondents in Peru who said so and 79 percent in Brazil. Similarly, parties enjoy the trust of only 13 percent of Latin Americans, and legislatures just 20 percent, with Peru showing the region’s lowest numbers, according to 2020 data from Latinobarómetro, another regional survey.
The collapse of party systems leads to an emergence of messianic outsiders that accelerates democracy’s erosion under the guise of delivering it from decay. Like all populists, the current crop in Latin America disdain institutions that they regard as enablers of the corruption that they alone can fix, as Donald Trump memorably put it. To populists, the checks and balances that define a democracy are dispensable luxuries or, even worse, distortions that prevent the people’s voice from being heard.
This is a dangerous prescription for democracy and a terrible one for people who care about fighting corruption, which thrives where power is unchecked. Latin America needs more checks and balances and more rule of law, not less.
Over the past decade the quality of the rule of law and judicial independence stagnated or deteriorated in the vast majority of countries in the region, according to the World Bank, the World Justice Project and International IDEA, a pro-democracy international organization I lead. The same is true about press freedom. Since 2013, media freedom has decreased in 15 out of 18 Latin American countries, according to Reporters Without Borders.
So it is not shocking that Latin America is doing worse than a decade ago when it comes to fighting corruption. In 2013, the score for Latin America on control of corruption was on the percentile 57.2 in the world, according to the World Bank’s Governance Indicators. By 2021, it had fallen to 49.8. This is consistent with findings for Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico, where the indicator declined since avowedly anti-corruption champions were put in charge.
Unwittingly, Mr. Lopez Obrador put it best, in words that apply to much of Latin America: “We still have corruption, but it’s not the same.” He’s right. It’s not the same, because accountability, press scrutiny and the rule of law are in worse shape than even a few years ago.
If Latin American politicians and societies are serious about the grave corruption problems that afflict the region, they must escape this vicious cycle. They need to build institutions such as robust political parties, independent judiciaries, impartial electoral authorities and strong legal protections for press freedom and civic activism. In other words, all the things populists incessantly rail against.
Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica, is the secretary general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), based in Stockholm.
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