DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA is in trouble. That is the message of this year’s survey of opinion in 18 countries by Latinobarómetro, a pollster based in Santiago, Chile. The proportion of people who are dissatisfied with how democracy works has jumped from 51% in 2009 to 71%. The share that is content has dropped from 44% to 24%, its lowest level since the survey began more than two decades ago (see chart 1 and chart 2).
That does not mean most Latin Americans are ready to dump democracy, which has become the norm across the region only since the 1980s. More than half say that it is better than any other system, though that has dropped by 13 percentage points over the past eight years. Disillusioned democrats lean towards indifference. The share who are neutral has risen from 16% in 2010 to 28%, while support for authoritarian government is steady, at about 15%. “People don’t like the democracy they are experiencing,” says Marta Lagos, the head of Latinobarómetro.
In Latin America’s two biggest countries, Brazil and Mexico, that sentiment has resulted in the election of presidents this year who until recently would have been widely considered too radical to lead their countries. If disillusionment deepens, future elections could bring presidents who test the region’s democratic norms.
Since last November nine countries have either re-elected presidents or chosen new ones. Most of these elections were free and fair but there were notable exceptions. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, had his term in office extended in a rigged vote in May. Juan Orlando Hernández’s re-election in Honduras last November was widely seen as flawed. Cuba simply transferred power from one dictator to another in April. Most Latin Americans, though, live in countries where their votes are counted accurately. That does not mean they are happy, as Latinobarómetro’s 20,000 interviews, conducted from mid-June to early August this year, make clear.
Voters have many reasons to grumble. Growth in GDP per person has dropped sharply since the global financial crisis in 2009. Venezuela’s economy has imploded and Brazil’s suffered its worst-ever recession from 2014 to 2016. The perception that income is distributed justly has plunged from 25% in 2013 to 16%. That belief may be wrong; the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, has been dropping in the biggest countries. But, at an individual level, a person’s perception of inequality is among the strongest predictors of his or her dissatisfaction with democracy.
Economic worries are at the top of citizens’ concerns in most countries. Only in Venezuela do more than half the people say they do not have enough to eat. The regional average, though, is a still startling 27%. Crime is the second main gripe, leading the list of worries even in some relatively safe countries, such as Chile and Uruguay. Corruption is another big complaint. Eighteen former presidents and vice-presidents have been implicated in corruption scandals, including in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. The share of Latin Americans who think their countries are going in the wrong direction exceeds the proportion who think they are progressing by eight points, the largest negative gap since 1995.
This has battered the credibility of institutions. Only the armed forces and the church, powerful institutions before the advent of mass democracy, retain much respect (see chart 3). Half of Latin Americans believe that all or almost all presidents and legislators are involved in corruption. The share of people who think the elites govern for their own benefit has risen steadily over the past decade; nowhere does it fall below 60%. Increasingly, voters are disengaged from politics. For the third year running, the number who say they will vote for no political party is bigger than the number who say they will vote for one.
Poor people are more alienated than the rich and middle class. People who are badly off lag behind prosperous folk by more than ten percentage points in their level of support for democracy. The young are more sceptical than the old, which bodes ill for democracy’s future. Some 200m Latin Americans with low levels of education, about 30% of the total, are the voters most prone to lash out at established politicians and parties, and to choose leaders who promise to solve problems with a “magic wand”, writes Latinobarómetro in an analytical note accompanying the results. The survey, which has a margin of error of 3% per country, is published exclusively by The Economist.
In Brazil, where satisfaction with democracy is lowest among the 18 countries, disillusionment opened the way for Jair Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper who extols the dictatorship of 1964-85, to win the presidency last month. He had strong support from well-educated Brazilians.
In July Mexico elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist of the left whose Morena party fought its first election in 2015. No fan of dictatorship, he proposes to change the way democracy works by handing more decisions to voters through referendums. Ms Lagos worries that democracy in Argentina is vulnerable. Its economy is heading into recession and the share of people who call themselves middle class dropped by 14 points from 2013 to 2018, the biggest such decline in the region.
In countries whose leaders are dismantling democracy, citizens appreciate it more. Although just 12% of Venezuelans are happy with how their “democracy” functions, 75% prefer democracy to any other system. In Nicaragua, where the increasingly dictatorial regime of Daniel Ortega has been repressing protests since April, satisfaction with democracy plunged from 52% last year to 20%, but more than half of the people still support the system. Encouragingly, good governance also bolsters support for democracy. Prosperous Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile, where the rule of law is relatively well established, are the countries most satisfied with how democracy works
The best hope for shoring it up rests with leaders who do not claim to possess magic wands. Several have recently taken office. They include Lenín Moreno in Ecuador and Martín Vizcarra in Peru, who have embarked on campaigns against corruption. Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s centre-right president since March, is trying to reform the economy and social programmes. The centre-left president of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, defeated a fundamentalist Christian and is trying to fix the tax system. Iván Duque, Colombia’s conservative president, is just getting started. If they are successful, they will boost democracy’s approval ratings as well as their own.