Latin America: Democracy Declines

Venezuela and Nicaragua experienced a significant deterioration in their scores on the latest EIU Democracy Index. Here presidents Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. (Photo: Venezuela Government)

Regional score pulled down by deterioration in Nicaragua and Venezuela.


In 2016 the rise of populism upset the political establishment and status quo in much of the world, but Latin America largely bucked the trend, according to the latest Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit

"Suffering from a ‘populist hangover’, the region began to move to calmer politics in 2016, with center-right, pro-market candidates taking the helm of many countries," Mark Keller, EIU Analyst for Latin America and regional coordinator for the index, said in a statement.

This followed the decade of the so-called Pink Tide, in which many countries elected left-wing populists in a backlash against the neo-liberal economics of the post-cold war era. Argentina ended 12 years of rule by the populist, left-wing Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández, in December 2015, bringing the center-right, pro-business candidate Mauricio Macri to the presidency. Peruvian voters elected a center-right technocrat, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, after the five-year presidency of the left-wing Ollanta Humala. The Brazilian Congress impeached the president, Dilma Rousseff, of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (which had held the presidency since 2003), for contravening budget rules.

She was replaced by her center-right vice-president, Michel Temer, who has introduced more orthodox economic reforms. However, allegations of corruption continue to rock the Brazilian political establishment. Elsewhere, Bolivian voters rejected an initiative to put to a referendum a measure that would have granted indefinite re-election to the country’s president, Evo Morales (although it appears that the government may seek to overturn this), and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa agreed not to stand for a third term. (His successor will be chosen in the second round of presidential elections in April).

Latin America remains the most democratic region of the developing world in the EIUs Index for another year (it scores behind only North America and Western Europe). Nevertheless, the region’s average score has continued to decline, falling to 6.33 in 2016, from an annual average of 6.37 in 2011-15 and a peak of 6.43 in 2008.

The region has relatively strong democratic fundamentals—including comparatively high scores for electoral process and pluralism and civil liberties—but the full consolidation of democracy in the region continues to be held back by issues regarding political effectiveness and culture, the EIU says.

By and large, countries’ scores registered little change this year, and their placement in the global and regional ranking saw little movement. This middling state of democracy is reflected in regime type: the region counts just one full democracy, Uruguay (at 19), and one authoritarian regime, Cuba (at 128). Uruguay even ranks ahead of the United States (at 21).

Among the rest of the region’s countries there are 15 flawed democracies and seven hybrid regimes.

“The receding of the Pink Tide should not be interpreted as a regional ideological shift to the right but rather as an expression of public disenchantment with the region’s leaders, especially as the commodities supercycle comes to an end,” the EIU says. “In the absence of the easy money the era brought, voters are concerned with continued social advancement and have become more demanding of their public servants. Leaner times have tested voters’ patience with corruption, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal in Brazil, which investigates kickbacks between the political and the business establishment involving contracts and donations from the state oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro (Petrobras). In addition to claiming the head of Ms Rousseff (although she herself was not implicated in any malfeasance), it has implicated a number of leading politicians and members of the country’s business elite.”


The move away from populist left-wing governments in the region has caused such leaders to cling to power elsewhere, often at the expense of democratic norms.

“Nowhere was this more apparent in 2016 than in Venezuela and Nicaragua, both of which experienced a significant deterioration in their scores, which largely led to the decline in Latin America’s average score,” EIU points out.

Venezuela’s score fell from 5 to 4.68 and its ranking from 99th in 2015 to 107th in 2016, reflecting the government’s response to the opposition winning control of the National Assembly in December 2015 by slowly chipping away at its rights and powers. In January the government-dominated Supreme Court ruled all decisions by the Assembly null and void after the Assembly swore in three disputed lawmakers, and declared all bills passed by the Assembly unconstitutional. In October the government passed the 2017 budget through the Supreme Court rather than submit it to the National Assembly. This has in effect invalidated the power of the National Assembly and removed government accountability. In October the government-controlled electoral authority suspended an opposition sponsored recall referendum for the president, Nicolás Maduro, before it was to go to a signature drive citing fraud in the original proposal. The military has also assumed a more prominent role in the country this year, including assuming responsibility for key parts of the economy.

Nicaragua saw its score fall from 5.26 to 4.81 as a result of efforts by the president, Daniel Ortega, to win re-election for a third consecutive term. This was originally permitted by a 2014 ruling, whereby the government-dominated Supreme Court eliminated constitutional term limits. In 2016, Ortega nominated his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice-president and used the government controlled electoral authority to have the main opposition party, Partido Liberal Independiente, eliminated from participating in the election and also had the party ousted from Congress. This came after the party refused to accept the Supreme Court’s choice for its party leader, Pedro Reyes, arguing that Reyes was a tool of Ortega. Many smaller parties also refused to participate, saying the election was tilted in favor of Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). In addition, Ortega did not allow any independent external observers to monitor the election. At the election voter turnout and support for his FSLN far exceeded pre-election polling, pointing to significant irregularities. The dynastic nature of the government (with a husband-and-wife team that is likely to remain in power for many years) and the total lack of accountability are behind Nicaragua’s downgrade, which was the largest in Latin America this year (and which caused the country to fall from 95th in 2015 to 104th in the EIU’s latest ranking).


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