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Anxious about the fate of America's democracy? Latin America offers lessons

Anxious about the fate of America's democracy? Latin America offers lessons
© Greg Nash

With at least half of voters worried about the fairness of the election and the president not conceding if he loses the election, America’s once-exceptional democracy increasingly resembles the political landscape in other parts of the world. Latin America’s experience with contested transitions and post-electoral uncertainty can provide useful lessons for the United States. It shows that political elites’ hesitation about the rules of the game can be devastating for democracy.

For democracy to work, there should be uncertainty about the winner of the race, but certainty about the rules of the game.

For over a century, Latin American democracies have experienced presidents looking to extend their time in office and incumbents who unfairly tilt the playing field to remain in power.

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Three lessons are especially useful as the United States enters uncharted political territory this November.

First, political elites play a crucial role in determining the fate of democracy. Constitutional crises — whether post-electoral conflict or violent power grabs — require a complicit sector of the political elite (party leaders, legislators, cabinet members) to provide explicit or tacit approval.

Elites don’t need to agree on which candidate should win, but they must be resolute in their condemnation of any action that undermines the integrity of elections; otherwise, divided or even ambivalent elites provide cover for authoritarian outcomes by serving as “passive accomplices,” as Chilean president Sebastián Piñera characterized politicians, legislators, and judges who choose not to speak up when democracy needs them.

Elites’ behavior can be highly consequential. For example, in the aftermath of Mexico’s 1988 historically close presidential election, the refusal of a sector of the political elite to hold a recount — despite reasonable allegations of foul play — gave the authoritarian government another six years in power. Conversely, elites of all political stripes played a crucial role in the preservation of Argentina’s democracy in 1987. In the face of a military rebellion on Good Friday, leaders from all parties, business sectors, and unions rushed to the executive mansion to appear next to president Raúl Alfonsín in a decisive show of support that swiftly deactivated the crisis.

Second, as tempting as non-democratic alternatives may seem, Latin America is littered with examples of regretful supporters. Time and time again, supporters failed to realize that non-democratic alternatives develop their own, irreversible dynamics. Lured by seemingly benign goals and confident in the short-term nature of the authoritarian arrangement, they grossly underestimated the degree to which liberties are curtailed and the difficulty in bringing back democracy.

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When Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori staged a self-coup (the interruption of the constitutional order by closing the legislature) in 1992, his promise to improve democracy by making it more direct and efficient appealed to many who believed the end justified the means. A decade later, a video scandal confirmed to Peruvians that Fujimori had turned the government into a repressive and highly corrupt criminal enterprise.

In Brazil, the media conglomerate O’Globo originally glorified the authoritarian government’s actions after the 1964 coup, but years later it recognized its support was a grave mistake. In Chile, scores of politicians lamented having tacitly approved of Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian government, including Joaquín Lavín, a former adviser to Pinochet and twice the right’s presidential candidate.

Third, whereas confidence in elections can be undermined swiftly, rebuilding trust is an arduous process that takes decades. Many factors can contribute to the erosion of trust: from political elites casting doubt on the process before the election, to refusing to concede, to post electoral conflict.

Thirty years after democracy returned to Chile, only 42 percent of Chileans’ express trust in elections, despite having one of the most functional governments in the region. In Mexico, two decades after democratization, trust in the electoral process is at a meager 26 percent. Candidates’ refusal to accept the outcome of elections is an important factor contributing to such low levels of trust.

These examples illustrate the importance of political elites’ unwavering support for democracy in the United States.

No matter how well-intentioned, remarks that cast doubt on the electoral process or express hesitation about strictly following the rules are deeply damaging for democracy. Instead, it is essential that both Republican and Democratic leaders visibly and vigorously join forces in denouncing any attempt at refusing to respect electoral results. Cynicism about the electoral process is a recipe for lower turnout, mistrust in politics as a peaceful way to solve problems, and reduced government legitimacy.

The United States cannot afford to take Americans’ trust in elections for granted.

Gustavo Flores-Macías is associate vice provost for international affairs and associate professor of government at Cornell University. He previously served as director of public affairs in Mexico’s Consumer Protection Agency.