As democracy wanes in Central America, citizens vote with their feet

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In the United States, it seems that we are constantly using elections to tell us what might happen in elections. Take the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia — for months we fixated on the race as a bellwether for next year’s midterms. With that race over, our focus has already turned to next year’s midterms as a signal for the presidential election in 2024.   

Whether you love or hate election forecasting, we need to do the same in Central America, but for a different reason. Our colleagues at the Varieties of Democracy Index have documented that democratic trends in each country in Central America rose together for most of the past 50 years, but over the past decade, Nicaragua and Honduras are leading a downward trend. 

More recently, when one government in the region has turned away from democracy and the rule of law, so have the others. It seems that there is a shared playbook in the region when it comes to governance. Witness the quick, successive demise of anti-corruption commissions in Honduras and El Salvador after Guatemala failed to renew the mandate of its commission, and the firing of the Guatemalan anti-corruption prosecutor after El Salvador unconstitutionally unseated members of the supreme court.  

Even as we write, civil society and international organizations in El Salvador are raising the alarm about a proposed law that would restrict human rights and freedom of expression. The law mirrors one enacted in Nicaragua last year that was used to shut down 45 NGOs and detain their leaders, including our research collaborator Felix Maradiaga of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy, who has been detained since June following his investigations into public corruption and attempts to campaign as an opposition candidate.

That is why we need to pay special attention to what the predetermined, undemocratic presidential elections in Nicaragua last week mean for presidential elections in Honduras later this month, especially given doubts about the outcome of the 2017 elections in Honduras that are still fresh on Hondurans’ minds. Even more importantly, both of these elections signal what could happen with governments in Guatemala and El Salvador that are already predisposed to corruption over the rule of law, and autocracy over democracy.  

Free and fair elections are particularly important as support for democracy declines around the world and across the Americas. When citizens can’t trust the tangible act of voting, how can they trust the institutions and processes that are run by the election’s “winners”? 

In Honduras, for example, just less than half of people believe that democracy is better than any other form of government (down from a high of nearly two-thirds in 2014, only five years after the 2009 coup). Free and fair elections alone won’t fix challenges like crime and violence, but they are a start to instilling confidence in the people and institutions that are responsible for establishing and maintaining the rule of law.  

While the outcome of these elections matter most to Hondurans and their neighbors as they seek to establish safe, prosperous societies, they will also impact migration at the U.S. border. Our research has shown that among those with migration intentions, nearly half cite lack of trust in the political process as one of the reasons for having those intentions. Increasing trust in political institutions and governments — which, in turn, impact security and economic conditions that are also important to would-be migrants — could go a long way to reducing migration from the region. Every little bit of opportunity to flourish at home helps in a country where over half of those we interviewed have migration intentions, and even more do not see a good future in Honduras.    

We have seen in the past — and other political scientists have theorized and documented — where lack of confidence in elections and their outcomes can result in “foot voting,” or moving from one place to another as a form of voting instead of doing so at the box. When people — and especially youth who already have the highest propensity to migrate — see that the prospect for change through elections is low, alternatives to migration such as civic engagement shrink. As confidence declines in Central American democracies, we can expect to see less engagement and more migration.   

So what can be done? First, we must support the work and findings of international electoral observation missions by the Organization of American States, even when their findings are inconvenient. Second, we need action from recent meetings such as the Joint Ministerial Meeting in Bogotá attended by Secretary Blinken and foreign secretaries from the Americas on the causes and challenges of migration, where one of the priorities was the consolidation of democracy in the Americas. 

The Biden administration has a great opportunity to support that consolidation as it hosts the Summit for Democracy next month, where the focus will be on the “challenges and opportunities facing democracies” and “commitments to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.” This is an important step and results from the election in Honduras should be fresh on summiteers’ minds as they debate the reason for the rise of authoritarianism, how best to fight corruption and how to continue to protect human rights. 

How the international community continues its vigilance for democracy both at the ballot box and in the daily experience of citizens in the coming months will impact the support for democracy in Central America and beyond for years to come.

Tom Hare is co-director of the Central America Research Alliance and a senior researcher in the Pulte Institute for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. Hare is the author of “Zonas Peligrosas: The Challenge of Creating Safe Neighborhoods in Central America.” 

María Estela Rivero Fuentes is co-director of the Central America Research Alliance and the Monitoring, Evaluation, Learning, and Knowledge Management director for the USAID-funded Supporting Holistic and Actionable Research in Education (SHARE) program in the Pulte Institute for Global Development at the University of Notre Dame. 

Tags Central America El Salvador Elections Honduras Northern Triangle of Central America

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