Friday, February 01, 2008

Democracy Under All Circumstances?

A very interesting piece in the Economist reports the results of the LatinobarĂ³metro survey, a five-yearly study by a Santiago-based nonprofit research group of Latin Americans' attitudes of to politics and economics.

I haven't had a chance to properly check out the Latinbarometro website itself and some of their links seem to be dead ends, so I'm relying on the Economist's summary. The 2007 survey involved face-to-face interviews with 20,212 people by local opinion-research companies in 18 countries. That doesn't seem very many, and I wonder whether the full diversity of views in, say, Brazil is really captured by a sample of a couple of thousand people.

Nevertheless, the beauty of this survey is that it is repeated regularly, so it shows changes in attitudes over time.

There's a fair spread of views on politics. The countries that most agree with the statement that 'democracy is preferable to any other type of government' are stable, moderate Costa Rica and Urugay. But also high up are Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The Economist interprets this as reflecting the rise to power in these countries of openly leftist governments that have made a prominent issue of representing previously excluded groups.

In countries with orthodox market economies like Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru, the proportion of people favouring democracy is lower, and has actually declined in recent years.

The proportion of people who believe that 'in certain circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one' is also higher in Peru and Chile (around 20 percent) than in many other countries.

Least likely of all to favour democracy and most amenable to authoritarian role are the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, along with Paraguay. These are among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the region, and the survey results likely reflect despair at the weakness of the state in performing its basic functions. However, there are incresingly favourable attitudes towards democracy in Nicaragua, another country to recently elect an openly leftist leader (Sandinista throwback Daniel Ortega).

For anybody who has followed my previous comments about deep frustration in Peru with the pace of change and the fragility of democracy there, these are borne out by the survey findings
Since 1996, Peru has seen a big drop in people preferring democracy (63 to 47 percent), and an increase in those who support authoritarian rule (from 13 to 22 percent). Peruvians are also second-to-least likely to be satisfied with how democracy is working in their country (ahead of only Paraguay). Less than 20 percent were 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied', down from 30 percent in 1996.

That was in the dark days of the authoritarian rule of the now-despised Fujimori. Back then, a return to full democracy would have appeared to promise much. The current scepticism may well reflect just how little 'responsible change' the Peruvian electorate feels it has seen in the intervening years.

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