The 2015 Latinobarómetro: The lack of faith in political institutions, both unsurprising and justifiable

Lorraine Watkins
Pasante FUNPADEM

The Latinobarómetro Corporation is a public opinion-based poll that investigates levels of satisfaction with the democracy, economy, and society throughout eighteen countries in Central and South America. It is one of the chief references of comparative studies in Latin America for the countries’ decision-makers, international organizations, journalists, and academic researchers of the region. Since its founding in 1995, Latinobarómetro has carried out over 20,000 interviews per year and has represented the opinions of over 600 million people. This year, the corporation published a report summarizing all of its findings throughout its twenty years of existence.

Latin American countries have proven themselves to be unpredictable for social scientists and far more complicated than they initially appear. Even countries that have experienced constitutional reforms and democratic success are called into question, based on the findings in Latinobarómetro. Countries have learned to become mistrustful of each other, having had no real means of uniting the countries together. The perception of democracy in this region is highly pessimistic, which calls into question the legitimacy of its form of government according to the region’s inhabitants.

The report uses the phrase “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (reportedly said by Churchill), as a means of describing the general impression of the democratic governments within these countries. According to the report, 60% of the population in the region still believe that they have little to no say in the workings of their government. This shows that Latin America, with its increasing demands and criticisms, incurs the highest level of dissatisfaction with democracy in the world. In 2015, it was found that in only three countries—Uruguay, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic—are over half the population satisfied with their democracy.

An interesting correlation between support and satisfaction for democracy was also investigated. The 2015 findings found that none of the observed countries reported a higher level of satisfaction than support. Interestingly, this means that in all countries the level of support for a country outweighs the satisfaction they feel with the system of government: democracy. However, levels in either category are both relatively low, representing the shared desire in these countries to see a change in their governments. Different factors that determine the level of satisfaction the Latin American population has with democracy include the gap between social classes, socio-economic progress, political and social rights, economic performance, and so on. Unsurprisingly, greater equality and social rights, as well as economic growth lead to greater satisfaction and support for democracy.

Sentiments for democracy in regards to representation and voting also run low in the opinion polls. Some 70% of the inhabitants do not feel represented in the legislation of their countries, with a high of 45% in Uruguay feeling represented to a low of 8% in Peru. Since 2005, the number of people who perceive the election processes in their country to be clean and transparent has increased from an all-time low of 37% to 47% in 2015. However, there continue to be some 43% of Latin Americans who believe the elections in their countries are fraudulent and deceptive. If the people perceive that elections are failing, then the system automatically loses its value. This is important because elections reveal the core of the democratic process. It has led to a clear majority of people who do not believe their government, state, and private companies within those states to be transparent, and thus they do not trust them.

Over half the population in Latin America are inclined to protest for better health coverage, education, salaries, work conditions, social rights, and natural resources, an inclination that increased between 2013 and 2015. It would appear that with a rising level of democracy in each country, the public feels more greatly disposed to demonstrate on the streets their desire for social equality and efficient governing. If democracy is inadequate to provide such developments—which seems to be a growing consensus in the region—the people would be ready to shift to a system of government that could comply with their demands.

There is also a range of perceptions as to what democracy as a system of government guarantees. Some 76% believe that democracy guarantees freedom of religion, 69% freedom to choose a profession, 62% freedom to participate in politics, 59% for equal opportunity, and 58% believe it guarantees freedom of expression. However, there are many who doubt such guarantees as a fair distribution of wealth and to social security. For example, only 24% of Latin Americans believe that the distribution of wealth is fair, differentiating between a high of 49% in Ecuador, to a low of 5% in Chile.

In general, the region has become far more untrusting of civic institutions such as the courts, the legislature system, and political parties, all of which rank at the bottom of institutions Latin Americans trust. Ideologies are polarizing as the people become increasingly distrustful even of each other. Approval ratings for their leaders have decreased significantly, even only so far back as 2009 (60%) to now (47%). Given all of this information on the state of the people in regards to their opinion of democracy and their states’ governments, it is clear that Latin Americans are ready for a change.

What people would turn to in place of democracy, however, has yet to be determined. The fact of the matter remains that in spite of all its flaws and limitations, democracy is still generally accepted as preferable to all other forms of government. Much of what the people dislike about the governing systems in their country have to do with the failures in social systems, economic progress, and the uneven distribution of wealth. Though their specific governments may have failed to progress as far as the citizens have pushed, it remains a matter of debate whether the fault truly lies with democracy, or with the people who are charged with maintaining it.

The lack of faith that the people have in their political institutions is both unsurprising and justifiable considering the number of countries in the region that have suffered through corrupt regimes, and political and social unrest. It is also a sad revelation that they should become so mistrustful of each other. Yet, the findings suggest that the people are still generally satisfied with their lives, though they give little credit of that to their governments. Perhaps someday soon, their passion and cry for better managed systems of government will be heard more clearly. At least the Latinobarómetro polls have certainly managed to give voice to millions of restless citizens in Latin America awaiting something better.

Sources.

Latinobarómetro Corporation (2015). Latinobarómetro Report 2015. http://www.latinobarometro.org/lat.jsp

The Econocmist (2015). When the Tide Goes Out. http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21666234-without-growth-there-nothing-distract-regions-endemic-ills-when-tide-goes

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