Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, electoral democracy continued to do its work at a steady, if sometimes turbulent, pace in the countries of the Latin America and Caribbean region. Amid the pandemic-induced health crisis and economic downturn, the region witnessed about 25 national-level elections or referenda. Public support for democracy in the region remains remarkably stable, a recent survey shows. But two factors appear to threaten the health of democracy going forward: the deteriorating economic situation which may undermine voter faith in government, and, skepticism about election integrity in the wake of recent controversies over election results.
The recently released AmericasBarometer survey, conducted by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University in the United States and carried out in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries, offers a unique window into voter attitudes about the state of democracy in the region. Conducted for the first time over the phone during 2021 for pandemic-related reasons, it is the latest in a series that began back in 2004 and traces how public opinion in the current year compares to the pre-pandemic period.
Despite Dissatisfaction, Most Latin Americans Support Democracy
The central question in the survey, asked in the same form since 2004, is arguably about support for democracy. It asks how much a person agrees with the statement that “Democracy may have problems, but it is better than any other form of government.” Overall, 62% of respondents agreed, a level comparable to and even a little higher than in the recent past. Moreover, a majority of respondents support democracy in 16 countries out of the 20 countries surveyed, a finding that seems to indicate the resilience of democracy in a region beset by the crises and convulsions triggered by the pandemic.
However, other indicators suggest significant dissatisfaction with how democracy has worked in practice. Only 43% of respondents overall say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, and in just six of the 20 countries surveyed a majority of respondents are satisfied with democratic outcomes.
Economic Insecurity Worsened During the Pandemic
One of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the workings of democracy may have been the severe health and economic impacts of COVID-19. The pandemic not only struck many households with disease but also exacerbated the weaknesses of the region’s underperforming economies. The early lockdowns in 2020 led to job losses and business closures as demand from both domestic and foreign markets dried up. This massive shock is clearly reflected in the AmericasBarometer survey in which 61% of respondents say their personal economic situation worsened from the previous year. This is the highest reading ever recorded by the survey, registering a jump of 45% over the previous 2018-2019 survey round. One in three households experienced food insecurity, a staggering number for a region so well endowed with natural resources. Of those whose economic situation worsened, three out of four believe it was due to the pandemic. The burden of the crisis was also unequally distributed, according to an IDB early pandemic study, aggravating the already high income inequality in the region.
Given the economic toll of the pandemic, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that when given a choice between free elections and guaranteed basic income, most respondents preferred income security in all but four of the 20 countries surveyed. This statistic, while understandable, is troubling because elections are the foundation of representative democracy and an indispensable mechanism for selecting and replacing policymakers. However, recent election controversies as well as unease with the electoral process itself, which many feel is being tampered with, have caused real disillusionment.
Election Integrity and Uneven Justice Trouble Many Voters
Another reason for dissatisfaction with democracy, therefore, may be the ongoing apprehension about the rule of law in many countries of the region. Only 42% of respondents trust elections; among young voters the number is even lower, just 38%. In only four out of the 20 countries surveyed a majority of respondents say they trust elections, and majorities in every country, except for Chile and Uruguay, say they believe votes are sometimes miscounted. Moreover, majorities, except in Uruguay, believe elections may be bought by the rich. These attitudes are consistent with expert assessments of election integrity collected by the Electoral Integrity Project. Persistent doubts about election integrity can undermine the legitimacy of elections and elected leaders. Visible and immediate policy changes, such as securing vote counts and providing equitable access to campaign resources, are therefore vital for restoring public trust in elections.
The pandemic also exposed rights violations: uneven enforcement of lockdown measures in some places and irregularities in vaccine distribution in others. Citizens have a right to equal treatment under the law and consistent adherence to the rules by public officials. Deficiencies in the rule of law are problematic for the well-functioning of democracy, as they may cause a breakdown in civic norms. From that perspective, the finding that only a third of respondents, and two out of 20 countries, feel that their basic rights were protected during the pandemic is worrisome. Research has shown that civil liberties are more predictive of the stability of democracy than political rights.
The pandemic has put tremendous strain on the people and governments of the region and tested the resilience of democracy. The good news coming from these valuable new survey data is that the majority of citizens continue to support democracy. Nevertheless, many express dissatisfaction with its economic and social outcomes and particularly mistrust elections. Trust in government institutions and the political process is key to economic growth and development in the region, according to the forthcoming IDB Development in the Americas flagship report. In the face of challenging circumstances, political leaders need to safeguard public trust by providing economic opportunities and upholding the rule of law. The survey has other interesting findings, covering areas like corruption, crime, and migration. These are discussed in detail in LAPOP’s Pulse of Democracy report. Overall, the message seems to be clear: Citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean want economic stability, fair elections, and the protection of basic rights.