“Latin America’s Left had deep differences when it came to democratic participation”

Interview with Yanina Welp on the realities that influenced the implementation of participatory policies in Latin America. At the very core is a nuanced understanding of “progressive,” the range of functional institutions for citizen participation, the different trends at local and state level and how these are associated to the Left.

Caracas, Venezuela - October 26, 2016. Demonstrators concentrated protesting in Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas against the cancellation of a constitutional referendum to revoke Venezuelan president in charge.

For more than ten years, Latin America experienced a wave of progressive governments. One of their most cited slogans was the increase in political participation. In the case of countries ruled by leftist governments, did these participatory policies really materialize?

This is a fundamental question that cannot be properly answered without addressing the nuances that surround the definition of progressive, the range of institutions for citizen participation that already existed, the different trends observed at a local and national level, and their association with the Left.

The governments defined as progressive in Latin America have in common the promotion of greater State control over the economy compared to their predecessors, and an increased significance of social policies in their territories. However, there are not such clear similarities in other aspects that could also be considered “progressive”, like for example the right to abortion or guarantees for sexual diversity. To take two cases, in this last field there is a chasm between Ecuador under Correa and Argentina under Cristina Kirchner.  

The massive roll out and local implementation of consultative mechanisms in Brasil after 1988 wasn’t followed by further expansion of direct participation

There is even bigger divergence in the field of institutions that promote participation. For example, the massive roll out and/or local implementation of consultative mechanisms – public policy conferences and participatory budgeting, among others – seen in Brazil after the 1988 citizen Constitution was approved, was not followed by a further expansion of direct participation during the time of Lula or Dilma Rousseff. In Brazil, citizens cannot launch initiatives for a popular referendum nor veto laws; the same is true in Argentina and Chile (where the issue has only been in the agenda with Michelle Bachelet, with no advances in this direction). However, citizens can do this in Colombia or Peru, where several institutions for local-level participation have also been established.

The laws must be studied in detail to verify if the power being bestowed is genuine

Elsewhere, even though Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela have put a lot of emphasis on the participatory institutions that have been introduced, the laws must be studied in detail to verify if the power being bestowed is genuine. In Ecuador, citizens can call a constitutional referendum, but only if approved by a majority in the Assembly; as such, the authorities still retain control. A similar situation is seen in practice. Though there are a number of countries that allow for citizens to call referendums, they have only been used in a few cases: Peru in 2010 and several times in Uruguay.

It is therefore important to differentiate between the local and national levels. At a national level, except for Brazil’s public policy conferences (a sectorial consulting mechanism that involves all levels of government), the dominant institutions have been those related to direct democracy, of making individual decisions via a vote. At a local level, there is more of a trend towards deliberative mechanisms. Originally, the left was leading the promotion of these, as in the case of deliberative budgeting, but then the World Bank identified this as a good practice and it expanded to governments of different political leanings. These mechanisms are usually consultative and/or of limited impact (for example, they are only used for a small fraction of the overall budget). Without denying their potential, on occasion they have been implemented with little conviction by authorities, or with the intention of winning votes.

The most radically developed experience – the Communal Councils of Venezuela – receives growing criticism 

Returning to the question: in some countries participation was central in the recent political discourse (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela). In others, participatory institutions were less significant (Chile, Argentina). In the former group, there are many uncertainties over its realization, and there have not been notable advances in democratization beyond the community level. But then, in some cases, the opposite could be said. The most radically developed experience – the Communal Councils of Venezuela – receives growing criticism not just from the right but also from the left and even from the same social organizations that are involved in them; they note high levels of corruption, inefficiency, and the spread of clientelistic practices.

Among the countries that applied policies to expand democracy via participative mechanisms, which stood out the most?

Brazil is one of the countries that has achieved the biggest change, especially with participatory budgeting and public policy conferences. However, given the current situation, it is necessary to evaluate how these mechanisms have contributed to greater democratic involvement. In addition, I already mentioned the Communal Councils in Venezuela, which are increasingly criticized.

The big dilemma is that many of the mechanisms either have a limited (participatory budgeting) or very limited influence (neighbourhood councils in Montevideo, for example), while those that do have a bigger impact (binding national referendums) seem to serve the strategic interests of governments more than the population, which faces innumerable difficulties when trying to enact one autonomously (with the exception of Uruguay, where they have been held on numerous occasions).

With regard the use of referendums and policies of direct participation, have there been any modifications in party structures in the countries that put these mechanisms into practice?

I believe that the mechanisms of direct democracy cannot be understood outside of a context in which other variables are also significant. In Uruguay, the Frente Amplio was key in the activation of plebiscites in the 1990s and this contributed – it was not decisive, but it helped – to it taking the presidency in 2004. The strategy of decentralizing participation in the city of Montevideo, led by Tabaré Vásquez after becoming mayor in 1989, was also crucial. However, once in power at a local, and then national, level, it prioritized the party system, one of the pillars of Uruguayan democracy. The mechanisms for direct democracy at a national level have had an important role as catalysts for dissatisfaction in moments of crisis.

The mechanisms for direct democracy at a national level have had an important role as catalysts for dissatisfaction in moments of crisis 

In Venezuela or Ecuador, in the context of severe social, economic, and political crises, the popular consultations convened by constituents in 1999 and 2007 triggered an institutional change that delivered a lethal blow to the traditional party system. However, in other cases the party system collapsed without the use of these mechanisms (as in Peru).

How do you evaluate the use of a referendum on the peace agreement in Colombia and its result, which was so unexpected for analysts and the media?

2016 appears to have been a devastating year for those who defend mechanisms of direct democracy, but it is not difficult to dismantle this fallacy. There is a general problem of legitimacy, due in part to the effects of a globalization that produces winners and losers in markets dominated by economic interests; with the expansion of digital social networks and the new dynamics of producing and sharing information; and with the erosion of legitimacy among some traditional representatives that increasingly fail to represent the interests of citizens. The increase in referenda is not the cause but a consequence of these trends.

When presidents call referendums there is often a conflict between the objectives of legitimizing the decision and legitimizing themselves 

I am convinced about the use of mechanisms of direct democracy to strengthen and enhance democracy. However, when presidents call referendums there is often a conflict between the objectives of legitimizing the decision and legitimizing themselves. This leads to lower quality campaigns and, in extreme cases, to rejecting any alternative options. If, as in Colombia, the president proposes a referendum by motu proprio and then says that you must vote his preference because there is no alternative, then why call it in the first place? This was even more serious considering the irresponsible and ferocious opposition from the Centro Democrático and ex–president Alvaro Uribe.

There are several aspects of the process that Alicia Lissidini, David Altman and myself [1] have mentioned in analyses where we identify the elements that have eroded the legitimizing potential of a popular consultation. In the end, the results showed that other options were possible, and the next steps suggested that a focus on results was prioritized over legitimizing the process. I’m not questioning Congress ratifying the decisions, but the process by which it was made and communicated to the public.

What lessons can be taken from cases such as the referendums on Maduro’s mandate in Venezuela and on Yasuní in Ecuador?

I think there is a deeper problem and these examples represent just the tip of the iceberg. The rhetoric of political movements like that of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) or the Alianza País appeals initially to the will of citizens, but once in power – and perhaps this is the fundamental problem of populist discourse – those who were of the people” do not reposition themselves in their new role as governors. In this process, the political project is increasingly executed uncritically, using the excuse of a siege by the enemies”. What was once a quest to return politics to a central role ends up being displaced. If the leader is “of the people”, he holds the truth and there is no room to accept dissidence. I think that the obstacles placed to impede a referendum to decide on the future of Yasuní in Ecuador or to block a recall referendum against Maduro in Venezuela are evidence of this displacement of democracy.


Translation: Kristie Robinson

1) http://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/revisi%C3%B3n-acuerdo-de-paz_-deber%C3%Adan-aprovechar-el-gran-potencial-de-la-movilizaci%C3%B3n-ciudadana-/42592114; http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-37541371 

Yanina Welp is the Regional Director for Latin America at the Center for Research on Direct Democracy (C2D) and Privatdozent at the University of St.Gallen. Her research interests include comparative studies on participatory democracy in Latin America; pre-conditions and uses of direct democracy mechanisms (referendum, initiative and recall), process of democratization, and the role of ICT's to promote democracy and governance.

First published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad, December 2016



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