Books in Review: Comparing Latin Democracies

Issue Date July 2011
Volume 22
Issue 3
Page Numbers 165-172
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The Quality of Democracy in Latin America. Edited by Daniel H. Levine and José E. Molina . Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011. 299 pp.

What does it mean to speak of the “quality” of a country’s democracy, and how can this quality be measured and compared across cases? Since the early 2000s, a number of scholars have been trying to answer these questions. In mid-decade, Daniel Levine and José Molina gathered a distinguished group with the aim of systematically improving upon the existing expert literature. The group’s work focused on Latin America, but wider implications are not far to seek. The fruits of the effort are set forth in the present volume, which may safely be called an indispensable tool for all those interested in democracy’s fate, whether in Latin America or beyond.

The editors open with a pair of chapters that ask in detail what the quality of democracy is and how it can be gauged. To this they add a final chapter that attempts to draw some conclusions. In between are case-study chapters on Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Each chapter addresses the guiding questions posed by the editors, making the book a truly coherent comparative exercise. A brief review lends itself best to consideration of the general questions rather than the specific findings for each country.

About the Author

Diego Abente-Brun is deputy director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.

View all work by Diego Abente-Brun

Levine and Molina’s curtain-raising theoretical overview is useful and much needed. They rightly insist on a crucial distinction between the quality of democracy as a political process for making decisions and the quality of the decisions and hence outcomes (as these affect security, prosperity, justice, and so on) that any given democracy actually produces. [End Page 165] In doing so, they resist a confusing tendency, visible since the late 1990s, to conflate these two concepts. The sad truth is that a society may be well governed from the procedural-democratic point of view, and yet be ill governed in any number of other, more substantive ways.

A second crucial point has to do with the definition of democracy. Levine and Molina insist on a procedural definition because it alone offers enough analytical precision and portability to make the exercise of comparison meaningful. Lastly, Levine and Molina define the focus of their inquiry as “the level of quality of any specific democracy” as “determined by the extent to which citizens can participate in an informed manner in processes of free, fair, and frequent elections; influence the making of political decisions; and hold those who govern accountable” (8, emphasis in original). The quality of democracy is thus a multidimensional continuum.

In operational terms, Levine and Molina posit that democratic quality can be measured along five dimensions: electoral decisions, participation, accountability, responsiveness, and sovereignty. Using these, the editors construct a general “Index of Quality of Democracy” (33). The Index uses data from 2005 or the nearest preceding year for which data were available and lists the seventeen Latin American countries that were considered “electoral democracies” by Freedom House that year. The Index consists of figures running along a 0-to-100 scale (with 100 representing a perfect score) to indicate how well each country did along each of the five dimensions of democratic quality.

According to the Index, Uruguay is the region’s highest-quality procedural democracy with an average score of 71.9, followed by Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico clustering together in the low 60s. Guatemala sits at the bottom with a score of 44.6, well below the 17-country average of 57.3. Eight countries—the five already mentioned plus Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil—rank above that average. The remaining nine countries rank below.

The Index shows not only how the various countries rank, but also the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. For example, most countries do well in terms of electoral decisions and sovereignty, especially insofar as the latter can be gauged by the degree of civilian control over the military (no small consideration in a region with a long history of military coups). Participation (average score, 48.5) is a weak spot, which is surprising given the apparent strength of various social movements across Latin America.

The worst deficit, however, appears in the area of accountability. The average score on this measure is an abysmal 28.6, by far the lowest on any of the five dimensions of democratic quality. Each country’s lowest individual score, moreover, is found in this category, indicating a serious across-the-board democratic deficit. Levine and Molina explain this by noting how the region’s many young democracies, anxious to consolidate [End Page 166] and show that they can govern, have bolstered presidential powers even to the point of creating what Guillermo O’Donnell calls “delegative democracies.” The problem is acute, but one wonders how well the obvious solution—strengthening legislatures—will work given the drift toward factionalism and exaggerated pork-barrel politics that is evident in so many of these bodies today.

As persuasive as the volume generally is, some elements of its analytical framework are open to question. In a highly original move, Levine and Molina use the degree to which a country is sovereign as one of the indicators of the quality of its democracy. They gauge sovereignty in part by examining a country’s level of foreign indebtedness. But is such indebtedness really a dimension of the political process, or is it rather a policy outcome that sheds light not on a democracy’s quality, but on its performance?

Another indicator of sovereignty is the degree to which civilian officials control the military. Granted, civilian supremacy is vital to democracy. But if we include it, why not also bring in measures of “stateness” such as governmental control over the national territory, an effective bureaucracy, and significant regulatory capabilities? After all, are these not just as important as civilian supremacy when it comes to determining whether citizens can “influence the making of political decisions”? As Claudio Holzner notes in his chapter on Mexico, “Many of the weaknesses of democratic rule in Mexico do not have their origin in faulty rules of the game, but in institutional weaknesses within the Mexican state that make the implementation of those rules inconsistent, unpredictable, and, in some cases, nonexistent” (106).

The inclusion of Transparency International’s well-known Corruption Perception Index as a measure of horizontal accountability makes sense—corruption plainly affects the ability of institutions to control each other. Yet should not other signs of horizontal accountability or its lack (the presence or absence of effective national comptroller’s or ombudsman’s offices, for instance) be included too? As for vertical accountability, one chosen indicator is the average length of terms in elected office, but as this generally falls within a narrow range of four or five years one wonders how much difference it makes.

A perhaps more serious problem is the failure to include an indicator of the effective rule of law. It is one thing to have an estado de derecho (a formally law-based state, which every democracy must be), but quite another to live under the true imperio de la ley in which equal laws are equally applied as a general occurrence. How can citizens influence political decisions or hold those in positions of power accountable if the laws are applied according to who the plaintiff is? Perhaps one could take a position akin to Holzner’s and see uneven law enforcement as a general symptom of state weakness, but most observers would agree that the enforcement problem is to a large extent linked [End Page 167] to corruption, influence peddling, and pervasive bias against the poor and disadvantaged.

Finally, readers may want to take the fine print of some of these rankings with a grain of salt. As noted, Costa Rica (63.4), Chile (63.2), Argentina (62.7), and Mexico (61.3) have nearly identical above-average scores. With regard to the first two this seems quite plausible, but the close proximity to them of Argentina and Mexico is bound to raise eyebrows. Argentina, according to a recent UNDP and OAS study, saw a whopping 382 uses of presidential-decree powers between 2002 and 2007, while Chilean chief executives went the better part of a decade (2000 to 2007) without using such powers once. (In Costa Rica, any presidential decree requires legislative approval within a set period, while in Mexico decrees can only be used for commercial matters and must be approved by Congress in the annual budget law.) Although the compiling of indices may be a necessary task, anomalies such as these underline what a conceptually risky enterprise it remains.

Even taking all the foregoing cautions into account, one may conclude that Levine and Molina have produced a fine piece of scholarship. The theoretical chapters are solid and useful, the country chapters illuminating, and the Index an indispensable tool for comparative analysis and the development of a research agenda that, so far as I know, stands as the only one of its kind. Students of democracy, as well as those active in democratic political life, may regard this conceptually elegant and empirically rigorous volume as essential reading. Both audiences will find it a valuable source of information, debate, and guidance. As Gerardo Munck has said, Levine, Molina, and their contributors have authored a tome that “moves the debate forward,” and indeed substantially so.