Concern for the stability and functioning of Latin American democracies has increased in recent years through the manifestation of different types of events with a strong political impact: major popular revolts followed by strong repression, resignations and dismissals of presidents, co-optation of state government institutions, threats from the military, among others.
However, most democracies in the region have responded to these political challenges and impasses through existing institutional mechanisms or through reforms that seek to make possible solutions to political and social conflicts.
These challenges have often been analyzed as risks for democracy or even as signs of a breakdown in the system. However, despite its diminishing quality in some cases, democracy has shown resilience and found ways to work around the obstacles it faces, staving off the institutional ruptures that were once so prevalent in the region.
Reliable elections and constitutional reform
Despite the episodes of social explosion that affected several countries in 2019, in all of them, citizens’ discontent was ultimately channeled through legal channels and with the maintenance of elections as the method of choice for governors and other political representatives.
In Ecuador, two years after the violent social explosion against the controversies and unpopular measures of former President Lenín Moreno, a transparent and exemplary electoral process has enabled peaceful political change.
It was also thanks to a reliable electoral process that Bolivia rediscovered the democratic legitimacy that ended the process of institutional deterioration that had started with the third unconstitutional candidacy of former President Evo Morales, followed by the social explosion of 2019 – at the origin of a confused electoral ballot. , the resignation of Morales and a controversial presidential succession.
In the case of Chile, where the protests were more intense and lasted longer, the mobilization of the citizens imposed a constitutional reform by the election of a constituent assembly, which was not in the plans of the political leaders. . The acceptance of this demand by the entire political system, and its rapid implementation, have strengthened the path towards institutional legality as a fundamental option for finding solutions to the political and social crisis that is going through the country.
Impeachment as a conflict resolution mechanism
As with popular uprisings, presidential impeachment processes are indicators of relevant political crises and their reiteration in some countries in the region has also raised concerns about the stability of democracy. However, these processes tend to function more as an institutional means of conflict resolution than as a factor of crisis.
Although presidential regimes presuppose a fixed term of office for the chief executive, in some situations, whether due to a lack of legislative support, popular support, or, primarily, the absence of both, presidents can be challenged by a request for removal.
Constitutional norms do not always specifically delimit the type of crime liable to imputation, which leaves room for, in situations of confrontation between the powers of the State, an impeachment procedure to be initiated, especially when the opposition has of the majority of the Legislature and of the presiding power with a very low popularity.
In practice, this procedure has functioned as a vote of no confidence in parliamentary regimes, when the Prime Minister no longer has legislative support, but formally does not exist in presidentialism.
Being an essentially political judgment – senators and / or deputies vote for the guilt or acquittal of the president – the decision depends, in fact, on the legislative support given to the president.
In these situations, impeachment is the tool available in presidential systems to resolve impasses between the executive and legislative branches, resulting from the lack of political support for presidents.
More than “parliamentary coups”, as they have sometimes been called, they are the political system’s response to presidents unable to obtain or maintain a sufficient legislative base and / or popular support to deal with complaints of illegality. , as happened with Presidents Kuszinsky and Vizcarra in Peru and with Rousseff in Brazil.
However, when the impeachment of the president did not enjoy significant popular support, as in the case of Vizcarra, Peru, the impeachment provoked a strong reaction from part of the population, amplifying the political crisis. which forced the resignation of the successor appointed by the Legislative Assembly. to complete the presidential term, requiring a new designation.
Co-optation of state institutions and pressure from the military
Despite the resilience of democracy, significant challenges remain, especially under conditions of strong political polarization. In some cases, these challenges can take on the dimension of a risk. Co-opting of state control institutions by governments and pressure from the military are two such cases.
An example of government co-optation of a state institution is the recent dismissal of members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador by the Legislative Assembly, which has a large majority from President Bukele’s party. For their part, Nicaragua and Venezuela are two examples of consolidated co-optation of state institutions by their respective governments.
Indicators of the second of the aforementioned challenges – military interference or pressure – have recently been observed in Brazil and Peru. In the latter country, a public letter from retired servicemen calling for ignoring a government chaired by Pedro Castillo, shaped the political scenario which at that time was still without a definition of the bitter electoral outcome.
In Brazil, the armed forces are at the center of public debate, both because of their widespread presence in Bolsonaro’s government and accusations of corruption that affect the government military and the corporate position that the armed forces have. adopted with the aim of intimidating the political system and protecting its members.
In times of growing political polarization, risks to democratic stability are not absent. On the contrary, they manifested themselves in different ways. But most Latin American democracies have so far demonstrated their ability to meet the significant challenges they face.
The participation of political and social actors has contributed to this resilience and to the capacity of institutions to cushion conflicts – although often in a far from ideal way -, as well as to democratic continuity itself, since, like the several studies show, the greater the amount of years of democracy, the lower the probability of institutional collapse.