As I indicated last week, one of the concerns raised about the expansion and consolidation of democracy around the world is related to what authors Irfan Nooruddin and Thomas Edward Flores in Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century, referred to as the flat-lining and often back sliding of democracies, especially in relation to late comers in Europe and the former Soviet Union, Africa and Asia. This can be compared to the quite impressive progress in democratic expansion in Latin America.
I was, of course, naturally alerted to this, as English-speaking Caribbean countries pride themselves on having achieved and maintained democracy especially since the advent of universal adult suffrage and in the context of the challenges posed to state viability in a post-colonial period. We are therefore immensely proud that since independence no state has failed. Only in one, namely Grenada, where brother turned against brother, was an elected government removed from office, and in another, namely Trinidad and Tobago, there was a confrontation between the state and a movement and group in 1970 and 1990, respectively. We do have a proud and enviable history. So what has Latin America done that we have failed to achieve in the Caribbean?
Francis Fukuyama, some ten years ago, pointed out that judicial systems in some parts of the sub-continent remain politicized, corrupt and often overwhelmed by narco-traffickers. Latin American countries have clearly had to deal with the judiciary and what is perceived as declining confidence in the rule of law, vivid poverty and the continued electoral and other forms of violence which, thankfully, we have been spared. But in so many other important ways Latin America seems to have far outstretched the imagination of our Caribbean political directorate. And we do not have to trade off democratic gains in exchange for social and economic progress. I have often argued that the second generation reforms that so many states have embraced have, for some unfathomable reason, been ignored by the Caribbean political directorate.
These second generation reforms include but are not limited to campaign and political party finance regulation. Such reforms have expanded equity and transparency in the decision-making process. Much of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of the seeming role that organized crime played in political finance across Latin America.
Secondly, we have also remained wedded to the institutions of Westminster which cannot always treat the issues that we confront. It is nowhere more apparent than in our refusal to consider a decoupling of our political model from the electoral system even when that system has imposed severe governance challenges for the Caribbean state. Beyond the issues typically associated with that particular electoral system, we know that it has not treated women in an equitable manner. And of course it is recognized that there are other institutions of a patriarchal nature that preclude or limit the gender parity that is so desirable.
But Latin America has made considerable advances in gender parity as I recently argued. Much of this is related to the introduction of a quota system which has transformed the terrain of the national parliaments. In combination with regulations on gender sensitive campaign finance reform, Latin American countries are doing exceptionally well on the global gender parity index.
One of the most manifest indicators of the mileage between the CARICOM region and Latin America is the independence of the Elections Commission. I read a number of online reports detailing the investigations of Mexico’s federal elections commission for instance. Impressive was the genuine independence of the commission and its ability to act decisively on elections related matters. Indeed, in a show of both its investigative prowess and independence, in July 2018, the party of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Morena Party) was fined $10m (£7.7m) for breaking campaign finance laws. According to a July 18, 2018 BBC report, the matter revolved around a trust which one of the opposition parties charged had been abused by the Morena Party for election purposes. The trust was created by the party for victims of a September 2017 earthquake.
In this region, almost every election is associated with allegations of vote buying and the apparent reluctance to deal with its pernicious impact. On the other hand, campaign finance regulations in Mexico, among other things, ban political parties from engaging in vote buying as donations from private companies are strictly regulated. The BBC report noted that Morena’s main rivals, the PRI and the National Action Party (PAN), were also fined for election related infractions in 2018, although their fines were not as high. Testimony to the effectiveness of the commission is the fact that within mere weeks of the elections, not only was the Morena Party slapped with one of the toughest financial penalties but two other parties were also faced with financial penalties. According to these online reports, the PRI was fined for allegedly funnelling state money earmarked for workers’ salaries into their campaign fund and PAN for accepting funds from private companies which is also strictly proscribed.
Following the corruption scandal in Brazil in 2015-2016, a businessman linked to the Odebrecht construction group of companies testified that the company had channelled millions of dollars to President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It is reported by online newspapers that the investigation promised by the country’s Attorney General is ongoing.
In contrast, it has been nearly six months since elections were held in Barbados and we have been privileged to have the required reports submitted by candidates and published by the commission. Nothing further has been heard. Was the commission able to verify the veracity of the reports? Did election officials find these reports to be truthful and if not, what are the penalties? But we know that this is insufficient as the funds are really spent by the political parties for which there is no such requirement.
A quick search of online sources would reveal that there are other interesting aspects of Mexico’s finance regulation. In a 2014 reform for instance, the electoral tribunal was empowered to annul the results of an election if the winner was found to have spent beyond the limits. Election-based sanctions are now added to the existing administrative, financial and criminal sanctions at the disposal of the election bodies.
Evidently, beyond the quota system and setting ceilings for donations and prohibiting anonymous donations, donations from foreign governments and companies, there are serious and ongoing efforts to transform the political landscape in the countries and Latin American party politics is improved to the point where there are mechanisms of fair, transparent and free “rules of the game” guiding competition among the various parties. Institutional engineering has modified the term of office of presidents, thus avoiding the tendency towards the “sit tight” leader, voting age has been lowered, and greater power sharing between the central and state governments are among the primary reforms. These and others have qualified Latin America – relatively late comers to democracy given the history of militarism – as the global success story of democratisation, despite some obvious problems.
Apart from Jamaica where political party and elections campaigns are now subjected to greater regulations given the reforms of 2015, the English-speaking Caribbean would do well to emulate some of Latin America’s best practices.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)