Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Politics and legitimacy in Latin America: Some worrying findings

By Carlos Fortin

I was recently involved in the launch in Chile of the latest study on democracy in Latin America. The report, by the United Nations Development Programme, is entitled 'The State of Citizenship' 1.
It focuses on the notion of social citizenship, defined in terms of effective access to the rights contained in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These include the right of an individual to: 
  • work in just and favourable conditions and to unionise
  • social security, including social insurance, with emphasis on the family, mothers and children
  • an adequate standard of living
  • the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
  • education
  • take part in cultural life and enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.

On those bases, the study develops an Index of Social Citizenship and applies it to the countries of the region to assess progress in social citizenship in the continent.
The conclusions are, on the whole, encouraging. The figures show that there has been:
  • a broadening of the coverage of social protection policies
  • an increase in transfers targeted to poverty alleviation
  • the introduction of innovative forms of social protection for children, the aged and women as well as safety nets for important sections of the labour force
  • the establishment of public institutions and structures for a continuing dialogue with civil society.

There are, however, some worrying findings.

Two opposite trends seem to coexist in the attitudes of the citizenry vis-a-vis the political system. On the one hand, there is ‘a demand for more State’ -  for higher and better public expenditure - and for a more active presence of the public sector in the economy and society; this is coupled with a new activism on the part of civil society, NGOs and grass roots organisations, often through non-conventional forms of political participation.

On the other hand, there is a growing disenchantment with, and distrust of, traditional political institutions and structures.

Figures from a 2010 opinion poll substantiate this dichotomy. When asked whether they think the State can solve the problems of the country, 66.6 per cent of respondents answered it can solve all, most or many of the problems. Similarly, 74.3 per cent of those interviewed felt that the State has the means to solve the problems. However, the response was less positive when asked about levels of confidence in the political parties, legislature and the judiciary:
Latin America:  Do you have confidence in the following? (percentages)

The judiciary
Great confidence
Some confidence
Little confidence
No confidence
Source:  Latinobarometro 2010, available at

The UNDP study neatly summarises the situation saying: ‘we witness a return to the political together with an unresolved legitimacy crisis and a devaluing of politics’. Precisely, I am afraid, the kinds of conditions for the emergence of populist responses which may well endanger the gains in social citizenship.

1   Pinto, A. & Flisfisch, A. (eds)(2011) 'Transformaciones, Logros y Desafíos del Estado en América Latina en el Siglo' ( available in Spanish only), New York: United Nations Development Program

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