miércoles, 26 de noviembre de 2008

Democracy and the downturn

The Latinobarómetro poll

Nov 13th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Latin Americans are standing up for their rights

FIVE years of strong economic growth have prompted a slow but fairly steady rise in support for democracy and its institutions among Latin Americans, although many remain frustrated by the way their political systems work in practice. Most see themselves as politically moderate, but they retain a yearning for strong leaders and expect the state to solve their problems. These are some of the findings from the latest Latinobarómetro poll taken in 18 countries across the region and published exclusively by The Economist. Because the poll has been taken regularly since 1995, it tracks changes in attitudes in the region.

This year’s poll was taken in September and early October. It therefore reflects the sharp increase in inflation in the region in the first half of this year, but not the full effect of the financial turbulence and deteriorating economic outlook that hit some Latin American countries in recent weeks. Nevertheless, it carries some sobering lessons for the region’s politicians.

The poll underlines the fact that a small majority of respondents are convinced democrats (see table 1 and chart 2). In 12 countries, support for democracy has risen since 2001, when the region last suffered an economic recession. But only in five countries is it higher than it was in 1996. This year democracy has received a particular boost in Paraguay, a country where authoritarian attitudes previously predominated. The shift follows the victory in a presidential election in April of Fernando Lugo, a leftish former bishop who ended more than half a century of rule by the Colorado Party. That echoes similar hopes of change aroused by newly elected leaders in the region in recent years.

Conversely, in Venezuela, support for democracy may have been boosted this year among opponents of President Hugo Chávez, after their victory in a referendum on constitutional change last December. In Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe’s success against the FARC guerrillas may be the reason for a similar democratic lift.

Uruguayans are by far the most satisfied with how their democracy works (see chart 3). Peruvians are particularly disgruntled. That is paradoxical: Peru’s economy has grown faster than that of any other of the region’s bigger countries both this year and last. Their discontent seems to reflect deep flaws in the political system. But even if slightly less than two-fifths of respondents across the region are satisfied with their democracies, that is a significant improvement on the 2001 figure.

The relative dissatisfaction owes much to the deep-rooted socioeconomic inequalities in Latin America. Across the region 70% of respondents agreed that governments favour the interests of the privileged few; around half say they would not mind a non-democratic government if it solved economic problems; a similar proportion say democracy has not reduced inequalities; and only 30% think there is equality before the law. These attitudes help to explain the popularity of Mr Chávez, an oil-rich strongman—more than a third of Venezuelan respondents say inequalities have diminished.

But most respondents are convinced that democracy is the only road to development—and 71% say they are personally happy. So why the grumbles? As democracy has come to stay in the region, “people are more conscious of their rights and their expectations are higher”, says Marta Lagos, Latinobarómetro’s director. She adds that the yearning for a strongman is more a cultural trait than a political preference—and that the same goes for a fondness for a paternalist state.

The poll shows that a large majority believe that pensions should be in state hands (see chart 5). In Argentina that number is 90%, which perhaps helps explain why President Cristina Fernández last month nationalised the private pension system. But at the same time 56% of respondents see a market economy as the road to development (up from 47% last year). And 32% declare themselves satisfied with privatised public services, up from 15% in 2004. Some 44% say they trust their banks, up from 29% in 2003. The church remains the most trusted institution in the region—but less so than it was. Trust in government and legislatures continues to edge up (see chart 4).

In six countries, including Mexico and Venezuela, crime and public safety are seen as the most important problem. In ten countries, economic concerns (unemployment, poverty and inflation) are still seen as paramount. In Brazil 19% cited health care as the biggest problem.

Despite the swing to the left in the region in recent years, most respondents to the poll consider themselves in the political centre (42% this year, up from 29% in 2003). Only 17% say they are on the left and 22% are on the right (even in Mr Chávez’s Venezuela those on the left and right are tied at 26%).

Despite the swing to the left in the region in recent years, most respondents to the poll consider themselves in the political centre (42% this year, up from 29% in 2003). Only 17% say they are on the left and 22% are on the right (even in Mr Chávez’s Venezuela those on the left and right are tied at 26%).

That provides hope for centre-right politicians in a round of presidential elections in the larger countries in the region in 2010-12. Those elections are likely to be held against a much less rosy economic backdrop than has prevailed for the past few years. The task facing Latin America’s politicians is to ensure that economic difficulties do not spill over into a weakening of support for democracy.


Latinobarómetro is a non-profit organisation based in Santiago, Chile, which has carried out regular surveys of opinions, attitudes and values in Latin America since 1995. The poll was taken by local opinion-research companies in 18 countries and involved 20,217 face-to-face interviews conducted between September 1st and October 11th 2008. The average margin of error is 3%. Further details from http://www.latinobarometro.org/

miércoles, 12 de noviembre de 2008

Hola, Luther

Nov 6th 2008
From The Economist print edition

A holiday that is a cultural milestone
ATIN AMERICAN countries have long celebrated a plethora of Roman Catholic public holidays, from Corpus Christi to St Peter and St Paul. But this year Chile set a regional precedent, declaring October 31st a public holiday in honour of “the evangelical and Protestant churches”. It marks the date in 1517 when Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, starting the Protestant Reformation. Only Slovenia and some German states take it as a holiday.

What makes the decision to celebrate the Reformation odder is that Chile is the only country in Latin America that still has a significant (Catholic) Christian Democrat party. Nevertheless, the new holiday was approved by a unanimous vote in Congress. The politicians seem to have spotted an opportunity.

In the latest census in 2002 in a once staunchly Catholic country, 15% of Chileans said they were “evangelicals” (a synonym in Latin America for Protestants). State schools now offer a choice of Catholic and evangelical religious teaching, and the armed forces have chaplains from both denominations.

Chile is not alone. More than 15% of Brazilians and over 20% of Guatemalans are now evangelicals. Most Latin American Protestants are Pentecostals, stressing direct experience of God. Pentecostal churches continue to multiply in poorer areas of Santiago, as they do across the region. A former Catholic bishop and liberation theologian was elected as Paraguay’s president this year. But the embrace of Protestantism by Latin America’s socially aspirational poor looks like an inexorable trend. Five centuries after the region’s forced conversion to Catholicism, Chile’s new holiday is a cultural milestone.

It comes at a price. Chile may have a reputation as boringly hard-working, but now has 16 public holidays a year (plus the “bridge” days that Chileans tack on when a holiday falls near a weekend). A workday’s production is worth some $735m in lost output. So the government wants quietly to drop two of three holidays dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

sábado, 1 de noviembre de 2008

The writing on the wall

Oct 30th 2008 | SANTIAGO
From The Economist print edition

And it points to the right

MUCH as some of them tried to claim the result was a victory of sorts, the dejected faces of the leaders of Chile’s governing centre-left Concertación coalition on the night of October 26th told a different story. In that day’s municipal elections, Alliance, the centre-right opposition, won 41% of the vote for mayors, two percentage points more than the Concertación but enough to win eight of the 14 regional capitals. It was the first-ever defeat in a nationwide election for the Concertación, which has ruled Chile ever since the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. Jubilant Alliance leaders reckon that the result paves the way for them to win the presidency in an election in December next year—and to counter South America’s recent drift to the left.

The victory was not clear-cut. Confusingly, municipal councillors are elected separately. In that ballot the Concertación, which includes the Socialist and Christian Democrat parties, won 45% of the total vote to 36% for the Alliance. But more people (some 10% more) voted for mayors than for councillors. The overall result confirmed opinion polls that make Sebastián Piñera, a wealthy businessman and the Alliance’s putative candidate, the front-runner for the presidency.

A dress rehearsal for the presidency

Voters punished the Concertación because it is tired, increasingly ineffective and fractious. It has presided over the consolidation of Chile’s democracy, almost two decades of economic growth and stability, and much social progress. But under Michelle Bachelet, the president since 2006, it has run out of steam. It has failed to promote new, younger leaders. A spate of corruption scandals, though mostly minor, has left even some Concertación supporters wondering whether 20 years in office might not be enough. Chile’s economy may be stronger than that of many of its neighbours, but it no longer grows at Asian rates, and inflation has spiked this year. A botched attempt to modernise public transport in Santiago, the capital, smacked of incompetence.

But if voters are tiring of the Concertación, opinion polls suggest they are not thrilled by the Alliance. The voting system, bequeathed by General Pinochet, divides the country into two-member constituencies, thus cementing a two-coalition system and punishing third parties. This has produced political stability but is widely blamed for apathy. Nevertheless, in the municipal election a new force formed mainly by defectors from the Christian Democrats won 7.6% of the vote, while a far-left coalition got 9.1%.

Ms Bachelet this week called on the Concertación to show “unity, unity and more unity”. She also called for an electoral pact with the far left—which would push Christian Democrat voters towards Mr Piñera. She has presided over unprecedented infighting among the Concertación’s four parties. Since presidents cannot serve consecutive terms, the coalition must now try to unite behind a successor to Ms Bachelet, decide how to choose one and agree a programme. There are three strong contenders: Ricardo Lagos, a former president, is Chile’s most popular politician; the stolid Eduardo Frei, another ex-president, might appeal to the centre; José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, has said that he would stand only if the Concertación fields a single candidate.

Chileans have not elected a government of the right for half a century. Mr Piñera’s victory is not assured. But Alliance has taken the first step. As the economy slows along with the world’s, the government will start to spend some of the windfall copper revenues it has saved. But many of the mayors implementing job-creation schemes will now be from the opposition, and they will doubtless claim the credit for them. No wonder the Concertación looked so glum on election night.