Debate on Democracy, contributions from Central America

Posted: April 28, 2021 in youth in Honduras

Debate on Democracy, contributions from Central America

Written by Ismael Moreno – 27 April 2021

Formal government and real government

It sounds like a play on words. But these are our realities. One thing is the government with its three branches of government, and another is how the country is governed and who really governs the country, far beyond the formalities of the branches of government. The rule of law that governs our democracy tells us that what is “sovereign”, i.e. the people, who rule, do so not through specific individuals who impose their decisions, but through laws.

No person is superior to the law, while establishing that the government is formally elected through electoral processes. Every four, five or six years, depending on the country, citizens are called upon to elect by secret ballot the authorities who decide to run for elected office. However, from words to the reality, there is a deep gap, and it has a name and a surname: those who decide and control the instruments and institutions of what we call democracy are a small elite, based on a patrimonial political culture, the matrix of the caudillos and all those personalist and arbitrary practices that prevent the richness of democratic institutions and the rule of law from flourishing.

Elections: an essential feature of the rule of law

In keeping with the formality of democracy, elections of public authorities are an essential feature of the rule of law. In our Central American countries, there are democratic elections of public authorities within the framework of the rule of law. However, since these elections are controlled by small groups, and since the political parties are owned by these top elites, which in turn reverses the intent of democracy.  The right of the citizenry to freely elect their authorities is violated, and the very foundations of the rule of law are undermined. Many of the institutional reforms that have been promoted over the last 25 years – following the end of the Central American internecine wars – have had more to do with international pressure on the politicians and officials of our countries than with the need felt by Central Americans themselves to respond to the demands and challenges of the world that is being built in the twenty-first century.

However, many of the reforms for the consolidation of the rule of law have been adulterated or manipulated by the very authorities responsible for implementing them, precisely because the latter are subordinated to the political party system with strong anti-democratic tendencies, which in fact deny the democracy they claim to defend and represent. Because it is intrinsically anti-democratic, the political party system mutates as anti-democratic all those instruments aimed, paradoxically, at strengthening democracy. It is true that many efforts have been made to make the political system and legislation functional, and the international community has on many occasions even conditioned its cooperation in exchange for modernising state institutions. However, leaders and public authorities, in general, always retrace their steps: they end up believing, and they demonstrate through their actions, that by holding public office they are above others.

Who chooses who we elect to govern us?

Formally, candidates are chosen by their own parties in elections in which diverse internal currents juggle for dominance.  And who chooses the candidates within each of the internal currents?

No one who does not have the approval of the leader, with tacit recognition of ownership, or of the political party’s ownership team, could in any case be a candidate for elected office. Normally, the most important positions in government are not only endorsed by the main leaders or owners of the political parties, but also by high-ranking army officers, by the powerful leaders of private enterprise and by the American Embassy.

It is difficult for a citizen to become a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic without having passed through all these filters. The same can be said of the person appointed as Ombudsman, President of the Supreme Court of Justice, members of the Superior Court of Accounts or Attorney General of the Republic. Individuals or power groups channel their approval or veto of candidates for popular election through the mass media which they own and control.

There is yet another actor that is increasingly involved in the election of candidates to the most important positions in public administration. This is what is commonly referred to by the generic name of “Organised Crime”, led by drug traffickers. There are highly credible sources who maintain that the various organised crime mafias are at home in the various corridors of electoral politics and rooted in the financial portfolios of the most important economic groups in private enterprise.

When a candidate speaks with full confidence that he or she will occupy a high public office, his or her certainty does not come so much from popular support, but from the financial and political support that eventually comes from some of the mafias that circulate throughout the territory of our countries. If Organised Crime, which infiltrates arms trafficking, human trafficking, drug trafficking and kidnapping, transfers large amounts of money to political party leaders and political influencers, it is undoubtedly because politics has become a source of investment and laundering of their capital and, at the end of the day, a beachhead for exercising and extending their power and control over society.

Landscape of Central American democracy

When the people with good will and civic-mindedness go to cast their vote, the candidates have already been chosen by those who really make the most important decisions for the country without the need for elections. What are elections for then? The electoral process is an exercise that allows the population to feel the responsibility of electing their authorities and thus exercise one of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the Republic. However, with the tight control that the power groups exercise over the mechanisms of democracy, the popular vote ends up legitimising those same public authorities whose candidates have the backing and trust of the elite and power groups to administer the country’s resources, pass laws and apply them according to their own best interests.

Democracy and the Rule of Law move and are sustained by two governments: the government that is formally and legally elected by the vote of the population and, on the other hand, the government of the real power groups, the same government that appoints and endorses those who will be elected to the formal government. Between the two governments, the real one, the lasting one and the one that really decides and rules, is the one that functions above and beyond the political electoral cycle, uses democracy and all its mechanisms to legitimise its decisions, protect its interests and act, almost always, behind the backs of the common people.

Representative political democracy versus participatory and economic democracy

When democracy is reduced to representative political democracy, there is a risk, as is the case in several of our Central American countries, of legitimising certain dominant factional powers and the concentration of the public common wealth and resources. It is unthinkable to achieve political stability in a democracy as long as there persists an economic model based on the simultaneous uncontrolled production of a few super-millionaires and “Les Misérables” –the impoverished majority. This is the structural factor that destabilises democracy.

Today’s democracy, based on political parties, through which societies elect their governors and authorities, is only one expression of democracy. Representative political democracy is an expression of democracy, but it cannot and should not be reduced to it. Political parties are or could be agents of change, but have not always been such, nor can the struggle for social change rely on them alone.

Fundamental social and political transformation must unite the political struggle for access to government with the political struggle for the democratisation of the economy, society and culture. This is achieved if there are movements pushing from below. And this is not always accepted by the political parties, be they ideologically right-wing or left-wing. Political democracy without a transformation of the model of economic inequality will always be a half-democracy, a mediocre democracy or a false or feigned democracy. And some of this is what we have now in our representative democracy in several Central American countries.

Without the push from below by social movements that question representative political democracy, that demand and require the existence of representative democracy, the political parties will revert to their expertise in a democracy on the basis of shady deals among the power elites distanced from  the daily reality of the people.

In the case of some Central American countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, people go to the polls, confident that they are exercising their right to elect their authorities. But in the opinion polls carried out annually by research and university institutions of the Jesuits in El Salvador and Honduras (ie. Institute of Public Opinion of the UCA of San Salvador; ERIC-SJ, of Honduras), the people’s perspective is made very clear that all political parties are distanced from their needs, do not listen to their demands and their leaders negotiate among themselves the distribution of posts without taking into account the needs of society. The democratisation of society sets the task to  shorten this distance which is a challenge for political leaders and the construction of social movements born and inserted in the daily reality of the population with their own autonomy from political parties

The client mentality of the majority of the population is based on the primal struggle for survival. It is a decisive factor for the existence of a tacit pact between party political leaders and the people in a struggle for survival. According to polls conducted in El Salvador and Honduras, the level of social and political awareness in society is still so precarious that for over sixty percent of the population, it does not matter who is in government and who is in opposition.

It does not matter who it is or from where it comes who is to solve their problems, but whether that someone, in whatever way and by whatever method, actually solves their problems of food, security and employment. Whether it is an authoritarian, populist and dictatorial government that does so is a minor concern. This is undoubtedly the bitterest harvest of such a democracy with its parties and elections. It is a breeding ground for the strong to present themselves as democrats, even if they are characters with messianic or dictatorial pretensions, and this looms as a great danger in today’s Central America.

General challenges for the construction of democracy from the Church and the Jesuit  community

1) To help institutions to function beyond the arbitrary actions of individuals and political and economic groups. The weakness or absence of institutions weakens democracy and closes the doors to governance, while strengthening the traditional power groups and the hidden powers that operate in the underground corridors of illegality and the abuse of power.

2) To position itself in the task of strengthening the social movement by articulating the demands that emerge from territorial community organisations. The construction of participatory democracy is unthinkable without the construction of social, economic and cultural fabrics based on democratic experiences in the communities themselves.

3) Representative political democracy is an expression of democracy, but it cannot and should not be reduced to it. Political parties are or can be factors of change, but they are not always so, nor can the construction of social change rest on them alone. The Church must continue to encourage, with the words of Pope Francis and Saint Oscar Romero, that people organise themselves and that popular movements become actors that press for democracy and for a social and economic model that guarantees a just distribution of goods and wealth (cf. the Pope’s words to the popular movements gathered in Rome and Bolivia, and Saint Romero’s words to the popular organisations in El Salvador).

4) The fundamental social and political transformation must unite the political struggle for access to government with the political struggle for the democratisation of the economy and the democratisation of free speech and participation. This can be achieved if there are movements that push from below, as the Church encourages in its social dimension. And this is not always accepted. Political democracy without transformation of the model of economic inequality will always be at least a partial democracy, or a semblance of democracy. And a representative democracy without laying the foundations for the existence of grass roots groups that debate and deliberate on the major issues of society, runs the permanent risk of representing reduced elites and upper echelons , and presenting them as if they were what the majority think and want.

5) Without the push from below of social movements that can question arepresentative political democracy that demands and requires the existence of deliberative democracy and participatory democracy, the political parties will be able to continue to guarantee formal representative democracies, but they will not be able to guarantee that they are authentically democratic. The option for the poor, as the Church requires us, is the criterion for a commitment from below, because it is from this human reality that we can be most faithful to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

6) The construction of representative, deliberative and participatory democracy must be linked to the construction of a political culture of citizenship, which presupposes processes of “unlearning” from the patrimonialist and patriarchal political culture, and this is one of the greatest challenges for a Church and a Society of Jesus with a strong hierarchical and vertical tradition.

7) According to the Gospel, the word spoken must be attested by the witness of the one who proclaims it (cf. Mt 7:21-27). If we in the Church and the Society of Jesus are to speak of democracy and civic culture, we must do so with the witness of building inward processes that question the dominant patriarchal culture and the vertical structure that shapes our relationships. Only what we achieve in terms of democracy and civic culture within our structures will make our words credible and will make it possible for our proposals to have an impact on society. Because, at the end of the day, it is the testimony that accompanies the word that sows deep and lasting transformations..

 [Article originally published in Promotio Iustitiae

Ismael Moreno: Jesuit and human rights defender in Honduras. Director of Radio Progreso and Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC), a community human rights centre.

(translated with assistance from deepl by Phil Little)

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