In Search of Democratic Governance in Central America: Political Parties Are Controlled by a Handful of People Who Profit from Running the Parties in a Patrimonial Style, and There Are Narrow Prospects for Economic Reforms. Why Has So Little Progress Been Made?

By Sojo, Carlos | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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In Search of Democratic Governance in Central America: Political Parties Are Controlled by a Handful of People Who Profit from Running the Parties in a Patrimonial Style, and There Are Narrow Prospects for Economic Reforms. Why Has So Little Progress Been Made?


Sojo, Carlos, Journal of International Affairs


Governance embodies the most interesting aspects of the conflicting and unrelenting relationship between rulers and people, between citizens and institutions. The subject became particularly relevant to Latin American societies when they began the transition from authoritarian government forms to open, polyarchic ones, albeit insufficiently democratic. Authoritarian governance has never been problematic in scientific or political terms. Its rules are clear. It feeds on fear and repression. Control is exerted by violence or the threat of it. In real life, of course, authoritarian rulers devised their own governing routines: sometimes they tried to compensate for repression with social services for its victims, giving the appearance of reform. But when democracies establish new norms, they have great difficulty redistributing political power and wealth in societies marked by unfulfilled needs and lacking in-depth fiscal, institutional and political leadership. For the opposition, matters become ungovernable when, faced with irresponsibility in public management, patience runs out.

Conceptual approaches try to reconcile these different interpretations by recognizing the many types of relationships between state and society that can emerge under newly-democratic conditions (e.g. when distribution conflicts are resolved by appealing to the majority rule and to the Constitution). (1) But a precondition for democratic governance is the existence of a state and a government that function according to pre-established norms in the first place. This is the first caution we should take when analyzing democracy in Central America. After more than a decade of peace and institutional agreements conducted through elections, observers see significant deficiencies in building and consolidating democratic states, as well as in exerting democratic governance. (2) To social scientists, this reveals fragile institutional norms and insufficient compliance with them, because the institutions have failed to anticipate the multiplicity of conflicts that may actually arise between state and society; and because factors that are external to the rules of the democratic game are affecting them. But how can this observation translate into and inform public action?

THE USEFULNESS OF THE IDEA OF GOVERNANCE: SPHERES OF ANALYSIS

Democratic governance implies respect for, and the functioning of, two basic principles: Decisions regarding distribution are adopted following known procedures; and the results of those deliberations are unknown from the start by the actors involved in the process. (3) In a governable democracy, conflicts can express themselves with enough frequency and intensity that they draw the attention of the state; the state then satisfies some needs while keeping others "temporarily" unsolved by promising to pay attention to them in the future. When a democracy is ungovernable, there is a "deficit" of satisfaction or a "surplus" of demands that cannot be institutionally channeled on a constant basis, leading to political crisis. The democratic process can also be a sham, opaque or unfair, with the outcome decided by policy makers before the process has even begun. So in analyzing the effectiveness of democratic regimes, it is important to look at the norms that govern institutions, the way policy makers reach decisions, and the nature those decisions usually take.

But two additional spheres outside of the relationship between state and society seem relevant to me. First, institutions operate under structural limits that can be quite stringent and suffer from constant modifications, especially in societies in precarious, limited development, where natural and macroeconomic catastrophes can become disasters for strictly social reasons. The limits indicate what type of demands can occur, how intense they call be, and when they can be advanced. We are not talking exclusively about economic limits, as stated by a conservative understanding of politics; we are also referring to normative limits as well, as established by a liberal approach where the norm breaks away from the original social interest, conditioning and guiding its future evolution.

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In Search of Democratic Governance in Central America: Political Parties Are Controlled by a Handful of People Who Profit from Running the Parties in a Patrimonial Style, and There Are Narrow Prospects for Economic Reforms. Why Has So Little Progress Been Made?
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