Learning to Vote: Lessons from Latin America

We tend to think of coup d’états as military overthrows of civilian government, but that is only one variant of the destruction of constitutional government. The destruction of constitutional government by the legitimate authorities themselves has been a major threat to liberty for some time.

The thought comes to mind as I see Nicaragua heading to the fourth consecutive mandate of that country’s tyrant, Daniel Ortega, who has jailed most of his electoral opponents in the run-up to the November 7th presidential elections, as well as activists, journalists and business people, and unleashed unspeakable violence on anyone standing in his way.

He did not come to power by a classic coup d’état. He won a free election in 2006 in which he obtained 38 percent of the vote and therefore an outright victory in the first round (he needed 35 percent and a five-point margin over his immediate follower). He then started to erode the institutions of liberal democracy, becoming one of the modern times’ most repugnant dictators.

Hugo Chávez won a fair election in December of 1998, in which he obtained 56 percent of the vote. Today, his country has become one of Dante’s circles of hell. Six million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries in their struggle to survive.

This is not new. The more extreme cases of the 20th century are well known. Hitler’s Nazis won the parliamentary elections in 1932 that elevated him to Chancellor; the rest is history. Mussolini, who had been appointed head of government by Italy’s King in 1922 amid political chaos, subsequently won an election (1924) with 60 percent of the vote. Granted, he used the levers of power to intimidate voters and had the support of a coalition that included Catholics, liberals and conservatives, but by every indication, he commanded by then the support of most Italians. He subsequently used the democratic mandate to destroy his country.

Philosophers and historians have written about the degeneration of democracy since classical times. Aristotle thought that democracy turned into demagoguery, which is why he postulated republican government as a way to combine the virtues of different systems. One century and a half later, Polybius spoke of “ochlocracy” (similar to what in the 18th century began to be named “mob rule”) to expose the dangers of majoritarianism. The Roman republic gradually saw the emergence of autocrats willing to use the institutions that allowed them to govern or obtain important posts to concentrate excessive power, often with the approval of the masses. This is why the republic collapsed after five centuries and was replaced by an imperial government.

In many places of Europe, particularly in the central part of the continent that used to be under communist domination, democratic government has been exploited by authoritarians to undermine freedom. We have seen this among the members of the Visegrad group, for instance. In Spain, voters have given parties that represent the very negation of liberal values enough support to allow them to become members of the governing coalition.

If the republican institutions of the U.S. were less solid, one wonders where Trump’s distrust of constitutional restraints or the excesses of the populist left would have taken the United States by now. The erosion of pluralism and the free exchange of ideas in campuses across the U.S., and in mass media outlets, is a symptom of the fragile loyalty of important segments of the population to the values and practices of a free society.

Democracy is gradually becoming its own worse enemy in several parts of the world where institutions are unable to resist the assault of those in power. Voting is not enough. We need to vote for parties that offer the greater chance of preserving or expanding liberal values and institutions, and ensure that those who win do not have popular support in their efforts to turn their mandates into what Daniel Ortega has turned his.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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