Democracy: From the Polls or the Populace?
by Laura Carlsen
June 27, 2003
Three years ago Mexico’s one-party system was finally cracked open by the election of Vicente Fox. Since then Mexico has rushed from euphoria to apathy in record time. The change from over seventy years of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule to a presidency led by a member of the National Action party (PAN) was heralded as the revitalization of the political party system and of government itself. Many leaders of grassroots organizations and citizen movements looked forward to a new era of participation, openness, and transition. Now the speed with which those hopes were dashed is commensurate to the snail’s pace of real change.
Latin American countries have long been encouraged to emulate U.S. representative democracy, channeling ebullient social movements into party-building and electoral processes. Since the 70s, most opposition movements have taken the plunge into party politics--with varying degrees of success.
Now, throughout the hemisphere, the relationship between grassroots mobilization and electoral participation has come under the lens of political analysts and activists alike. In Brazil, a government born out of an opposition movement walks a tightrope between its grassroots constituency and its obligations to maintain stability and appease the international finance system. In Bolivia, coca-leader Evo Morales’ close bid for the presidency has strengthened the resolve of the movement to continue participating in local and national elections.
On the other hand, the members of the powerful Ecuadorian social movement that brought Lucio Gutierrez to power--led by the CONAIE--have called the president to task for what they consider a betrayal of the popular mandate and have begun to question their participation in party politics and government. Mexico appears to have been so successful in creating a U.S.-style tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum party system that the electorate has lost interest in the multimillion-dollar midterm campaigns. A recent study by the Federal Electoral Institute concludes that recent high abstention rates reflect discontent with political parties and a sense that, according to a quote from a citizen survey, “the vote doesn’t contribute at all to changing things.”
U.S. society is also reevaluating the role of elections in democracy, but in strangely contradictory ways. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently launched an attack on nongovernmental organizations, warning of the “growing power of the unelected few.” By attacking citizen groups that seek to inform policymaking as “unelected,” the implicit assertion is that voting is no longer a form of democratic participation, but the sole legitimate exercise of democracy. The second implication--that NGOs have no valid role to play in policymaking or governance--is, as many have pointed out, ironic since the AEI is an NGO and plays an unprecedented role within the Bush administration. As if that weren’t enough, the Bush administration itself holds office in violation of the popular vote that the AEI now claims is the be-all and end-all of political action.
While criticizing these views, progressive organizations have also begun to look seriously at returning to the electoral arena. This week, MoveOn.org--the million-and-a-half member internet group that catalyzed anti-war actions across the country--is sponsoring a political primary, a year and a half before the presidential elections. Other grassroots organizations that have avoided electoral politics like the plague are suddenly talking about participating due to what they perceive as the urgency of unseating the conservative coup. This infusion of activism in electoral politics could reduce the traditionally high abstention rates in U.S. elections, which in itself would be a triumph for the democratic system. What remains to be seen is whether the doddering Democratic Party will respond to pressure from a revitalized base or continue to cater to entrenched interest groups.
What all these experiences go to show is that in equations for social change, going to the polls is just one variable. Real democracy depends on a keen interplay between electoral participation and grassroots movements. High abstention in Mexico’s July 6th elections would be a wake-up call not only for that country’s major political parties, but also for parties throughout the hemisphere. If political parties--in the United States and Latin America--insist on distilling complex demands for change into a media-centered battle for the vote, they may soon be writing their own epitaphs.
Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program (online at www.americaspolicy.org) of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at www.irc-online.org). She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.