THE flurry of elections coming up in Latin America will not only choose new leaders. It will also provide a check-up on the health of democracy itself, which in most countries on the continent has been in place for only a few decades. Latin Americans appear to be losing some of their enthusiasm for it. In the latest edition of the region-wide survey conducted annually by Latinobarómetro, a pollster based in Chile, the share of respondents saying democracy is the best form of government hit its lowest level in a decade, at 53% (in 2010 it was 61%). The proportion saying they had no preference for democracy over other systems reached an all-time high of 25%, up from 16% in 2010.
How worrying is this for Latin American democracy? One indicator will be voter turnout. Participation is only a rough proxy for political vibrancy. Some citizens might stay home because they are satisfied with their government and confident that its policies will continue. Others might vote because they expect that a clientelistic government will reward its backers.
Nonetheless, there is a rough consensus among political scientists that healthy democracies and high turnout often go hand in hand. When turnout is high, politicians seeking re-election need to address more people’s concerns. This is particularly pressing in Latin America, where the poor and uneducated are least likely to cast ballots. Governments in low-turnout countries may be less responsive to their neediest citizens. Moreover, Latin American states with high voter participation have also tended to score highly on other measures of democratic fitness, such as civil rights and regular alternation of power.
Overall, Latin America has performed reasonably well on turnout. Excluding blank or spoiled votes, the regional figure in presidential elections has held steady at just over two-thirds throughout the past two decades, close to the global average for established democracies. (Latinobarómetro’s respondents began to express record levels of indifference to democracy only last year, making it too early to tell whether this trend foreshadows declining participation.) However, this stability masks wide variations. Since 1995, countries in the southern half of South America have boasted turnout rates in the mid-70s, with Uruguay leading the way at 87%. Colombia has managed just 43% (see chart).
To determine whether the worrisome polling trends portend an epidemic of electoral apathy, The Economist has built a model that aims to explain why Latin American turnout rates differ. The biggest determinants are rules and the type of election. Turnout is 12 percentage points lower in non-presidential ballots. In countries where voting is mandatory, it is 11 points higher than where it is not.
The next-most-persistent pattern is that electorates vote more when they feel their democracies are working well. Conversely, they express displeasure by staying home or spoiling their ballots, rather than by flocking to the polls. Countries where people express the most support for democracy, and particularly where they trust political parties—which have get-out-the-vote operations—lead the regional league table.
These variables can account for change over time within countries, too. For example, after a shambolic decade in which none of the three men elected as president of Ecuador finished his term, just 57% of those eligible cast valid votes in 2006. But Rafael Correa, a left-wing populist elected that year, served two terms. He was no paragon of democratic virtue, but during his rule Ecuadoreans’ trust in parties rose from one of the region’s lowest levels to one of its highest. Sure enough, turnout surged to 74% in the elections of 2013 and 2017.
Latin Americans’ electoral behaviour in recent decades also supports the “resource model” of turnout. This treats voting as a kind of luxury item, available mainly to those with the time, money, schooling, security and information to take part in politics. Turnout tends to be high in places where crime is rare and levels of education and computer ownership are high. In contrast, overall wealth and employment rates provide little information about participation: Bolivia, for example, is a poor country where turnout has exceeded 80% since the first election won by Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.
However, countries do tend to enjoy unusually high participation relative to their long-run averages during years when survey respondents say their own incomes are sufficient for their needs, but that the country’s economy as a whole is doing poorly. People directly affected by a recession may be too busy trying to make ends meet to bother voting in protest.
Concern over declining turnout is greatest in Chile, seen as one of Latin America’s healthiest democracies. After three presidential first rounds in which participation exceeded 85%, it fell to 48% in 2013. The abolition of mandatory voting in 2012 explains only part of the drop. Based on Chile’s historical turnout record and the Latinobarómetro survey, our model expects participation to rebound partway in this month’s election, to 58% (though factors we did not include might have depressed turnout in 2013 and could do so again). Any figure over 50% would elicit sighs of relief.
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