Societal Accountability in Latin America
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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 147-158



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Societal Accountability in Latin America

Catalina Smulovitz and Enrique Peruzzotti


In Argentina, the unsolved murder of a teenager triggered social protests that eventually led to the trial and indictment of her assailants and the resignation of a provincial governor. In Brazil, press reports of governmental corruption and public demands for due process led to the 1992 impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. In Colombia, the introduction of a constitutional mechanism for the protection of fundamental rights resulted in more than 200,000 legal actions, including indictments for malfeasance in office and for violations of due process. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Alianza Cívica in Mexico and Poder Ciudadano in Argentina organized campaigns to monitor elections and the financial assets of elective officials. These cases show new ways in which citizens are exercising control of government in many of Latin America's democracies.

Citizen action aimed at overseeing political authorities is becoming a fact of life and is redefining the traditional concept of the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. The emergence of rights-oriented discourse and politics, media exposés of government scandals, and social movements organized around demands for due process are only some of the examples of this new politics of societal accountability. We contend that the nature of the new democratic regimes and the scope of citizens' rights are being shaped by this set of conflicts and struggles. [End Page 147]

In spite of the scope of these phenomena, recent evaluations of the institutional performance of Latin American democracies have belittled the significance of societal mechanisms of accountability. Current debates on the nature of these regimes tend to view the weakness of traditional mechanisms of accountability as their defining characteristic. The unconstrained behavior (discrecionalismo) of many elected presidents, the politicization of the judiciary, and widespread corruption in public administration are frequently cited as evidence of such weakness. There is no doubt that these are powerful indicators of the institutional deficits currently confronted by Latin American democracies. Yet by focusing on traditional mechanisms of accountability--elections, the separation of powers, and the existence of a system of checks and balances among the various branches of government--this analysis ignores the growth of alternative forms of political control that rely on citizen action and civil-society organizations.

Democracy, Accountability, and Civil Society

According to Guillermo O'Donnell, accountability has two dimensions: horizontal and vertical. 1 The horizontal dimension is largely concerned with the effective operation of the system of checks and balances and with due process in governmental decision making. The vertical dimension focuses instead on elections and other mechanisms that citizens use to control their government. 2 There is widespread consensus in most scholarly literature on Latin American democracies that governmental accountability in both dimensions is sadly lacking.

The literature on "delegative" or "illiberal" democracies has called attention to the weaknesses of horizontal mechanisms of accountability in Latin America. 3 Although power is divided, the judicial and legislative branches are not considered fully legitimate mechanisms for controlling or limiting the actions of a delegative executive; instead, they are perceived as obstacles that hinder governmental effectiveness and undermine the will of the majority. This results in presidential discrecionalismo, which openly erodes a central feature of horizontal accountability: the existence of effective governmental checks and balances.

Other authors have observed that even where electoral mechanisms are in place and functioning (insofar as free and fair elections regularly take place), vertical mechanisms of accountability show signs of being ineffective. Policy switches, and thus an incongruity between a candidate's electoral mandate and his subsequent governmental policies, are a common phenomenon in contemporary Latin America. 4 Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Carlos Menem in Argentina, and Carlos Andrés Perez in Venezuela are all examples of elected presidents who abruptly abandoned [End Page 148] their electoral promises, switching to a radically different set of policies once the election was over. If presidential authority cannot be tied to campaign promises or platforms, then the ground for electoral accountability disappears. Without a specific mandate from the...


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