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Civil Society and Electoral Accountability in Latin America by Sharon F. Lean (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 589-590 | 10.1353/tam.2014.0031

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Reviewed by
Civil Society and Electoral Accountability in Latin America. By Sharon F. Lean. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. Pp. xiv, 197. Notes. References. Index. $85.00 cloth.

Lean’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on Latin America civil society and its connection to democratic development. Several gaps in the literature are filled in this compact volume. The first is the focus on domestic organizations in promoting cleaner and freer elections in Latin America. Traditionally, studies of electoral monitoring have focused on international actors, such as the Carter Center at Emory University, the UN Elections Assistance Division, and the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, a subsidiary of the National Endowment for Democracy. So the emphasis on local groups such as Civitas in Chile, Transparencia in Peru, and Alianza Cívica in Mexico is welcome. The activism, indeed the very emergence, of these groups powerfully challenges the prevailing optics about electoral monitoring. Even seasoned observers of Latin American politics can be forgiven for assuming, as I did prior to reading this book, that electoral monitoring in Latin America entailed almost exclusively the presence of foreign groups observing domestic elections.

Moreover, by tying civic associations devoted to promoting cleaner elections to discussions about civil society, the book advances a more direct theoretical connection between civil society and the process of democratization. Civil society’s role in democratization will forever be mired in ambiguity and confusion, but few will question that local groups seeking to improve elections are part of civil society and that their endeavors have resulted in advancing the process of consolidating democracy. Domestic election monitoring groups fit not only the classic Tocquevillian view of civil society as a training school for democracy, but also the more recent interpretations of the role of civil society in advancing democracy, which emphasizes a more overtly political role for the organizations of civil society in enhancing democratic processes.

More important perhaps is the contribution of the book to solving the interesting puzzle of the emergence of truly contested and virtually corruption-free elections in [End Page 589] most of Latin America during the last three decades. This is no small feat for a region once definitive of corrupt and irregular elections. Curiously enough, the rise of clean elections in Latin America has played out against the backdrop of increasing irregularities in the American electoral system, most notably during the many irregularities that marred the 2000 election, especially in Florida. All of this should lead one to question how much legitimacy the United States has in advising Latin American countries on how to run free elections, and whether the former is now in need of foreign monitoring of its elections.

The empirical evidence provided by the book, especially the Mexican analysis, which highlights how civic groups have effectively advanced “electoral” accountability, makes it apparent that civil society is an important piece of the puzzle that is the rise of free and clean elections in Latin America. But how big a role civil society can claim remains unclear. Cases not examined in the study, like those of Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, suggest a broader set of factors that complete the picture, including political parties that champion electoral reform and a strengthened judiciary.

Omar G. Encarnación
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York