What Americans can learn from Latin America

For the past two decades, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the promotion, strengthening, and protection of democracy has been a cornerstone of United States policy toward Latin America. Assuring the integrity and fairness of elections has been a key element of these democracy-building efforts.

In many countries, free and honest elections probably would not have been possible without US advice and support - for organizing and managing elections, bringing monitoring missions from abroad, and establishing trustworthy national electoral commissions.

There may even be some useful lessons for the US in the Latin American electoral experience. How, for example, might our southern neighbors deal with the imbroglio emerging from recent US presidential elections?

A runoff election would be the most common answer. In a close race, when no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, most Latin American countries require that the two top vote-getters face off in a second round, generally within a month or so after the initial balloting. Elections last year in Chile, Uruguay, and Guatemala were decided this way. Competing for his first term in 1990, President Alberto Fujimori of Peru won a runoff election after finishing second in the opening round.

Another response, similar to the US system, is to turn to congress for a decision. In Bolivia, when no candidate secures a majority, the parliament selects the winner. The country's last four elections have been resolved this way. In pre-Pinochet days, Chile also used this procedure to choose a president. That is how Salvador Allende was elected - despite covert US efforts to influence the Chilean congress to deny him victory.

Some Latin American countries have turned to independent electoral commissions. The best example is in Mexico, which has established a nonpartisan electoral board - the Federal Institute of Elections (IFE) - and given it exceptionally broad authority to set, monitor, and enforce electoral rules, and resolve disputes among candidates. IFE's task is not only to make certain the vote is free and fair, but also to convince a skeptical Mexican public - long accustomed to electoral chicanery - that safeguards are now in place and national elections are being conducted honestly.

IFE is in charge of designing the ballots for all of Mexico, and has developed powerful procedures to protect against fraud and technical failures. (In the past, Mexico had a different approach to resolving electoral problems. In 1988, when Carlos Salinas, the candidate of the ruling PRI party appeared to be falling behind in the vote, the computers doing the count suddenly broke down, and the next morning, the government declared Salinas the winner with just a bit more than 50 percent of the vote.)

In one case, new elections were called. Under considerable external pressure, the Dominican Republic's Balaguer government in 1994 agreed to hold another election within two years when international observers concluded that the initial vote count had been manipulated to deny Jose Franciso Pena Gomez the presidency and keep octogenarian Joaquin Balaguer in power.

This year in Peru, the member governments of the Organization of American States (OAS) decided not to demand a revote, even though an official OAS mission and several observer groups reported that President Fujimori's reelection was fraught with irregularities. Instead, the OAS limited its response to setting up a commission to promote democratic reforms in Peru while leaving Fujimori in power. Several scandals since then have forced his resignation, and new elections will be held next April in Peru.

While Latin America has made dramatic progress toward democracy and the rule of law over the past 20 years, democratic institutions remain weak in most countries of the region and are severely challenged in some. There is no question that democracy in the US is far stronger, more stable, and more deeply rooted. Still, there are things the US can learn from Latin America's experience, if we are willing to listen.

Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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