Attendees at a Latin American conference on the role electoral bodies play in promoting effective political participation of women. UNDP Guatemala/ Fernanda Zelada Rosal

 

Abner is a young Guatemalan of about 23 years of age. He was born in Guatemala City, but as a child, his parents emigrated to the United States. At 19, he decided to return to his country and works as a private transport driver. He has a reasonable quality of life. In the United States he had the opportunity to study and upon returning to his country he has been able to participate in the digital economy. He has a smartphone and bought a car that allows him to have an income. However, he feels little optimistism; corruption overwhelms him, he feels afflicted by citizen insecurity and expresses deep dissatisfaction with his country's politics. In short, he has the same feelings as 84 million Latin Americans who have decided not to participate in electoral processes in the last twelve months.

From June 2018 to July 2019, presidential elections have been held in six countries--Panama, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil. About 286 million Latin Americans were called to vote. Of these, about 201 million went to the polls in first round elections. That is, one in every three voters for various reasons, had the opportunity to participate in democratic elections, but decided not to do so.

 

 

September 15 is International Democracy Day. Although democracy is clearly more than elections, the previous reflection is a reminder of the challenges and opportunities we have in the region where a significant proportion of citizens seems to have stopped seeing democracy as the means to improve their quality of life. However, when citizens vote in elections, they do so with the expectation that their candidate will improve some aspect of their lives. When people demand public services and administrative processes they do so with the expectation that the public sector can support them in improving their living conditions; but profound transformations of public institutions are necessary to respond to these demands. When people feel insecure and threatened, it is the public sector that has the central responsibility to provide opportunities and means for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the provision of security and protection.

This historical trend of low electoral democratic participation has resulted in a perception of lack of progress and a lack of opportunities. If we consider that the inequality of access and opportunities, as well as the functioning of democracy,  represent the main challenges of the region, how do we configure a social contract that allows us to guarantee peaceful coexistence, build trust and promote meaningful participation of all actors in society?

We are at a critical moment to rethink the way we look and understand democratic governance. We must understand it in its principles, which we must defend, but we must also see governance as a generation of opportunities. We cannot solve the new challenges of democracy, with the same thinking we used when they were established. Today we have more information, but not necessarily more knowledge. People are more digitally connected, but not necessarily closer or tolerant of differences.

Technological advances and access to information pose the challenge of rethinking the development challenges of the region in three dimensions: productivity, equity and resilience on the basis of effective governance. But what does this effective governance mean for a citizen like Abner in Guatemala? It means thinking and supporting democratic governance processes that allow the (i) generation of opportunities for socio-economic development and meaningful participation; (ii) opportunities for institutional transformations and greater efficiency in the response to citizen demands; and (iii) better opportunities for peaceful coexistence and citizen security.

With opportunities, people can build their own destiny and collaborate with others. It is not about creating passive objects or beneficiaries of development programs, but development subjects. As economist Amartya Sen recalls, democracy must be seen as creator of a set of opportunities and their use refers to the practice of democracy and political rights. In the end; “democracy does not serve as an automatic remedy of ailments as quinine works to remedy malaria. The opportunity it opens up has to be positively grabbed in order to achieve the desired effect.”

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