Legitimacy, contested elections, and democratic consolidation - Razón y Palabra

Razón y Palabra




Legitimacy, contested elections, and democratic consolidation: The contrasting cases of Mexico and Peru




Por Miguel Angel Lara Otaola


Fecha de publicación: 4 de febrero de 2012

1. Democratic Consolidation, Legitimacy and Elections: Towards an integrated model.

As I mentioned in my previous article “Democratic Consolidation as Legitimacy (second part)” (Lara Otaola, 2011: 1) Legitimacy is a necessary condition for reaching democratic consolidation, while other factors are useful for describing or maintaining it. Therefore, consolidated democracy ultimately depends on legitimacy and not on other variables such as the ‘following of rules and procedures’ (Linz and Stepan, 1996: 6). As a result, consolidation can take place not only by playing by the rules, but even by breaking them. This, in turn, depends on these rules, and on the system’s general degree of legitimacy. This legitimacy is determined by both the performance of the regime (its legality validity and the justifiability of the system) and by the expression of consent to it by actions (Beetham, 1991:120). When a regime is illegitimate according to these standards, sometimes it is necessary to break the rules of the game for advancing democracy. On the other hand, in more legitimate regimes, the respect of these rules is evidence of democratic consolidation. Elections play an important role here since they can open the door for either legitimizing or rejecting the regime. Therefore, in regimes weak in legitimacy, elections that would be routine procedures in stronger, more legitimate settings, can develop into crisis and give an opportunity for changing the regime.

Democratic consolidation is normally understood as the level beyond which democracy is sustainable and its ‘complex system of institutions, rules, and patterned incentives and disincentives becomes, in a phrase, ‘the only game in town’ (Linz and Stepan, 1996:15). For explaining this, however, many scholars focus either on the characteristics of consolidated democracy or on some of the factors that make democracy successful. The first set of explanations is good for describing how a consolidated democracy works while the second is important for avoiding an authoritarian regression or for improving democracy’s quality. However, both accounts overlook a basic aspect that needs to exist before we can start talking about checks and balances, type of rules, civicness or civil society. This is legitimacy.

Democracy needs to be legitimate in order to become consolidated. For that reason, in this view, consolidation is the acceptance of democracy as the only legitimate political system. Thus it can occur either before, at the same time or after the regime is institutionalized, there’s a democratic civic culture, etc. As a result, consolidation, or a move towards consolidation can both happen by either breaking or respecting the existing rules and procedures. This, in turn, depends on the legitimacy of these rules and procedures, and in general, on the overall legitimacy of the system.

Political systems require legitimation to be sustained and for this they must meet legitimacy’s three general conditions. However, these acquire certain particularities for specific types of political systems. As a result, democracies have to be measured with different standards than those used for authoritarian regimes. Therefore for democracies to be legitimate, these three conditions acquire specific characteristics. First, power should be exercised and obtained through established rules (Beetham, 1991: 121), which means that the rule of law must be observed. Second, the regime has to satisfy the normative expectations people have of it and its ‘institutions (should) embody accepted principles and their rules reflect established beliefs about the rightful source of political authority’ (Beetham, 1991: 127). In other words, there has to be congruence between the regime, its actors, laws and institutions and the ‘beliefs, values and expectations that provide its justification’ (Beetham, 1991: 11). Therefore, a regime that calls itself democratic has to act accordingly in order to satisfy this second condition. Thirdly, the subordinates in the power relation should express consent through actions to the powerful (Beetham, 1991: 118); in a democracy this is mainly done through voting in an election.

Elections go beyond the selection of public officials, exerting pressure on decision makers or expressing ideas and concerns on public issues. They allow a great number of people to participate, mobilize and vote, making it the most important form of participation. Because of this, elections are the participatory activity that can most seriously pose a challenge to a regime. Elections can either be routine procedures in more legitimate regimes or opportunities for changing the system in regimes that are weak in legitimacy. In regimes that call themselves a democracy but fall short of it in some respects, important political events – a contested election – that would be resolved by institutional procedures in more consolidated democracies, offer a window of opportunity for overturning the regime and coming closer to having a better democracy. Voting, as a symbolic act, is an expression of acceptance or denial, of trust or distrust of the political system, and as such, it is specifically relevant for challenging or reaffirming a regime’s legitimacy.

A perfect example of this are the 2000 Elections in Peru and the 2006 Elections in Mexico. In 2000 Peru held presidential elections in two rounds. This first round, won by incumbent Alberto Fujimori, was highly contested and questioned, leading to a challenged run off election. In particular, Alejandro Toledo, Fujimori’s close challenger for the second round, called on his supporters to boycott this election by spoiling their votes. Fujimori won as a result. This led Toledo to build up a movement that claimed there had been fraud, rejected the electoral results and wanted to prevent Fujimori from taking power. This movement proved successful and some weeks later, Fujimori had quit and new elections were scheduled. This was perceived as evidence of democratic improvement.

In Mexico’s 2006 presidential elections, Felipe Calderón, obtained a razor-thin victory over Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). This was a very close race and the elections were highly contested. AMLO built up a movement that claimed fraud on the elections, challenged their result and denounced Calderón as Mexico’s ‘illegitimate president’. However, this movement wasn’t successful and three months later, the protests stopped, the results were upheld and Calderon became Mexico’s president. In turn, this was perceived as evidence of democratic improvement.

Therefore, in one case –Mexico- the rules of the game were upheld (electoral results were respected) and this was perceived as evidence of democratic consolidation, while in another –Peru- it was in fact the changing of these rules (disregard of electoral results) that was perceived as an evidence of democratic consolidation. This 3 part essay suggests that both actions, although completely opposite, are evidence of democratic consolidation.  In particular, it advances the hypothesis that since legitimacy is a necessary condition for reaching democratic consolidation, then consolidation, or a move towards it, can happen either by breaking or respecting the existing rules in a regime.

As I mentioned before, a move towards democratic consolidation can take place not only by playing by the rules, but even by breaking them. When a regime is illegitimate according to the three sources of legitimacy outlined by Beetham (legal validity, justifiability of the system and expression of consent by actions) –and specifically when a regime claims it is democratic when it is really not- sometimes it is necessary to break the rules of the game for advancing democracy. In short, when a regime is illegitimate in democratic terms, sometimes it is necessary to break or change the rules of the game for advancing democracy. However, if a regime is legitimate then the respect of these rules is evidence of democratic consolidation. In this process, elections (and more specifically, contested elections), mere routine procedures in legitimate regimes, can develop into full legitimacy crisis in regimes weak in legitimacy since they provide a window of opportunity for regime change.


2. Legitimacy, contested elections, and democratic consolidation: The contrasting cases of Mexico and Peru

Mexico and Peru

The Peruvian regime, specifically under Fujimori, wasn’t legitimate. Peru had problems since its ‘see-saw politics’ period and its troubled democratic era. These, in turn were aggravated under Fujimori’s increasingly arbitrary regime. The intermittent interventions of the military in civilian life made Peru unstable, hampered the institutionalization of the regime, and turned the army into a key player, factors which lowered the quality of democracy in the country. Then, the return to democracy was marked by many problems (corruption, rise of Sendero Luminoso, etc) which led to a further weakening of the country and its democracy. Then, under Fujimori, the regime completely failed to meet the conditions to be legitimate. First of all, the regime had no legal validity. Although Fujimori obtained power through established rules, his exercise of it didn’t observe constitutional legality. The closing down of Congress in 1992, the ‘La Cantuta’ case, the corruption surrounding his close family and the manipulation of other institutions to favour his regime are evidence of this. In second place, the regime’s laws were not justifiable. In other words, there was no congruence between the regime and the standards it was supposed to have; the regime called itself democratic but didn’t act accordingly. Fujimori’s two terms were increasingly authoritarian. ‘Fujimontesinismo’[1] captured most of the state’s institutions. By 2000, Fujimori, Montesinos and the network around them controlled almost absolutely the Congress, the Judiciary, the Constitutional Tribunal, the JNE and the ONPE (González, 2006:189). Furthermore, under Fujimori elections were neither free nor fair, checks and balances almost disappeared and the media virtually became a mouthpiece for the regime. Finally, the ‘vladivideos’[2] were the last nail in the coffin; they ‘tore aside the veil to let people peep into the rotten world of corruption inside’ (García, 2001:47) In sum, under this regime, and as assessed by these two conditions, power was not legitimate; rules were breached and there was dissonance between those rules and its supporting beliefs.

On the contrary, the Mexican regime was legitimate. Mexico had some advantages due to its institutionalized and stable transition to democracy. Mexico’s steady ‘transformismo’ took place under conditions of stability, government continuity, civilian rule, increasing spaces of participation for the opposition and peaceful and negotiated institutional change. All these were conditions that had a positive impact on Mexico’s democracy. Then, after 2000, the regime met legitimacy’s necessary conditions. Firstly, under Fox, power was acquired and exercised according to the law. Mexico’s government is now characterized by a separation of powers and increasing checks and balances: with the PRI’s defeat, the executive, legislative and judiciary stopped being controlled by the President. In second place, the regime’s characteristics were in conformity with its values: Mexico not only called itself a democracy, it was also one. Due to the PRI’s demise and the history of the transition and the characteristics of the regime, Mexico consolidated as an electoral democracy with increasing liberal democratic features. Elections were held regularly and were free, fair and inclusive (Lawson, 2004:139). Furthermore, Mexico also became a country with respect and protection of civil and political freedoms and a strong and active civil society. In sum, this regime was legitimate; it acted legally and its laws and actions conformed to the principles and standards underpinning the regime.

Elections, or the expression of consent

Elections, in a democracy, are legitimacy’s necessary third condition and are a very important part of this process. They constitute a first step for expressing consent to the regime, and thus become the most visible evidence of a regime’s legitimacy or lack thereof. In Peru, the first round of the 2000 elections was neither free nor fair. The regime used all its power to favour Fujimori’s candidacy: it used the media, it controlled the electoral institutions and used state resources and personnel in his favour. As a result, the electoral process and its results were challenged and the second round of elections was questioned even before it took place. Alejandro Toledo decided to boycott the election and told the Peruvian people to spoil their votes. The people did this and at the end 31.1% of the votes were blank or invalid (González, 2006:235). This signalled not only the withdrawal of Toledo from the race but the delegitimation of the regime expressed through the withdrawal of consent. In turn, the 2006 elections in Mexico, although challenged, confirmed the regime’s legitimacy. For this election, the electoral authority was independent and impartial (Vives, 2006:35), the media was open to all candidates (Murayama, 2006:138) and ‘more than a half million citizens (…) watched over the voting’ (Schedler, 2007:89). In sum, the campaign and the elections were clean, free and fair. The results were still challenged, but ‘Mexicans remain convinced that the election was clean express trust in the IFE and TEPJF (…) and disapprove of López Obrador’s disruptive strategies’ (Schedler, 2007:99). This was evidence of consent to the regime.

Since elections serve as actions to express consent to a particular regime they also offer the possibility for completely changing it. In regimes weak in legitimacy, contested elections, which would be solved by routine procedures in more legitimate and stronger democracies, can turn into a full regime crisis and thus open the door for deeper changes and consolidating democracy. Evidence of this is Mexico and Peru. In Mexico, the doubts and challenges to the razor thin victory of Calderon were resolved through institutional procedures by the Electoral Tribunal (TEPFJ). Then, AMLO’s judicial complaints about facing a ‘state-election’ were unfounded and the protests stopped. However, in Peru, elections delegitimized and debilitated Fujimori’s regime and opened the door for later undermining the system. This would happen with one videotape, the infamous ‘Vladivideos’.

Therefore, when a regime is illegitimate according to these standards, sometimes it is necessary to break the rules of the game for advancing democracy. After all, the use of the rules and the regime itself are not congruent with democracy. On the other hand, in more legitimate regimes, the respect of these rules is evidence of democratic progress. Here, the rules and institutions are more congruent with democracy. In Mexico, for instance, the respect of the rules of the game (upholding electoral results) was evidence of its regime’s legitimacy and confirmed its democratic consolidation. However, in Peru, the opposite action was positive for democracy. Since legitimacy is a necessary condition for reaching democratic consolidation, then Peru’s actors, by breaking the rules and undermining Fujimori’s regime, moved towards congruence with democracy. This was evidence of its consolidation. Peruvian people and political actors finally pushed things and decided that democracy, and not ‘fujimontesinismo’ was to be the only game in town.

[1] Label for the regime headed by Fujimori and his spymaster Montesinos.
[2] Videos showing many politicians, congressmen, judges, electoral authorities, mayors, and journalists as part of Montesinos's payroll



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