Is a garbage man a government job

Feudal democracies, always well lubricated

Why voters in many Latin American countries are ready to bring corrupt parties to power. An attempt to explain.

By Toni Keppeler

Younger Mexicans ought to know, too, even if they only have a vague memory of the last 71 years of rule by the Institutionalized Revolution Party (PRI): This party is thoroughly corrupt. One is reminded of it again and again, even now, in the election campaign for the presidency. At the end of May, Tomás Yarrington, former governor of the state of Tamaulipas, was excluded from the PRI because he had pocketed seven million francs in bribes from drug cartels. Last December, party leader Humberto Moreira had to resign because, as governor of Coahuila, he had charged 2.4 billion Swiss francs with fake bills. Nevertheless, the Mexicans seem determined to elect this same PRI back to power on July 1st after twelve years in the opposition. Corruption, it seems, is so natural that it does not play a role in voting.

The phenomenon is by no means limited to Mexico and cannot be located according to the political left-right scheme. Today it is known that Chile's former dictator Augusto Pinochet was not only cruel, but also enriched himself; just like Guatemala's former right-wing president Alfonso Portillo. The Venezuela of the left-wing populist Hugo Chávez is ranked 172 (out of 182 countries) in the corruption ranking of Transparency International, while Brazil's moderately left-wing President Dilma Rousseff dismissed seven of her ministers for corruption allegations within just one year.

Even the government of Rousseff's popular predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was not free from this plague. Lula had to send his cabinet chief José Dirceu into the desert in 2005: Dirceu had bought the necessary votes in parliament with black money in order to create the legal basis for Lula's social policy. In other words, without corruption, forty million Brazilians would not have been able to overcome poverty in the eight years under Lula's rule.

A job for all friends

Corruption is the lubricant of Latin American politics. That has deep historical roots. The region has been shaped by the Spanish model to this day. Independence from colonial power 200 years ago was the independence of the colonizers from their mother, not that of the natives from the conquerors. The oligarchy of Spanish origin simply transferred the existing social and economic model to the new states: The patron, who determines everything on his hacienda, is the model of today's presidential democracies; the people cuddle and get the crumbs.

To this day, government officials in Latin America are not called "public servants" - that is, servants of the common good - but rather "autoridades": they are those who make self-governing decisions. When there is a change of government, presidents not only exchange ministers and high-ranking political officials, but also all employees - right down to the postman and the garbage collector. This system of clientele politics is widespread, so that even distant party friends of the elected believe they have a right to a state job.

Only one president has tried to break this unwritten law in recent years: Ernesto Pérez Balladares, elected to the Democratic Revolution Party in Panama in 1994, actually only wanted to replace the highest officials when he took office. He spent his first weeks in a beleaguered presidential palace: Thousands of his party friends sued for their “right” to a government job.

It has also long become customary for the presidents' wives to be appointed ministers (for example in Guatemala until the beginning of this year and currently in El Salvador and Nicaragua) and for them to succeed the husband in the highest state office (as in Argentina), or at least that try (as in Guatemala and Honduras). Hardly anyone in Latin America is bothered by it.

Impunity as a foundation

And another, even worse legacy came from Spain: Just as the Franco dictatorship was the model for the Latin American military regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s, the transition to democracy negotiated in Madrid also served as a blueprint on the other side of the Atlantic afterwards. As in Spain, no henchman of the dictatorship was brought to justice for human rights violations. Democracy was based on the injustice system of impunity. In democratic Spain, the examining magistrate Baltasar Garzón was banned from his profession at the beginning of 2012 for ordering mass graves from the time of the Franco dictatorship to be opened.

The fact that Argentina, Chile and, to a certain extent, Guatemala began to come to terms with their dark history decades later at least gives hope. However, the three countries are the exception. As a rule, the mass murderers from yesterday to today are respected and influential politicians or economic bosses.

Anyone who is willing to look past murder and manslaughter, and also calls this an orderly transition to democracy, cannot get upset about a few embezzled millions. The underlying system of impunity is not only a prerequisite for past amnesia, but also for corruption.

In the hacienda, the patron was not bound by any law - he was the law, the «autoridad». The same model can be found to this day in the presidential constitutions of Latin America, in the self-image of the presidents and in political culture. There is only a rudimentary separation of powers, if at all. The states are formal democracies, the governments are elected. But they are far from being republics in the sense of a res publica in which the state is the common property of all. Latin American states are most likely to be something like feudal democracies, in which the feudal lords are elected but then manage the land as their property. What is called corruption in a republic is a matter of course in this Latin American form of government. So why not vote for a corrupt party?

Mexico chooses

In the current polls for the presidential election of July 1, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) leads with around 45 percent approval. He's not attached to a corruption scandal, but his party has an endless history with it.

Second place with a gap of almost twenty percentage points is the left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD). He is not considered corrupt.

Just behind is Josefina Vázquez Mota from the ruling conservative PAN. The party overturned the PRI from power in 2000, but adopted its clientele policy.

The candidate with the most votes becomes president; there is no run-off election.

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