Book Launch: Enforcing the Rule of Law
Enrique Peruzzotti, Universidad Torcuato di Tella
Commentator, Felipe Agüero, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and University of Miami
Commentator, Leonardo Avrizter, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
On April 18, Enrique Peruzzotti launched the book Enforcing the Rule of Law: Social Accountability in the New Latin American Democracies, which he co-edited with Catalina Smulovitz. According to Peruzzotti, civil society in many newly transitioned Latin American democracies uses social accountability when institutional methods of vertical and horizontal accountability—such as elections and the judicial system—fail to function correctly. Social accountability includes informal methods employed by the media, civic organizations, and occasionally citizens to monitor elected authorities and hold them responsible for their behavior. Examples of social accountability include electoral monitoring, investigative reporting, mass protest, and the use of the court system to prosecute official misconduct.
Peruzzotti noted that prevailing theories about democracy in Latin America have been largely pessimistic and have emphasized the way that authoritarian legacies shape political practices and lead to "delegative democracies" where elected authorities are only minimally responsive and accountable to citizens. In contrast, he suggested that these approaches overlook perhaps the most significant innovation in Latin American democracies: the rise of an autonomous civil society capable of questioning, monitoring, and critiquing public authorities. Despite the institutional failings of many Latin American democracies, these emergent civil society actors are playing a decisive role in compensating for these failings through civic action.
Peruzzotti pointed to the emergence of non-governmental organizations, social movements, and investigative journalism as a change in the political culture of a region whose democratic discourse has most recently been shaped by populism. These three informal, non-institutional actors reflect a sophisticated citizenry demanding more from their relationships with political authorities. While they all espouse the role of "social watchdog," NGO's tend to lobby behind the scenes on specific issues (such as police violence) whereas social movements often develop around victims of the "unrule of law," particularly human rights violations. These groups attempt to force action by politicians by raising the political cost of not responding to citizen demands. However, Peruzzotti warned that the if public authorities fail to respond to citizen demands, this healthy criticism of government can turn into a general distrust of representatives or even an anti-political movement.
Felipe Agüero praised Peruzzotti's study for raising the visibility of new actors actually engaged in new forms of accountability and citizenship in a field of study that has primarily measured the quality of democracy in Latin American through the degree of effectiveness of horizontal and electoral accountability. This is not to say that these mechanisms are not important; according to Agüero, instruments of horizontal accountability must be activated at the same time as those of social accountability in order to counter the weaknesses inherent in both, a point also noted in the book. Agüero also warned that while media mobilization may be a growing tool to combat deficits of accountability, the media itself must be a target of scrutiny. He noted that it would also be useful to look at cases of political and legal change in Latin American countries and then see how social actors had influenced these changes; this might help discover some of the hidden cases where social and political actors are mutually engaged with each other to achieve important reforms.
Leonardo Avritzer also commended the book for helping to redefine the debate on the quality of democracy in Latin America and dispel the myth that accountability has, in fact, decreased in the region. Social actors now act as catalysts for activating horizontal mechanisms of accountability between election years, when accountability has tended to sink to its lowest levels. They also raise the visibility of certain issues that are at the "heart of political life in new democracies." Avritzer emphasized the increasingly popular use of the judicial realm to resolve issues that might normally be solved through violent or non-legal means, particularly drawing on the experiences of small claims courts in Brazil. This concept of "judicialization," combined with the concepts of mobilization and "mediazation," explored in the book all converge to bring a more equilibrated view of pressing issues for Latin American democracies.
In the discussion session, Peruzzotti noted that social accountability really refers to the emergence of legal accountability, a true novelty in Latin America. A new concern for issues like corruption, human rights violations, and due process born from the region's strong human rights movements has led to the unification of two elements that the populist tradition has always kept apart: democracy and the rule of law. When effective, social accountability changes the structure of incentives, making inaction on the part of government officials both symbolically and electorally costly. However, the most successful cases are those that are able to generate institutional change, illustrated in the reform of the Mexican Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE) by the civil society organization, Alianza Civica.