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Measuring perceptions of democracy in Latin America during COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Latin America, with more than 12 million cases already reported. The region was bound to be vulnerable to the pandemic for factors ranging from high population density in urban centers to the inadequate provision of public services. Yet, the outsized impact of the pandemic across Latin America is clearly the result of political leaders’ mismanagement of the crisis.

From Brazil to Mexico, populist leaders have minimized the gravity of the pandemic, peddled disinformation, and responded ineffectively. Unfortunately, this is only the most recent example of Latin American democracies that are failing to deliver the results that citizens deserve.

Even after an era of democratic resurgence, Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world, and now it is estimated that nearly 5 million more people will fall into extreme poverty by the end of the year

Latin American democracy is facing a crisis of representation and a crisis of trust. Far too often, politicians do not represent the communities they seek to serve, they mismanage or steal public funds, and ultimately, they hinder inclusive development. As the promise of democracy continues to fall short, citizens have understandably grown disenchanted. Latinobarómetro found that dissatisfaction with democracy in Latin America increased from 51% to 71% between 2009 and 2018.

In that context, Luminate set out to measure perceptions of democracy in Latin America during the pandemic. We’re pleased to publish new research today, Perceptions of Democracy in Latin America, which was conducted through a randomized online survey that collected a total of 26,000 responses in three waves (May, August, and October 2020) across four countries (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico). The research set out to measure respondents favorability towards democracy, satisfaction with leaders’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis, and trust in information sources, among other areas.

The findings suggest that as COVID-19 has progressed, citizens’ satisfaction with their government’s management of the crisis has declined in all countries, except Brazil. At the same time, predisposition to protests has risen, while support for democracy continues its steady decline from resoundingly high favorability ratings in years past. While older demographics show a strong sentiment towards democracy, younger people tend to have less favorable views. Additionally, while access to information plays a key role in the context of a public health crisis, trust in information sources remains low in all countries.

Highlights from the survey in further detail include:

  • Citizens’ views that COVID-19 is being managed well are declining rapidly, in all countries except Brazil: Between May and October, there has been a significant decrease in the percentage of respondents in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico who believe their government is managing the crisis well or very well. The drop is most steep in Argentina, where 84% believed their government was managing the crisis well or very well in May, while only 52% said the same in October. In contrast, public opinion of the government’s handling of COVID-19 has improved in Brazil, with 50% of respondents approving of government’s management of the pandemic in October, up ten points from May. We hypothesize that as lockdowns extended far beyond what was originally expected, and as news reports highlighted how much worse the countries surveyed were fairing when compared to others, perception trended in a negative direction.
  • As COVID-19 has advanced, presidential support has fallen in all countries, except for Brazil: In Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico, the majority of respondents would not vote for the sitting president if they were up for election again tomorrow. Only in Brazil, the president increased his likelihood of a hypothetical re-election. Of those surveyed in Brazil, 38% of respondents said in May that they would vote for President Bolsonaro, while the number rose to 44% in October. We hypothesize that the far-reaching cash transfer program implemented in Brazil in response to the crisis has significantly boosted President Bolsonaro's popularity, even in spite of the large number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country.  Nonetheless, the outcomes of the recent sub-national elections in Brazil may suggest that President Bolsonaro’s rise in popularity may be starting to erode. That potential decline in popularity could continue as the government limits the ambitions of the cash transfer program in the future.
  • The favorability of democracy is in decline, particularly among youth: The level of support for democracy is lower than in a previous survey Luminate conducted in 2018. Among the countries surveyed, Argentina has the highest support for democracy (67%), followed by Colombia (63%), Brazil (62%), and Mexico (61%), yet those numbers are lower than in the past. Those aged 45-64 have the strongest preference for democracy, with 72% saying democracy is always preferable, compared with just 54% of those aged 16-24 saying the same. Consistently across all four countries, the younger the person, the less likely they would be to have a favorable view of democracy. We hypothesize that younger citizens who have not lived under the kind of dictatorial regimes that older generations endured are less likely to think of democracy favorably and have an increased propensity to experiment with alternatives.
  • Trust in information sources is strikingly low: In Colombia 25% of those surveyed reported not trusting any source of information, not even scientists, doctors, journalists, or politicians. The same is true for 20% of respondents in Mexico and Brazil. We hypothesize that the increased awareness of the spread of disinformation, combined with the systematic attack from populist leaders on science and journalism, are undermining the credibility of all information sources.
  • There is a growing majority of respondents who are unwilling to exchange their rights for safety: This sentiment is strongest in Mexico, where 65% of respondents said they would be unwilling to exchange their rights for safety in October, up from 60% in May. Those whose income has decreased during the pandemic have the strongest sentiment against exchanging their rights for safety, with 66% saying they would be unwilling to do so. We hypothesize that as citizens question governments’ ability to keep them safe, the lack of trust in institutions impacts citizens’ willingness to compromise individual rights in the pursuit of a collective benefit which they may deem unlikely or uncertain.  
  • As COVID-19 has advanced, a majority of respondents support protests against governments, with sharp increases in Argentina and Colombia: In Argentina, support for protests has risen from 45% in August to 53% in October, while in Colombia it rose from 44% to 51%. The increase seems to correspond directly with a decrease in the number of those who claimed it was too unsafe to protest in the earlier stages of the pandemic, which in Colombia dropped from 26% in August to 14% in October. In Mexico and Brazil, there has been little change in respondents' perspectives on the right to protest during COVID-19. In both countries, a slight majority of respondents support protests (50% in Mexico, 52% in Brazil). We hypothesize that the increase in the support for protests results from the growing dissatisfaction in governments’ COVID response, the widening economic impact of the pandemic, and the fact that citizens have grown more accustomed to the public health risks posed by the pandemic.

These findings reveal troubling signs for the future of Latin American democracy. The tangible decline in the favorability of democracy, particularly among youth, combined with the support for protests and the growing dissatisfaction with the current political class, suggests a period of high political volatility.

Luminate hopes this research will serve to inform the necessary efforts to re-imagine more effective and inclusive democracies in a post-pandemic Latin America.