Poll Suggests Crime, Corruption Weakening LatAm Faith in Democracy

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Nearly 40 percent of citizens in the Americas would support a military coup to tackle high levels of crime or corruption, according to a new public opinion survey that illustrates how faliure to address these issues has eroded faith in democracy in the region.

The latest report by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) surveyed public attitudes toward democracy, governance, crime and corruption in 21 countries in the Americas.

The report found that support for a military coup to tackle crime is highest in Jamaica, where 59.3 percent of respondents said they would back a coup. This was followed by Peru with 55.3 percent, Guatemala with 49.4 percent and Mexico with 47.5 percent, respectively, indicating support for a coup.

At the bottom of the list is the United States with 23.3 percent supporting a coup in response to crime, followed by Uruguay with 25.4 percent, Nicaragua with 26.7 percent and Argentina with 28.2 percent.

Support for a coup in response to corruption is highest in Costa Rica, where 53.2 percent would support a coup by security forces. (LAPOP slightly altered their question in the case to account for the fact that Costa Rica does not have a military.) Similarly, 53.2 percent of respondents in Jamaica indicated support for a coup to tackle corruption, followed by Peru with 50.8, and Mexico with 49.9 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Argentina ranked at the bottom of the list with 23 percent expressing support, followed by Nicaragua with 25.7 percent, Uruguay with 26.7 percent and the United States with 27.7 percent.

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(LAPOP figure showing support for coups in the region)

The levels of support for military coups in response to crime and corruption come against a backdrop of concerning trends in overall levels of support for democracy.

Support for democracy in the region saw a sharp drop from the level recorded in 2014, the last time LAPOP carried out the survey. The regional average fell from 66.4 percent supporting democracy in 2014 to 57.8 percent in the most recent poll. LAPOP says this is the “lowest value ever observed” for the study.

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(LAPOP figure showing declining overall support for democracy in the region)

InSight Crime Analysis

Attitudes regarding democracy, military coups and crime and corruption are influenced by a complex interplay of factors that goes beyond current security dynamics or corruption scandals. Nevertheless, the overall message from LAPOP’s results is clear: The inability of Latin American governments to achieve sustainable gains against crime and corruption has contributed to an erosion of faith in democracy in the region.

In many cases, history is a likely a significant factor in explaining the rankings established by LAPOP. 

Peru and Mexico, for example, have a history littered with troubling examples of populist authoritarianism. In contrast, Argentina and Uruguay, at the other end of the spectrum, suffered under some of the most brutal military regimes seen in the region, and the horrors from the not-so-distant past remains firmly engrained in the collective memory.

Social attitudes shaped by circumstance may also have a bearing, especially in cases where citizens have become accustomed to coexisting with deep-rooted corruption and crime.

For example, Brazil and Colombia rank near the top of the list of countries where respondents answered that they believe more than half or all politicians are corrupt, with 83.4 percent and 74.9 percent respectively. Yet both countries, which have seen a series of corruption scandals for many years, only ranked in the middle for support for coups in response to corruption.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Despite these local variances, the results are troubling across the board as even at the lowest end of the spectrum around one in four people would support the overthrow of a democratically elected government to tackle crime or corruption. Recent events and dynamics have almost certainly played a central role in generating this lack of faith in democratic institutions and the elites running them.

Over the last few years, corruption scandals have exploded across the region, revealing the rotten core of democracy in much of the Americas, and the levels to which graft has penetrated. In countries such as Guatemala and Brazil, such corruption scandals have reached right to the top and caused presidents to be criminally charged and even forced from office.

In Guatemala, in particular, it is hardly surprising that less than half the population does not support democracy given the country’s last president was removed for leading what amounted to a mafia state, and his successor, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, is now embroiled in attempts to derail corruption investigations into his own administration.

Additionally, years of tough talk combined with few positive results in many of the region’s crime hotspots have likely worn down the patience of many citizens. The most prominent example of this from among the high-ranking countries is Mexico, where over a decade of hardline drug war policies have failed to contain organized crime and violence.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

However, while democratic institutions in the Americas have often failed to achieve sustainable advances against corruption and criminality, military coups are clearly not the answer to the region’s governance problems. Even aside from the wider social implications of military rule, militaries throughout Latin America have proven themselves highly corruptible, while militarization of anti-crime security policies has consistently produced high levels of abuses with little to show in the way of long-term security gains.

The levels of support for military action despite these evident failings is a warning sign that democracy in the region is perhaps in a more precarious state than most observers realize, and the issues of crime and corruption are at the heart of this problem.

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