Back to basics: on democracy and trust

Presidential debates play an essential role in strengthening democracy by informing citizens, helping them make more confident, reasoned decisions

By Gala Díaz Langou, CIPPEC executive director, and Sofía Fernández Crespo, CIPPEC executive direction coordinator

This year, we are celebrating 40 years of uninterrupted democracy in Argentina for the first time in our history. Since 1983, we have been able to vote freely: we had 10 presidential elections and 20 legislative elections. These four decades reflect the fact that we were able to agree on something: we want to, and can, live in democracy. 

This is no small achievement. But it coexists with outstanding debts: we have serious problems that have become structural, especially social and economic ones. Successive governments’ inability to resolve these challenges is raising more and more questions about the functioning of democracy itself. Like many countries in the world, today we are going through a crisis of legitimacy and democratic representation.

One symptom of this is declining trust and growing skepticism towards governments globally. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), almost four in 10 people in 95 countries trust their government, while in Latin America and the Caribbean it’s less than three in 10. According to the Latinobarómetro public opinion survey, satisfaction with democracy in the region is 28% in 2023: just four points above its historic minimum in 2018.

These numbers are the flip side of multiple economic, political, social, environmental and institutional crises we are experiencing on a global scale. These “polycrises” in many countries are closely linked to democratic backsliding and a surge in authoritarian leadership. In the last decade alone, the level of polarization has grown, on average, by more than five points across 47 European democracies. Likewise, in Western Europe, the average percentage of votes for anti-establishment political parties rose from 17% to more than 24% between 1990 and 2020. 

In different latitudes, we are witnessing the spread of questioning democracy, fake news, and the emergence of electoral phenomena and groups that believe a non-democratic regime can solve problems more effectively. However, democracy is the only system that allows the population to monitor political decisions, and then intervene by demanding the satisfaction of their needs and the accountability of institutions and officials. 

Ultimately, if they fail to meet citizens’ expectations, the system gives the people the power to pull support from their representatives. In this context, the democratic system allows for inclusive and sustainable development, since it is more likely to succeed in a consolidated, stable institutional framework that guarantees compliance with agreements and allows for long-term economic planning. 

Argentina’s crisis of representation

At the same time, democracy is strengthened by citizen support and participation, creating a virtuous circle. Therefore, faced with the global context of polarization and mistrust, it is important to find the spots where the system is hurting and notice how they manifest, in order to rebuild the link between democracy and citizenship.

In Argentina, the crisis of representation and polarization are reflected in two specific data points, comparing the last election with the 1983 one. Votes are more dispersed: while in 1983 the two political forces with the most votes accounted for 92% of the electoral roll, in 2023 that percentage dropped to 66%. The other point is reduced electoral offer: in 1983, there were 12 presidential tickets, compared with five in the October 22 general elections.

Although there’s more to democracy than elections, they offer a unique opportunity. In Argentina, presidential debates have been required by law since 2015, and play an essential role in strengthening democracy by informing citizens, helping them make more confident, reasoned decisions. They allow candidates to explain their positions and proposals and exchange remarks in a respectful civic framework. 

It is crucial that organizations like CIPPEC, which is part of the debate’s 2023 advisory council and promoted its institutionalization from the start, ensure citizen participation in the process and monitor compliance with commitments. Establishing this connection between people and politics, making government proposals transparent, and guaranteeing the functioning of democratic institutions help restore confidence among those who will later express themselves at the polls.

Such volatile and uncertain contexts can be hostile to dialogue and consensus-building. And without this consensus, there is no way out of this situation. We need to renew these social pacts because, at the end of the day, democracy is a social construct. If we do not spell out our agreement and ratify the pact we have managed to make — that we want to and can live in democracy — we may not be able to find a way out of this multi-dimensional crisis, either.


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