Formal Government and Real Government

It sounds like a play on words. But this is our reality. The government, with its three branches of state, is one thing; how the country is actually governed, beyond the formalities of these branches, is another. According to the rule of law that regulates our democracy, the people are sovereign and they govern by way of laws, and not through specific individuals who impose their decisions.

No person is above the law, and it is determined that the government is formally elected in electoral processes. Every four, five or six years, depending on the country, citizens are convened to elect by secret ballot the officials that have decided to run for public office. However, actions speak louder than words, and it is no secret that decision-making and control over the instruments and institutional framework of what we call democracy is limited to a restricted leadership. The latter is rooted in the patrimonial political culture, which is the cultural wellspring of caudillos – Latin America’s version of strongmen – as well as all the cult of personality and arbitrariness that prevent institutional democracy and the rule of law from truly taking root and flourishing

Elections: An Essential Feature of the Rule of law

Following the formula of democracy, the election of public officials is an essential feature of the rule of law. In our Central American countries there are democratic elections of public officials within the framework of the rule of law. However, given that strict control is exercised over these by a restricted leadership circle, and that the political parties are subordinate to these leaderships – which makes them the very opposite of democratic – the right of citizens to freely elect their officials is violated and the very foundations of the rule of law are undermined. Many of the institutional reforms that have been promoted over the last 25 years, after the end of the civil conflicts in Central America, have had more to do with international pressure on politicians and officials in our countries, than with the need being felt by Central Americans for a response to the demands and challenges of the world that is being built in the twenty-first century.

However, many of the reforms intended to consolidate the rule of law have been corrupted or manipulated by the same officials responsible for bringing them into force, precisely because the latter are subordinate to the political party system with its strong anti-democratic tendencies, which in practice is completely at odds with the democracy it professes to defend and represent. Because it is intrinsically anti-democratic, the political party system transforms all the instruments paradoxically intended to strengthen democracy into anti-democratic ones. It is true that many efforts have been made to make the political system and legislation functional, even the international community has on many occasions demanded that state institutions be modernised as a condition of its cooperation. However, leaders and public officials, in general, always return to their old ways: they behave as if – and clearly believe that – holding a public office means they are above the rest.

Who Chooses Those We Elect to Govern Us?

Formally, they are chosen by their parties in elections fought between various internal political factions. So who chooses the candidates within each of these factions?

Only those who have the leader’s blessing, and who tacitly recognise this sole authority or the team in command of the political party, can be a candidate for an election for public office. Normally, the most important government positions require not only the endorsement of the main leaders or political party bosses, but also endorsements from high-ranking officials in the army, leading business figures and the blessing of the American Embassy.

It would be difficult for a citizen to become a candidate for the Presidency without having passed through all these filters. The same can be said of those appointed as Ombudsman, President of the Supreme Court of Justice, members of the Supreme Court and Auditor or Attorney General of the Republic. Powerful groups and individuals consent to or veto candidates for popular election through the media.

There is another actor that is increasingly influencing the election of candidates to the most important positions in public administration. The generic name commonly used to identify this force is Organised Crime, and it is headed up by narcotráficos – drug trafficking gangs. Very trustworthy sources hold that the various organised crime mafias move freely through the corridors of electoral politics and the capital of the most important private sector economic groups.

When a candidate speaks with absolute certainty that they will come to occupy a high-ranking public office, this certainty does not come from the popular support they enjoy, rather from the financial and political support that one way or another comes from some of the mafias that operate in our national territories. If Organised Crime – which deals in kidnappings and the trafficking of people, weapons and drugs – transfers vast sums to leaders and factions within political parties, it is without a doubt because politics has become a source of investment and laundering of their capital and, ultimately, a beachhead from which to exercise and extend their power and control over society

The Landscape of Democracy in Central America

When people with good will and civic duty go to cast their vote, the candidates have already been chosen by those who truly – and without the need for elections – make the most important decisions for the country. What are elections for then? They are an exercise that gives people a sense of responsibility for choosing their elected officials, thereby exercising one of their rights guaranteed by the Constitution. However, the iron grip that powerful groups have over the machinery of democracy means that the public vote simply ends up legitimising public authorities, whose candidates are endorsed and trusted by powerful groups and individuals to administer the country’s resources, pass legislation and apply it according to their own best interests.

Democracy and the rule of law operate and are sustained by two governments: one is formally and legally elected by public vote, and the other is composed of the groups who truly wield power, the very same ones that appoint and endorse those who will be elected to formal government. Between these two governments, the true one, the lasting one and the one that actually decides and commands, is the one that functions above and beyond the electoral political cycle, that uses democracy and all its machinery to legitimise its decisions, protects its own interests and almost invariably act behind the backs of poor people.

Representative Political Democracy versus Participatory and Economic Democracy

When democracy is reduced to representative political democracy, there is a risk, as is the case in several of our Central American countries, of legitimising certain dominant power factions and the concentration of wealth and common public goods. Achieving political stability in a democracy is inconceivable as long as we continue to have an economic model that relentlessly produces multi-millionaires and poor people. Herein lies the structural element of democratic destabilisation.

Today’s democracy, based on political parties, through which societies elect their governors and officials, is just one iteration of democracy. Representative political democracy is certainly an iteration of democracy, but its meaning cannot, and should not, be essentialised to this reductive conceptualisation. Political parties may be forces of change, but this is not always the case, nor can the struggle for social change fall solely on their shoulders.

Fundamental social and political transformation must combine the political struggle to enter government together with the political struggle to democratise the economy, society and culture. This is achieved when movements exist that exert pressure from below. Political parties, both right and left wing ones, do not always take kindly to this. Political democracy without the transformation of the model of economic inequality, will always be a half democracy, a mediocre democracy, a false one or a veneer of democracy. What we have today in representative democracies in various Central American countries echoes this to an extent.

Without social movements exerting pressure from below – holding representative political democracy to account, demanding and obliging the existence of representative democracy – political parties will become experts in democracy, but one based on compromises between leaderships and cut off from the everyday lives of the common people.

In the case of some Central American countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, people go to the polls, confident in this means of exercising their right to elect their officials. But in the opinion polls carried out annually by Jesuit universities and research institutions in El Salvador and Honduras (Cf. Instituto de Opinión Pública de la UCA de San Salvador; ERIC-SJ, Honduras), people are very clear in their view that political parties are all far-removed from their needs, ignore their demands, and that the leaders make deals to divvy up positions among themselves, regardless of the needs of society. In terms of the democratization of society, the task at hand is for political leaders to close the aforementioned gap, and for social movements to be established and rooted in the daily reality of the general population while maintaining autonomy from political parties.

The quid pro quo mentality of the majority of the population is based on the reality of survival. It underpins a tacit pact between political party leaders and the people who are in survival mode. According to the various polls carried out in El Salvador and Honduras, the level of social and political awareness in society is in such a poor state that for a majority – more than sixty percent of the population – they do not care who is in government or who is in opposition.

They do not care who the person with the answers to their problems is, or where they come from, only that this figure, by whatever manner or means, does indeed solve their problems of food, security and employment. The least of their worries is whether the government who guarantees them food and security is authoritarian, populist or dictatorial. This is undoubtedly the bitterest outcome produced by democracy with its parties and elections. This political terrain is a fertile ground for the strong to pose as democrats, despite their messianic or dictatorial notions, which is a reality that casts a long and threatening shadow over presentday Central America.

General Challenges in Constructing Democracy for the Church and the Society of Jesus

1) Contribute to the proper functioning of institutions over the whims of particular political and economic individuals or groups. The weakness or absence of institutions debilitates democracy and shuts down governance, while strengthening traditional power groups and hidden influences that circulate through clandestine networks of illegality and power abuse.

2) Take on the task of strengthening the social movement by linking together demands that emerge from territory-based community organisations. Constructing participatory democracy is inconceivable without the social, economic and cultural fabric of communities’ own democratic experiences.

3) Representative political democracy is an iteration of democracy, but its meaning cannot – and should not – be essentialised to this reductive conceptualisation. Political parties may be forces of change, but this is not always the case, nor can the struggle for social transformation fall solely on their shoulders. Through the words of Pope Francis and St. Monsignor Romero, the Church must continue to encourage people to organise and popular movements to become actors that campaign for democracy and for a social and economic model that guarantees a fair distribution of wealth and assets Promotio Iustitiae n. 130, 2020/2 51 (cf. The Pope’s words to the popular movements gathered in Rome and Bolivia, and St. Romero to the popular organisations in El Salvador).

4) Fundamental social and political transformation must combine the political struggle to enter government together with the political struggle to democratise the economy, representation and participation. This is achieved if there are movements that exert pressure from below, as encouraged by the Church in its social dimension. And this is not always accepted. Political democracy without transformation of the model of economic inequality will always be, at best, a half democracy, or a veneer of democracy. Representative democracy that does not encompass spaces for debating and deliberating on society’s great issues, runs the permanent risk of representing small elites and leaders, and imposing their rule instead of the thoughts and desires of the majority.

5) Without social movements exerting pressure from below – holding representative political democracy to account, demanding and obliging the existence of deliberative and participatory democracy – political parties will be able to guarantee the existence of representative democracy in form, but not that it will be authentically democratic. The option for the poor, as the Church reminds us, is the approach of a commitment from the bottom-up, because by taking this human reality as our starting point, we can be most faithful to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

6) Building a representative, deliberative and participatory democracy must be linked to the construction of a civic political culture. This involves unlearning processes of patrimonial and patriarchal political culture, which is one of the greatest challenges for the Church and the Society of Jesus with their strong hierarchical and vertical traditions.

7) According to the Gospel, the person who proclaims the Word of God must bear testament with their deeds (cf. Matt 7:21-27). If in the Church and the Society of Jesus we are to speak of democracy and civic culture, we must do so through the example of building internal processes that challenge the dominant patriarchal culture and the vertical structure that configures our relationships. Only if we are successful in the areas of democracy and civic culture within our structures will our words be credible and will it be possible for our proposals to have an impact on society. Because, after all, the testament that accompanies the word is what sows deep and lasting transformation.

[Article originally published in Promotio Iustitiae/Image from Wikimedia Commons]

To continue making our work of reflection possible, we need your support.
With just € 1.5 per month you make this space possible.
Jesuita y defensor de derechos humanos en Honduras. Director de Radio Progreso y del Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC), un centro comunitario de derechos humanos.
Previous articleFeminism, an Unstoppable Wave?
Next articleLove in time of bullets


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here