Foreign Policy Blogs

Testing democracy’s resolve: a look at Greece and Mexico

No one ever said democracy is easy (well, if anyone did, they shouldn’t have). It offers the promise of freedom and the ability of people to choose who governs them. But constant vigilance is required to ensure democracy holds on, and prevents government from transforming into something more sinister.

Democracy exists today in many parts of the world; controversy and concern usually come with it. As just one recent example, former president of Mongolia Nambaryn Enkhbayar has gone on hunger strike (which we also saw in Russia) to protest his arrest on corruption charges, which was broadcast live on television. The incident has thrown “Mongolia’s young democracy into turmoil.”

What follows is a closer look at challenges to democracy in Greece and Mexico. I think you will find these examples showcase both democracy’s potential and fragility.


Testing democracy's resolve: a look at Greece and Mexico

Greek leaders meet to discuss forming a new government. After coalition talks failed, new elections are expected in June. Alexis Tsipras, who opposes the Greek bailout, is farthest to right. Photo AP/Kostas Tsironis

Needless to say, Greece is in a precarious position these days economically and politically. Greece’s difficulties have been well covered, so I will summarize: facing severe economic decline and staggering debt, Greece accepted financial bailout agreements with organizations including the EU and Int’l Monetary Fund; the latest provided an influx of about $170 billion. The catch is that the lenders required Greece to implement strict economic austerity measures to cut spending (especially in the public sector) in the hopes of contracting the economy to a point where growth could resume. If austerity measures are not followed, many feel the Greek economy will spiral out of control and force the country to declare bankruptcy. This would result in Greece defaulting on its loans and abandoning the Euro as its currency, which would cause ripple effects throughout Europe, the United States, and the global economy and just be generally bad news for everyone.

But an increasing amount of people are of the mind that austerity measures will cause more harm than good. This seems to be the case in Greece, where a party running on anti-bailout (and anti-austerity) platform won the second-most number of seats in parliamentary elections held May 6. After days of tense negotiations a coalition government failed to materialize, with new elections expected to take place in June. Head of the anti-bailout Coalition of the Radical Left party Alexis Tsipras refused to join a coalition, saying doing so would amount to becoming “accessory to a crime.” According to Tsipras, “In the name of democracy, of our patriotic duty, we cannot accept this shared guilt. We call on all Greeks to condemn once and for all the forces of the past and to realize that only one hope remains: unity against blackmail in order to prevent the continuing barbarity.”

Is the defiance of Coalition of the Radical Left a good thing or bad? Creating a coalition government would certainly help political stability, which usually leads to more confidence in the economy. Plus bailout providers don’t seem to be budging on their demands for Greece to comply with loan conditions.

But the party is also exercising its democratic right to oppose government policy it thinks is not in the country’s best interests. In a healthy democracy a person or group should not feel compelled or intimidated into supporting the prevailing opinion on an issue. In the face of significant pressure and hardship, it seems Greece’s democracy is holding up, with government (or lack thereof) reflecting the will of the people. In the place where many consider democracy was created, we should expect nothing less.


Testing democracy's resolve: a look at Greece and Mexico

Enrique Pena Nieto, current frontrunner in Mexico's presidential campaign (election July 1). Nieto has strong ties to Mexico's old guard–his party is the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled with impunity for 70 years–but he claims to be a symbol of the new, clean, forward-thinking PRI. Photo Alfredo Estrella, AFP/Getty

Mexico’s democracy is at a crossroads as it heads toward a presidential election thiscoming July 1. After more than seven decades of rule by a single party, Mexico has taken steps to ensure that no one group will again become ensconced in power. Its constitution allows presidents to serve only one term. Political fundraising groups (akin to PACs in the U.S.) are illegal, there are strict limits on campaign spending, and presidential candidates are only allowed to campaign for 3 months before the vote. There are even laws prohibiting negative campaign ads (all of these ideas are, by the way, rules the U.S. should strongly consider adopting).

Sounds like hallmarks of strong democracy promotion, don’t they? But reality paints a less positive picture. In the 2006  Mexican presidential race the margin of victory was less than 1%. Second-place finisher Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador–who is running again this year–maintains to this day that the election was rigged and results fraudulent. The ruling party may have changed, but the prevailing opinion that the government will be unable to do anything meaningful to solve Mexico’s problems remains.

Laws meant to eliminate negative campaigns ads focus on more traditional mediums, with less clarity on Internet and social media activity. So vicious and accusatory attack efforts still exist, they have just migrated online, “often using hard-to-trace and easily disavowed volunteers and supporters to do the dirty work.” Additionally Enrique Pena Nieto, the current frontrunner, has been accused of corruption and exceeding campaign spending limits (a good overview of the backgrounds and viewpoints of the 3 leading candidates–Lopez Obrador, Pena Nieto, and Josefina Vasquez Mota–can be found here).

To sum, Damien Cave of the New York Times notes, “Mexican voters, polls show, have been losing faith in democracy as their nation teeters between modern success and violent failure. “

The Mexican case raises the question, is an imperfect democracy better than no democracy at all? Or perhaps the country’s difficulties with drug cartels and massive poverty are too much for any kind of government to fix? These are questions without easy answers, but I believe democracy gives Mexico and Greece the best chance to find solutions that will be considered fair. Or they could try a hunger strike.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”