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Adrian Lavalle: The exercise of democracy

A study on non-electoral control mechanisms reveals the innovative character of the Brazilian experience

Adrian Gurza Lavalle is a researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies and a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo

Léo Ramos Chaves

Since the end of the military dictatorship (1964–1985), the Brazilian state has established policies for indigenous communities, for the care of the elderly, and for recognizing and protecting the LGBTI community, involving members of these same groups in policy formulation. Political scientist Adrian Gurza Lavalle, a researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), a Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Center (RIDC) funded by FAPESP, believes these examples indicate the extent to which Brazil’s transition to democracy was able to produce channels capable of securing the participation of multiple social actors—in addition to political parties—in the development of public policy. But not just their development.

“Civil society organized as a control mechanism is something peculiar to Brazil,” states Lavalle, who teaches in the Political Science Department at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). The finding integrates results from research on five countries, detailed in the book Controles Democráticos No Electorales y Regímenes de Rendición de Cuentas en el Sur Global (Non-electoral democratic controls and accountability regimes in the Southern Hemisphere), edited by Lavalle and sociologist Ernesto Isunza Vera from the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), in Mexico. The book was recently released by Swiss publisher Peter Lang.

In this interview, given at USP, Lavalle explains how this came about, and why, from the standpoint of democratic innovation, the Brazilian experience is at the forefront in the Southern Hemisphere.

What are “non-electoral democratic controls” (CDNE)?
They are the ways in which citizens, directly or indirectly, through institutions that are part of the framework of the state, affect the course of a given public policy action. This effect can be to shape or control. In Brazil’s case, the components of shaping and controlling predominate. In Mexico, the effect is mainly consultative.

Who exercises these controls? And who is subject to them?
They are exercised by the citizens. In Brazil, this happens most frequently through associations or groups such as unions and cooperatives, whose representatives are members of councils and affect the functioning of policy. They do this by controlling democratically elected politicians or high-ranking officials, regarding specific issues, such as accountability in the healthcare system. Here the emphasis is on the Executive. Over the Judiciary, there is practically no control. In the Legislative branch, though, it’s possible to intercede in the process of drafting laws or the disposition of amendments.

What is the main objective of the research?
The initial question was to understand the elements of coordination of social control mechanisms in Mexico. When we started the study in 2012, the literature tended to associate these mechanisms with democracy and to concentrate control in vertical experiences, of an electoral nature. But we were thinking about forms of accountability in addition to the vote and realized that it would be necessary to expand our scope. What wasn’t clear, because we tend to assume that social control over politics is typically a characteristic of democratic countries, was the idea that these forms of social accountability aren’t restricted to such contexts.

They’re not restricted?
Neither the mechanisms for producing coordination and consensus between lower levels of central government, nor social control, are challenges exclusive to democratic regimes. Authoritarian regimes also need to deal with problems of coordination, legitimacy, and control of their respective bureaucracies. To understand Mexico, we decided to include four other proximate cases. China seemed to us a good case because it has a state party, i.e., organized by the state. Mexico was also considered a country with a state party, the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], and reflects what a segment of the literature calls an incomplete transition. In the same way, South Africa transitioned to democracy, but gradually took on the characteristics of a dominant party system.

What do the transitions of Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, and China have in common?
The time frame was based on the transitions. The five countries have undergone transitions, but each has a distinct nature. China’s is primarily economic, and is forcing a certain amount of political liberalization. In all of these cases, there is an important decentralization process, with the return of power to the local level. In Brazil, municipalities have grown extraordinarily since 1988. In Mexico, this started in the 1980s and accelerated during the 2000s. In Colombia, as well. The second common characteristic: the diagnosis that it’s possible to produce better governance at the local level, and to do that, the role of society needs to be expanded. In all of these countries, there was a set of reforms aimed at social participation.

What is considered social participation, within the scope of this study?
Strictly speaking, participation would assume a type of direct citizen engagement, expressing their preferences. That is why we call the institutionalized mediation channels, between society and the state, controls. In the case of Brazil, the Constitution included participation as a guiding principle, for democratic control of the state. The councils and conferences are emblematic examples of how society should contribute, in addition to the electoral cycle. Some types of advisory councils are present in 98% of Brazilian municipalities. As of recent count, we had between 60,000 and 65,000 councils. There are more civil advisory councilors than elected municipal council members, for example.

And have they been studied?
In the 1990s, their participation was studied in Brazil in a very critical way: citizens and civil society weren’t to decide policy, they would only make specific contributions and exert occasional controls. An important part of the literature was marked by this deficit and took a very normative view. To understand their contribution, it’s necessary to suspend expectations and adjust our lens. It was necessary to understand what the councils do and what difference is made by what they do.

What deserves to be highlighted in Brazil?
What caught our attention was the consistency of the characteristics of a long list of possible experiences to be researched. We started with councils, which could be managers of security or facilities policy, for example. We then looked at conferences, such as national sectoral ones; at hearings; public consultations; even experiences of cyber activism and mobilization. In Brazil, we analyzed these experiences and found that they were all grouped into families. The councils here are a family of participatory institutions of very distinct natures, which complicates the analysis. We also found that the most relevant experiences in Brazil have social capillarity and run throughout the federative structure. For example: a particular council works within the structure of the state, is prescribed in sector-specific legislation and has specified duties, but its functioning and vigor depend on the participation and engagement of actors within society. Civil society organized as a control mechanism is something peculiar to Brazil, which proved to be the most institutionalized of all the countries in the sample. The data indicates the extent that Brazil’s democratic transition was able to produce channels to secure the presence of other social actors, other than political parties, in affecting what the state does.

Is it, therefore, an important characteristic of democratic presence?
Yes. Greater diversity and power of social control mechanisms and, in general, accountability mechanisms, are indicative of better democracy. From the point of view of democratic innovation, the Brazilian experience is ahead of the other countries. The fact that Brazil is highly institutionalized in relation to these experiences means that there is a set of control channels provided for by law, with responsibilities, and with social actors who are assigned specific functions, performed within a limited field. If, for example, we want to allocate social assistance resources so a given civil society organization can deal with a specific, vulnerable population—and their assistance division works with social entities to carry out a large part of their operations—these entities must be registered with the council, to whom they are accountable. Thus, civil society councils expand the capacity for democratic control over social entities, which, in turn, expand the scope of social assistance policy in the region. This is important because the entire process of implementing public policy is one of redefining that policy in practice.

What does this mean in terms of accountability?
We have more accountability than we might suppose. There are quantitative studies, with due methodological rigor, that show that councils do make a difference. Political scientists Lorena Barberia and George Avelino showed, for example, that where there is a health council with enough time to develop its routine and operations, there is a drop in the probability of corruption. This pattern is not common elsewhere, where experiences are informal, or the scope of the institutionalization is very narrow. Within the domains we researched, Brazil has the strongest configuration, with the greatest diversity.

In terms of democratic arrangements, are we seeing the framework for a new era?
The understanding of democracy as an institutional order structured into the division of powers, parties, and elections is fundamental, but very limited. There is clearly a process of institutional pluralization of democracy underway. Institutions have evolved to be more stable in contexts where they were able to produce a virtuous, or synergetic, connection with the political system. In the case of Brazil, the transition produced political parties committed to participation, which emerged into democratic life without a captive electorate, not necessarily from a programmatic point of view, but because it made sense from an electoral point of view, to bet on inclusion and citizen participation. From the MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement] to the PSDB [Brazilian Social Democracy Party], to the PT [Worker’s Party], everyone gambled on encouraging and implementing participatory institutions.

How did this work in the other countries in the sample?
In South Africa, for example, institutions are gaining momentum within the transition process, but there isn’t any strong electoral competition because the African National Congress party seized power, settled in, and never left. There, all forms of inclusion were gradually controlled by the party, which is similar to the case in Mexico. For participation to exist as an expression of civil society, electoral competition is essential. In Brazil, this relationship grew in an honest manner.

Do you begin by assuming that participation is always positive?
Not necessarily. It may be useless, or worse. Poorly defined, poorly conducted, or poorly implemented participation can have disastrous consequences. But in general, it’s better that those affected by a certain policy have opportunities to influence it, and are able to exercise some control, or to challenge and change the decisions made by those in power. Citizens have very different interests, preferences, and concerns. If there are no circumstances that make the state permeable to the demands of these groups, they are disregarded.

In this sense, were the 2018 elections a turning point?
Unfortunately, yes. Brazil has experienced a period of expansion over the past 30 years. If we look at it with a magnifying glass, we can see that it exhibited differing intensities, but similar signals, as it included diverse actors. That period is ending. The democratizing wave is over. Our research agenda has several challenges ahead. One is to be able to diagnose which of these channels will be capable of resistance. We know that the more institutionalized channels have greater capacity because they have more resources, and among them are actors that have a greater likelihood of weathering setbacks. But it is possible to dismantle even the most institutionalized ones, by “dehydrating” them, for example. This has already begun. For the quality of our democracy it’s a step backwards; for the production of knowledge, we’re living through a natural experiment, and in this sense, the Brazilian case constitutes a unique laboratory. We’re going to be able to test some of our field’s assumptions, to see what happens to the sectors that were institutionalized and those that were not.