—Javier Couso, Universidad Diego Portales
[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. Columns, while scholarly in accordance with the tone of the blog and about the same length as a normal blog post, are a bit more “op-ed” in nature than standard posts. For more information about our four columnists for 2017, see here.]
Almost two decades ago (in 1998), the late Guillermo O’Donnell made a landmark contribution to the study of democratization, when he called for a focus on what he labeled ‘horizontal accountability’, that is to say, the process by which institutions linked to the rule of law (courts, national audit offices, and the like) make political authorities accountable when they violate basic aspects of the rule of law and constitutionalism (such as human rights and the principle of separation of powers), or engage in other types of abuses (nepotism or corruption) during the period in-between elections. According to O’Donnell, in these regimes political authorities that had been democratically elected then ruled unconstrained by independent institutions, something which not only prevented democratic consolidation, but that was a source of daily misery for millions of people living under such ‘delegative democracies.’
I bring attention to O’Donnell’s enduring contribution prompted by recent events in Latin America, as well as by an important essay published by Juan Pablo Luna and Alberto Vergara, which suggests that, in addition to the lack of horizontal accountability in many countries of the region, there is also a growing problem with ‘vertical accountability’ in others. Indeed, events such as the cooption of the Constitutional Court by Evo Morales’ party in Bolivia (in order to have the Court allow Morales to be reelected indefinitedly), or the absolute control of the courts exercised by the executive branch in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are a brutal reminder of how long the road to ‘horizontal accountability’ can be. Having said this, Luna and Vergara alert us to the possibility that countries with a working rule of law can have dysfunctional democratic systems (i.e. a lack of ‘vertical accountability’).
One such case if Chile, where the weight of the institutions of horizontal accountability in particular, the Constitutional Court, is threatening the capacity of the majority of the people to decide—through their representatives—on key policies. This is due to the unrestrained activism of the current conservative majority of the Court, which has become an instrument at the disposal of right-wing parties and business associations.
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