Rethinking how think tanks participate in democratic elections

SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

2024 is an important election year, with voters heading to the polls in at least 64 countries.

Voting is fundamental to democracy. But when democratic processes fail to benefit voters and social inequality grows, populist leaders and discourses can rise by promising to ‘deliver results’. Such leaders capitalise on the failure of democracy to further the interests of a minority rather than those of the majority. 

Despite the institutional weaknesses in the democratic process, the role of think tanks in generating evidence and analyses is vital in the ongoing efforts to strengthen citizens’ participation in electoral processes and within the representation mechanisms. 

However, further efforts are needed; the desired change will only be generated when think tanks include elements and initiatives that contribute to effectively addressing the population’s fundamental needs, including reducing inequality and eradicating corruption.

The challenges to democracy and the need to rethink think tanks’ participation in elections are exemplified by the Ecuadorian context; therefore, we’ll explore this issue through the lens of democracy-strengthening efforts in Ecuador: Ecuador Decide

Ecuador Decide

The political landscape in Ecuador, as in many parts of Latin America, has been characterised by volatility and a crisis of confidence in public institutions: according to the Americas Barometer (2021), only 6% of the population is highly satisfied with democracy.

In addition, the barometer shows that 60% of Ecuador’s population feel unrepresented by political parties. Scandals involving corruption, inefficiency and the perceived inability of political leaders to address critical societal issues have further eroded trust in the democratic process. 

It was in this context that the Ecuadorian think tank, FARO, implemented the Ecuador Decide initiative, which began in 2016. 

It is a citizen-led, pluralistic and independent initiative, which aims to revitalise democratic engagement by making political discourse more accessible, promoting an informed electorate, and facilitating a more transparent dialogue between candidates and the public. Ecuador Decide is part of a wider group of efforts by Latin American think tanks to inform electoral processes. +

Over the last six years, Ecuador Decide has achieved much: 

  • It has analysed more than 5,000 campaign proposals for local and national elections, generating over 100 analysis documents. 
  • It has formed a strategic partnership with Facebook, making a link to a website about campaign proposals available to 9.5 million users two days before the national elections. 
  • It has organised several mayoral candidate debates and broadcast them on national television for the first time. 

In addition, FARO has influenced the regulations on organising mandatory debates for presidential candidates. 

Ecuador Decide: critical reflections

After a decade of working to inform and improve electoral processes in Ecuador, the political, social and economic crisis that has engulfed the country in recent months casts doubt on all our claims of impact.

Therefore, it’s necessary to look back at the experience of Ecuador Decide critically.

Although the initiative has generated positive results, it’s difficult to verify and measure the real impact of Ecuador Decide’s actions on improving democratic quality.

For example, an increase in followers or the number of visits to the website does not necessarily indicate more informed, responsible or consistent users, nor does it indicate the initiative’s impact on candidate’s choices once in power. 

Similarly, although the popularity of Cuenca’s winning mayoral candidate surged after the debate, there is no way to prove that the debate caused the change in voter preferences. 

However, the influence of FARO’s Ecuador Decide in the emergence and proliferation of similar initiatives from civil society organisations, academia and the private sector is undeniable. 

The sustained and increasing interest of non-public actors in this theme has expanded the scope and impact of Ecuador Decide’s actions. 

But this was also a trend spreading across the region. Given this, our impact search should move away from the parochial and consider how the actions of multiple think tanks in the region may have influenced the collective narrative around electoral reform. But this is a long discussion for another article!

Challenges for democracy-strengthening initiatives

The problems for democracy-strengthening initiatives, such as Ecuador Decide, arise when their efforts are nullified in the short and medium term, which jeopardises their sustainability in the long term. 

For example, when candidates are assassinated during the electoral campaign, when the elected President or members of the National Assembly are replaced before the end of their term, or when already weak institutions collapse under unprecedented corruption and violence.

The rules underpinning democracy – and on which initiatives for democratic participation are also designed – assume that there are formal democratic institutions, which are solid and stable. It’s assumed that these institutions are there to represent/respond to the interests of the population, without de facto actors interfering as non-independent third parties. 

This is not the rule in Ecuador or in Latin America, generally. In fact, the same can probably be said of most countries that call themselves democratic – in some countries, it is not even possible to verify that there are free, fair and transparent elections.

In Ecuador, for example, 65% of the population prefers economic well-being to having elections (LAPOP 2022).  

This illustrates how the public are willing to give up their political and civil rights and even their country’s advances in human rights in exchange for economic, social and cultural rights. 

This mindset can arise in the following conditions: 

  • When people are struggling to survive because they can’t meet their basic needs – How can they be expected to prioritise the public good when they are preoccupied with their own survival? 
  • When people have not had access to the education necessary to see the relevance and importance of voting.
  • When it’s impossible for someone without capital or the backing of economic or political power to win if they manage to run for office. 

In unequal societies with weak institutions, these conditions result in oligarchic or corporate governments that are only concerned with benefiting their group, not the majority. 

This analysis does not invite initiatives like Ecuador Decide to disappear but rather to be reinforced and redesigned, considering the existing institutional weaknesses in our countries, the inequity and exclusion of our societies, and the capture of politics by de facto actors with particular interests.