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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 56-69



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The "Normalization" of Argentine Politics

Steven Levitsky *


On 24 October 1999, Fernando de la Rua of the opposition Alliance for Jobs, Justice, and Education was elected president of Argentina, defeating Eduardo Duhalde of the incumbent Justicialista (or Peronist) Party (PJ) by a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent. Former economics minister Domingo Cavallo, running on the center-right Action for the Republic party ticket, finished third with 10 percent. The election was unprecedented in several respects. De la Rua's assumption of the presidency marked the first time that Argentine democracy had survived two consecutive transfers of power from one party to another, as well as the first time that a Peronist had been removed from national office by democratic means. In addition, the new Alliance government, which is made up of the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR) and the center-left Front for a Country in Solidarity (FREPASO), is the first real coalition government in Argentina's modern democratic history.

Perhaps the most striking change, however, was the routine--even boring--character of the election. De la Rua, a conventional politician without any of the charisma or "outsider" appeal of his predecessor Carlos Menem, ran a bland campaign that centered on clean government and institutional integrity. And in stark contrast to 1989, when hyperinflation and mass looting forced Raúl Alfonsín to hand over the presidency to Menem six months before the end of his term, the 1999 transition took place without a hitch and virtually without controversy. In short, a central characteristic of the 1999 election--Argentina's tenth national election since the collapse of military rule [End Page 56] in 1983--was the unprecedented degree to which electoral politics had become routinized.

This turn toward "normalized" democratic politics represents a major break with the past. For most of this century, Argentina has been considered one of the world's leading democratic underachievers. Despite its high levels of wealth and education, large middle class, relatively egalitarian social structure, and developed civil society, civilian regimes repeatedly broke down between 1930 and 1976. As Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi note, Argentina is the wealthiest country ever to have suffered a democratic breakdown. 1 Moreover, only a few years ago, the Menem government's concentration and abuse of executive power seemed to suggest that Argentine democracy remained badly flawed. Scholars offered relatively pessimistic assessments of the regime, often treating it as a leading case of unconsolidated or "delegative" democracy. 2 By the end of the decade, however, Argentina had diverged substantially from other "problematic" cases in Latin America (such as Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela) and had in many ways begun to resemble its better institutionalized neighbors in Chile and Uruguay.

These developments suggest the need to rethink some recent accounts of contemporary Argentine democracy. In retrospect, many of these analyses appear to have been overly pessimistic: They tended to overstate the degree and impact of the Menem government's abuses of executive power, and they tended to understate important democratic advances that, while partially obscured by Menem's "hypermajoritarian" behavior, nevertheless continued through the 1990s.

Reexamining Argentine Democracy

Argentine democracy evolved in diverging and seemingly contradictory ways in the 1990s. On the one hand, the Menem government's concentration and abuse of power weakened representative institutions, thereby eroding what Guillermo O'Donnell has called "horizontal accountability." 3 President Menem governed in a highly unilateral manner, acting in ways that were often perceived to violate the spirit--if not the letter--of the constitution. In 1990, for example, the government pushed through legislation (over the objections of the opposition and with a contested quorum) expanding the size of the Supreme Court from five to nine judges and then stacked it with Menem loyalists. Menem also made widespread use of his power to issue executive decrees, issuing 336 "Decrees of Necessity and Urgency" between July 1989 and August 1994. By contrast, the government of Raúl Alfonsín issued just 10 such decrees between 1983 and 1989. Finally, Menem's reckless pursuit of constitutional reforms permitting his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 56-69
Launched on MUSE
2000-04-01
Open Access
No
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