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  • Latin America’s Parties
  • Jonathan Hartlyn (bio)
Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America. Edited by Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully. Stanford University Press, 1995. 578 pp.

This book represents a major step forward in the analysis of parties and party systems in Latin America, enriching the debate enormously. Introductory and concluding chapters by the coeditors make an important general argument, raise issues for further research, and place the country cases in a coherent comparative framework. In between, the 12 country studies provide a wealth of information; written by a mix of senior and junior scholars, the chapters are of uniformly high quality.

Mainwaring and Scully argue that “the critical difference among Latin American party systems is whether or not a competitive party system is institutionalized” (p. 1). For them, a strong, institutionalized party system is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for consolidating democracy and for governing effectively. I agree, although I believe that they have not considered all the relevant issues regarding institutionalization here. Their conclusion briefly reviews the impact on parties and party systems of several contemporary changes in the region. These include the region’s wave of democratization, severe economic crisis, the emergence of antistatist economic policies, the questioning of the traditional Left in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and the impact of the mass media and other technological changes on campaigns and party organizational strength.

The editors’ focus on party institutionalization leads them to reject categorizing countries by the traditional criterion of the number of parties. To determine party institutionalization, Mainwaring and Scully combine four criteria: regularity of party competition (low electoral volatility); stability of parties’ roots in society; legitimacy accorded parties and elections; and the existence of solid party organizations independent of individual leaders. On the basis of these criteria, the 12 country cases are divided into “institutionalized party systems,” “inchoate party systems,” and an intermediate and somewhat residual category, “hegemonic party systems in transition.”

The “institutionalized party systems” include six countries that differ in terms of the longevity of their parties, the types of parties and party systems that they have, the history and nature of their democratic experiences, and their evolution subsequent to the book’s publication. Chile (chapter by Timothy Scully) and Uruguay (Luis González), both with deeply rooted parties of long standing and a long history of [End Page 174] democracy, but also both victims of military takeovers in the 1970s, are naturally located here. Scully focuses principally on elements of continuity, whereas González stresses the challenges of change.

Colombia (Ronald Archer), with traditional parties reaching back into the nineteenth century, is often superficially lumped together with Venezuela (Miriam Kornblith and Daniel Levine) because both experienced transitions to democracy in the late 1950s and did not experience military breakdowns in the 1970s. Not in this book. Instead, the chapters here show that the history and nature of the major parties, their organization, and their links to both state and society have varied greatly across the two countries, with profound implications for the kinds of problems of governance and democracy that each has experienced.

The chapter on Venezuela was completed prior to the 1993 presidential elections, which saw the emergence of new political forces and a dramatic fall in the vote for the two parties that symbolized the country’s institutionalized party system. Yet the chapter’s discussion of the challenges of economic scarcity; of the perceived “suffocation” of civil society by the two excessively centralized, pragmatic, and corrupt political parties; and of the military’s discontent make this outcome understandable. Also included is the often overlooked case of Costa Rica (Deborah Yashar), the only unequivocally successful democracy in the region since the early 1950s. James McGuire’s chapter on Argentina analyzes the “movementist tendencies” of the major parties, especially the Peronists, and the weakness of the ties between class actors and the parties, two features that call into question the extent to which Argentina falls into the “institutionalized” category.

The two hegemonic party systems in transition are Mexico and Paraguay. Ann Craig and Wayne Cornelius place in their proper context societal dynamics and the myriad electoral-rule changes enacted by Mexico’s hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 174-177
Launched on MUSE
1996-10-01
Open Access
No
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