- Argentine Democracy: The Politics of Institutional Weakness
By the late nineteenth century, Argentina was enjoying levels of political, economic, and social development comparable to those of nations that would eventually develop liberal democratic regimes and competitive capitalist economies. A hundred years later, however, the picture was substantively different. Instead of a stable liberal democratic [End Page 209] regime, Argentina experienced, from 1930 to 1983, a succession of repressive military dictatorships, populist regimes, and restricted democracy. Instead of a dynamic capitalist economy, from the 1940s on, the country was troubled by inflation, periodic crises, and economic stagnation.
During the 1990s Argentina seemed, once again, to be an exception. It was the only country in Latin America to implement a radical economic reform with full democracy. In 2001, however, after years of being widely praised as a model of successful economic and institutional reform, Argentina saw its incumbent president resign in the midst of massive antigovernment protests and the country fall into one of its worst economic depressions. How do we explain this sudden reversal of fortune?
The editors of this book respond to this question not with a theory of Argentine exceptionalism but with an explanation that places the vicissitudes of Argentine democracy from 1990 to 2001 in comparative perspective. To this end, they use the case study approach to build a theory that could explain similar events in other countries. Their theory is based on the concept of institutional weakness, the main feature that, in their view, contemporary Argentine democracy shares with most democracies in the developing and postcommunist worlds.
According to the editors, institutional weakness should be defined negatively, as the absence of those attributes that define institutional strength. Institutions are strong when the rules that exist on paper are enforced and stable (2–3). Therefore, institutions are weak when they lack one or both of these dimensions. As the editors rightly claim, the institutionalist approach that dominated the study of Latin American politics during the last two decades has often taken these dimensions for granted instead of considering them as variables that may exist in greater or lesser degree. This is misleading, because in Latin America, as in most countries of the world, institutional rules that exist on paper are frequently changed or ignored.
The various chapters explore the implications of institutional weakness in explaining policy swings (Pablo T. Spiller and Mariano Tommasi), the success and failure of Carlos Menem's economic reform (Kent Eaton, Sebastián Etchemendy), the resilience of the Peronist party and the disadvantages of non-Peronist parties (Levitsky, Ernesto Calvo and Murillo), the crisis of representation (Juan Carlos Torre, Enrique Peruzzotti, Javier Auyero), the influence of provincial party bosses in congressional politics (Mark P. Jones and Wonjae Hwang), and the role of the Supreme Court (Gretchen Helmke). Several of these chapters emphasize that while institutional weakness may be effective for adapting to changing political and economic conditions in the short term, it also creates problems of credibility and coordination in the long term. [End Page 210]
Spiller and Tommasi, for instance, point out that economic policy in Argentina has been extremely volatile, which has led to extremely rigid policies. In their view, policy rigidity, such as the convertibility law enacted during Menem's first presidency, was simply an attempt to make a credible commitment in a context of constant policy shifts. Levitsky argues that the weak institutionalization of the Peronist party is a key variable for understanding both its intermittent internal struggles and its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. The chapter by Helmke argues that while the lack of enforcement of constitutional provisions granting judicial independence has reduced the institutional autonomy of the Supreme Court, it has also induced the justices to rule against the government when the latter is perceived as weak.
Although the editors propose institutional weakness as the main variable explaining the inefficiency of the policymaking process in Argentina and the poor performance of its democratic regime, several chapters highlight problems created by formal...