Democratization and the Emergence of Responsive Party Systems in Latin America

Project directed by Simon Bornschier and Daniele Caramani

Our point of departure is the failure of the major theories of democratization to explain differences in the consolidation of democracy across Latin America. We argue that an important determinant for the successful democratization is the emergence of a party system that mirrors voter preferences. Because many parties in Latin America and elsewhere use clientelistic appeals to mobilize voters, they fail to represent the programmatic preferences of their electorate, which would be one of democracy’s most central goals according to democratic theory. In this research project, we study under which conditions ideological party systems emerge, combining comparative historical analysis and quantitative statistical methods.

We postulate two routes to programmatic party competition. One is historical and took place during the first wave of democratization in the early 20th century, similar to the formation of ideological cleavages in Western Europe. The other is more recent and depends on the presence of parties that actively seek to overcome clientelistic patterns of mobilization.

We study the first route by adopting a “Rokkanian” perspective that focuses on critical junctures and historical legacies that set countries apart (Lipset and Rokkan 1967, Rokkan 1999, Collier and Collier 1991). In some countries in Latin America, such as in Chile and Uruguay, strong ideological cleavages emerged during the early steps towards democracy, and this resulted in an early prevalence of programmatic party competition. In other countries, a different historical sequencing allowed the established political elites to maintain clientelistic modes of mobilization. As a result, party systems may remain unresponsive to the demands of the citizenry for decades. It is these party systems that are then vulnerable to the kind of anti-establishment mobilization witnessed in Venezuela. The first step of the project is to develop a cleavage account of party system formation that explains the stark contrasts between ten Latin American countries in terms of party system development. We then use the insights generated from this historical analysis to derive predictions concerning contemporary patterns of interest representation across the continent. Our hypothesis is that the way conflicts were mobilized early on affects the long-term capacity of parties to structure and represent voter preferences. We test these predictions in a quantitative over-time analysis of the quality of representation in our ten Latin American countries.

In this quantitative analysis of contemporary patterns of representation, we also address the second, alternative route to programmatic party competition. This route is open even to those countries that lack the favorable historical circumstances of the forerunners in terms of democratic accountability. In line with recent research pointing to the role of agency in cleavage formation, we do not expect the early historical experience to fully determine contemporary patterns of party competition. Consequently, we study the extent to which new parties exert pressure on party systems to become more responsive to voter preferences. This line of research is further developed in our project on the Latin American left.