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Party-System Change in Latin America

Summary and Keywords

From one point of view, Latin America’s party systems are in a constant state of change, with high levels of electoral volatility, recurrent episodes of personalism, and a generally low level of predictability. From a deeper analytic perspective, however, there are clear differences between periods of massive, essentially region-wide party-system change, as at the birth of mass politics in the first half of the 20th century and during the neoliberal era, and periods of relative stability, such as the period of the Cold War. Latin American party politics is thus characterized by a rhythm of (sometimes long) periods of continuity interrupted by episodes of crisis and change. Episodes of change occur when the foundations of political competition are revised: at the dawn of mass politics in the early 20th century, for example, or during the period of political and economic reform that marked the end of the Cold War. A distinctly Latin American puzzle for the study of party systems emerges from taking the long view of these periods of stability and disruption. For the most part, party systems in the region are distinctly central to politics and electoral in origin, in contrast to many other developing countries where parties are noncentral, volatile, or oriented toward nonelectoral forms of governance. Yet, these same party systems are largely unable to adjust their appeals when faced with fundamental transformations to the social, political, or economic landscape—in contrast to the party systems of much of North America and Western Europe, where many parties and party systems have successfully navigated multiple such transformations with the identities of key parties intact.

Keywords: Parties, party systems, democracy, neoliberalism, Latin American politics

Concepts of Latin American Party-System Change

Party-system change in Latin America shares important features with change in other regions, but has also called scholarly attention to features that are perhaps exclusive to the region, or at a minimum more visible there. As a result, conceptualizations of party-system change draw on theories that are general but also on concepts developed exclusively or largely by reference to Latin American parties. Table 1 summarizes a range of highly influential concepts of Latin American party-system change, each of which is discussed in additional depth in the text. While each of these concepts highlights some important feature of Latin America’s party systems, the critical junctures theory has a special place in the literature as a concept that descriptively highlights the region’s signature pattern of relative stability interrupted by transformative party-system crisis.

Table 1. Key Concepts of Latin American Party-System Change



Prototypical Example


The key issues and constituencies that divide parties change dramatically, but the identity of the parties does not change.

Uruguay and Colombia during the first half of the 20th century


At least one new party enters the party system, but no party leaves it.

Mexico’s PAN and PRD during the 1990s and early 2000s


At least one party leaves the party system, but no party enters it.

URD in Venezuela, 1973


All major parties simultaneously leave the party system, or see their vote shares fall dramatically.

Peru in 1990, Venezuela in 1998

Critical Juncture

A shared crisis across multiple countries is resolved by different strategies by party systems in a way that leaves a lasting legacy.

The rise of labor unions during the first half of the 20th century

Note. URD refers to the Democratic Republican Union. PAN is the National Action Party. PRD is the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

The literature on party-system change in Latin America has been influenced by political science and sociological research on party systems in the United States and Western Europe. Thus, some research has explored dynamics of the cleavage structures of Latin American party systems (Dix, 1989), whether the cartel nature of some party systems generated a paralysis that provoked party-system and democratic breakdown (Norden, 1998), how institutionalized Latin American party systems are (Mainwaring & Scully, 1995), and so forth. Other major ideas from Western Europe, including the proposal that party crisis there originates from a weakening of organizational ties between voters and parties (Mair, 1997, Chapter 3), have required revision to be applied in Latin America. Some Latin American parties were highly personalized and organizationally thin even during the era of mass politics, yet even contemporary parties in the region sometimes retain some forms of mass organization; hence, reinterpretation is needed. Nonetheless, as this article discusses, ideas related to party organizational dynamics as a key element of party-system change have been important in understanding Latin American party politics.

It is of course possible to ask and answer important questions about Latin American party-system change using either concepts imported to the region or those developed specifically for it. For example, Coppedge draws on the non-region-specific concept of party-system volatility in order to demonstrate that Latin American party systems have long been unstable in comparison with those of Western Europe and the United States (Coppedge, 2001). Other productive work on Latin American party systems also draws on general concepts of party-system change, such as realignment. Party-system realignments (also called “critical elections”) are elections in which “the decisive results of the voting reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate” (Key, 1955, p. 4).1 While the concept of realignment has been applied to a range of varieties of party-system change (Sundquist, 1983, pp. 19–34), for the present purpose of differentiating among degrees of party-system change, it will be most helpful to use the term realigning election to refer to moments in which the electoral balance shifts in a dramatic and lasting way among the parties within a given party system.2

By this definition, the periods during the first half of the 20th century in which the labor union movement was incorporated into the traditional party systems of Uruguay and Colombia (Collier & Collier, 2002, pp. 271–313) would seem to meet the definition. Party-system realignments obviously transform the politics of a country. Nonetheless, there is a degree of organizational continuity in a realignment that clearly differentiates it from party-system collapse.

Some episodes of Latin American party-system change involve an expansion or contraction of the party system. One or more established parties may disappear without replacement; alternatively, emerging parties may force their way into the party system without eliminating the existing parties. In Europe, the emergence of left-libertarian (Kitschelt, 1989) and radical-right (Kitschelt & McGann, 1997) political parties since the early 1980s fits into this category of party-system change. Established parties of the center-left and center-right have not generally disappeared in the face of these new partisan challengers, yet the emergence of these parties has certainly forced some restructuring of party systems. In Latin America, the emergence of the Mexican National Action Party (PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) as legitimate, electorally relevant competitors to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is a clear example of rather dramatic change by expansion of the party system (Greene, 2002; Mizrahi, 2003). During the 1990s, Argentina also experienced an expansion of the party system, when the Peronists and the Radicals were joined by the Frente País Solidario (FREPASO) movement (Seligson, 2003). The scope of these party-system changes notwithstanding, expansions or contractions of a party system preserve at least some of the established parties and are therefore a less complete change than a party-system collapse.

Party-system collapse, a topic of some special emphasis in the study of recent Latin American party systems, is clearly distinct from, and more disruptive than, the other forms of party-system change considered here. Aside from relatively recent South American cases, one of the best examples in recent decades of a party-system collapse is the transformation of the Italian party system in 1994. That year, two of the three traditional Italian parties fell into electoral irrelevance; this simultaneous crisis of essentially all the traditional parties seems to be a transformation of the same magnitude as that experienced in Peru during the late 1980s and in Venezuela during the 1990s. The dynamics of Venezuela’s party system in the years leading to the election of Hugo Chavez Frias in 1998 are perhaps the prototypical example of party-system collapse. In that country, a seemingly stable two-party system developed through the period of the Cold War, with persistent legislative dominance by the centrist union-linked party Acción Democratica (AD), while victories in presidential elections roughly alternated between AD and a centrist Christian Democratic Party, COPEI. After a conflictual neoliberal reform process in the late 1980s, including a series of riots and coup attempts, the two established parties were pressured by splinter movements and leftist insurgents. In 1993, the two main parties failed to capture the presidency and combined for about 46% of the vote. The party-system disruption deepened, and in 1998 the two established parties were in such a bad polling position that they withdrew their candidates and endorsed other parties. Such a brisk, almost complete electoral disappearance of all the parties in a system constitutes a distinctive mode of change, and one that has received significant attention in the literature on Latin America.

Using these concepts to structurally analyze party-system dynamics in Latin America can be illuminating. However, it is always important to bear in mind that the key empirical exemplars and central substantive contrasts that they were devised to highlight are drawn from a different domain. Party competition, survival, and replacement may well be different in countries that are relatively less developed, relatively more unequal, politically less stable, and so forth. Recognizing these contrasts, an alternative strand of literature on party-system change in Latin America offers concepts that are distinctively designed to capture patterns within the region and in other nonadvanced industrial democratic contexts. These include the model of party systems as shaped by patterns of critical junctures and path dependence (Collier & Collier, 1991; Roberts, 2014), but also research attentive to party-system collapse (Morgan, 2011; Seawright, 2012), trajectories resulting from partyarchy (Coppedge, 1994), and the developmental dynamics of semi-authoritarian machine parties (Greene, 2007).

Among the most notable of these concepts is the version of critical junctures and path dependency articulated by Collier and Collier (1991). This model of party-system change draws inspiration from Lipset and Rokkan’s (1967) analysis of history and the formation of Western European party systems. Lipset and Rokkan propose a series of developmental crises that sequentially arise and are resolved in the history of Western European countries. The way in which each crisis is addressed produces a particular set of orienting issues for the party system, and the structure of the party system becomes frozen after the last of these crises arises.

Collier and Collier draw on the concept of key moments of shared crisis that may have divergent resolutions as a structuring force for party-system development. However, in contrast to Lipset and Rokkan’s model, they make two major changes to adapt the theory for use in Latin America. First, they focus entirely on a single shared crisis: the economic and political rise of organized labor as countries in the region begin to industrialize and face the consequences of the Great Depression. In Collier and Collier’s framework, this single crisis provides the central structure for party-system development and contestation for several decades, rather than merely adding a layer to preexisting cleavages as in Lipset and Rokkan’s account.

Second, Collier and Collier identify path-dependent trajectories after the crisis that often consist of structured patterns of crisis and instability. While Lipset and Rokkan’s party systems are hypothesized to be frozen after passing through their critical junctures, Collier and Collier highlight that the well-known contestation of Latin American party systems and especially the instability of political regimes during the middle decades of the 20th century can itself be seen as a path-dependent and self-reinforcing trajectory. This modified and localized way of analyzing party-system change allows scholars to emphasize the raised stakes of key moments of political and economic transition in the region, as well as the ways that instability can itself become a stable pattern. As such, it has been influentially extended, for example, to the study of party-system evolution in the neoliberal era (Roberts, 2014).

This way of thinking about party systems in Latin America suggests that there are periods of deep disruption in the structure of party competition, the constituencies central to a country’s politics, and even the identities of parties—but that these periods of deep disruption should usually be followed by periods of stability. How consistent is the history of Latin American party politics with this expectation?

Party-System Turbulence at the Emergence of Mass Democracy

In most Latin American countries, party systems really only began to form in the normal sense during the first few decades of the 20th century. Before that time, organizations or other political groupings existed that were called parties, but they did not necessarily engage in routine electoral contests for political power. Hence, in the standard sense, party systems really emerge for the first time in conjunction with the rise of mass politics in Latin America.

Yet it is noteworthy that the signature parties of the early to mid-20th century in Latin America were for the most part different organizations with different names and traditions than the region’s predemocratic and pre-electoral parties. This is in notable contrast with the party systems of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. In those countries, expansion of the franchise did certainly correspond with changes in the cleavage structure that divided parties and citizens, and often also alterations in the overall structure of the party system that corresponded with the addition of one or more major new parties. However, the nearly universal path of party-system transformation in those contexts—and subsequently the benchmark for the study of party-system change worldwide—involves a pattern of layering (Lipset & Rokkan, 1967). In the United States, the party system expanded as the vote was extended to most white men during the early 19th century. When the franchise expanded to include women and nonwhite citizens, new issue agendas were layered onto the party system in response but the continuity of party organizations and traditions was maintained (Gerring, 2001). In Western Europe, the layering process often extended to the incorporation of new (Christian Democratic, labor, socialist, and so forth) parties into the system as vehicles for the expression of new issues and the representation of new constituencies. However, existing parties also responded to these dynamics and often remained permanent components of the party system.

In Latin America, by contrast, the party-system changes that came about with expansion of the franchise were often substantially discontinuous. Party systems in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, for example, consisted substantially of parties that arose during the period of franchise expansion. By contrast, only Colombia, Uruguay, and, to a limited extent, Chile offer clear examples in which new actors and issues were meaningfully layered into existing parties such that some degree of change in issue domains coexisted with substantial continuity of organizations and party traditions. Perhaps in part for this reason, Latin American party systems are frequently structured around support of, or opposition to, a single era-defining party. These pivotal parties serve as anchors to the party system as a whole. Their proposals transform the space of issue and policy competition, and their existence provides positive and negative poles to the space of partisan identification. Thus, we may define a system-anchoring party as a single party in a system that distinctively structures issue, policy, and electoral competition, with all other parties fundamentally defined by their support of or opposition to that central party. In a system with an anchoring party, opposition to that anchor sometimes provides stability for other parties. However, even if the identities of parties in opposition to the system anchor change over time, the system retains its basic character as long as the anchor persists.

In Argentina, the first major system-anchoring party to emerge early in the period of mass politics was the Unión Civica Radical (UCR) (Alonso, 2000). Founded in 1890, the UCR directly challenged the established political system and advocated, politically and sometimes also violently, for an expanded role of at least the middle classes in politics. As political participation expanded, the UCR emerged as the dominant political representative of the Argentine middle classes, denying any opportunity for existing political elites to fold such actors into existing coalitions. During this period of partially democratic electoral competition in Argentina, politics was largely defined by support of or opposition to the UCR’s democratizing agenda.

Furthermore, the expansion of Argentine mass politics to include working-class actors in cities and the countryside was substantially both spurred and managed by Peronism, which replaced the UCR as the system-anchoring partisan movement in the country. Both the UCR and older political and economic elites failed to adjust their political appeals and coalitions in ways that could invite peasants and urban workers into the existing political system. Instead, those actors adopted an intermittently radical rejection of the Peronist-anchored party system that led to coups and sometimes highly violent authoritarian interludes—but, significantly, did not substantially change the party system (Collier & Collier, 1991, pp. 484–497, 721–742; McGuire, 1997).

Peru’s political system in the period shortly before the rise of mass politics was dominated by the elite, civilian Civilista Party (Gonzales, 1991). That party disintegrated during the 1920s, in the early phases of the period leading to the expansion of the franchise. As mass politics emerged, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party captured substantial segments of the new electorate (Collier & Collier, 1991, pp. 470–483, 694–720). Elite and other opposition to APRA focused around individual candidates, military interventions, and later center-right parties such as Acción Popular. Thus, the key Peruvian system-anchoring party through much of the 20th century, APRA, emerged from the transition to mass politics and remained the focus of political contestation for decades even though it rarely exercised power.

In Venezuela, the emergence of mass politics is essentially synonymous with the creation of the populist center-left Acción Democratica (AD) party and, to a lesser extent, its center-right rival, the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI) (Coppedge, 1994). Before the founding of these two parties, Venezuelan politics had been defined by the rule of individualistic strongman dictators, and hence had few parties which could even attempt to contest mass elections. Instead, AD and COPEI fought for the establishment of democratic governance and then dominated the electoral landscape as soon as it emerged. These two parties structured Venezuelan politics from the 1940s through the 1990s. Thus, Venezuela arguably lacked a single system-anchoring party, with the two major parties instead each having positive poles of identification and ideological positioning, thus jointly defining a more complete system than in many other Latin American countries.

Costa Rica’s government had significant democratic elements early in its history, including governance by elections that, although in many ways less than fully free and fair, produced victories by alternating parties through the early decades of the 20th century. One of the parties that played a central, anchoring role in the country’s full transition to democracy, the National Union Party, emerged in fits and starts during that early protodemocratic period and became a major coalition player in the party system of the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, the true anchoring party of Costa Rica’s main 20th-century period of mass politics was the National Liberation Party, a party that emerged directly from the civil war that marked the transition to full democracy. While the National Union Party was a component of a few important electoral coalitions, the National Liberation Party won over 40% of the vote in nearly every fully democratic election in Costa Rica during the 20th century and elected seven presidents during that time (M.A. Seligson, 2002). Thus, while there was greater continuity in both regime and party system during the expansion of mass politics in Costa Rica than in Argentina, Peru, or Venezuela, it is nonetheless true that the key anchoring party of the country’s main 20th-century system was a product of the transition to mass politics rather than a remnant of the earlier period.

Mexico’s transition to mass politics famously involved a social revolution that radically disrupted and replaced the entire political class. Eventually, the revolutionary movement coalesced into the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party, the single political organization that dominated Mexican politics for the second half of the 20th century (Collier & Collier, 1991, pp. 242–250, 574–608). It would be impossible to point to a Latin American party, or more broadly a Latin American political system, that was more radically transformed by the rise of mass politics.

Brazil’s political system before the emergence of mass politics was, somewhat unusually, a political system that was nominally electoral and based on mass suffrage. Yet formal and informal practices kept control of political offce in the hands of oligarchs, largely among the agricultural sectors of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo. Thus, there were effectively no political parties that could even potentially compete to capture the allegiance of the mass electorate. Moreover, the transition to mass politics was itself managed via the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, further delaying the formation of meaningful mass parties. Indeed, it seems plausible to argue that Brazil did not have even an incipient party system until after the transition to democracy in the 1980s (Mainwaring, 1999).

While replacement of the political elite and all existing parties along with the emergence of mass politics was thus the norm throughout much of the region, there were some Latin American party systems that managed to reconfigure themselves so as to incorporate new constituencies into existing parties. Colombia’s Liberal and Conservative Parties, for example, incorporated mass electorates well enough that they were able to persist through the transition and dominate politics in the country for most of the 20th century. Uruguay’s Colorado and National Parties had a similar trajectory (Collier & Collier, 1991, pp. 271–313).

Chile’s party system was less successful at absorbing new voters than those of Colombia and Uruguay, and thus experienced greater disruption. During the predemocratic period, the country’s party system was highly nationalized and centered in the parliament. There were stable and relatively powerful organizations that represented the oligarchy as well as the middle classes, including the Radicals, Conservatives, Nationals, and Liberals. Yet, these were essentially parliamentary rather than electoral parties. Thus, there were few political groupings with meaningful ties to the masses. Yet, starting in 1888, the Radical Party transformed itself into a genuinely democratic political party, and became one of the few examples in the region of a predemocratic elite party successfully shifting organizationally and strategically to incorporate a substantial share of new voters after the expansion of the franchise (Scully, 1992).

After the significant disruptions of the era of mass franchise, which in most places resulted in wholesale party-system change, Latin American party systems generally experienced a period of comparative stability during democratic (or at least electoral) spells. As Levitsky, Loxton, van Dyck, and Dominguez (2017) emphasize, long-lasting parties in Latin America mostly emerged from periods of conflict such as the birth of mass democracy. By no means were party systems in the region stable in absolute terms after the end of that period; by most volatility metrics, the most stable Latin American countries during the middle and late decades of the 20th century would be at best comparable to the least stable advanced industrial countries. Nonetheless, for most countries, certain key parties became stabilizing and routinizing elements that anchored party systems. Furthermore, it is worth reemphasizing that, where system-anchoring parties existed, they were the product of the transition to democracy rather than parties from an earlier era that had adapted to the new political environment; it is also true that no such anchoring parties were born during the long decades after the birth of mass democracy but before the end of the Cold War. The same is true of the two main 20th-century parties in Venezuela. Party systems in Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay flexibly adjusted—to one degree or another—to the political changes connected with mass politics, but most other party systems were effectively replaced during this period. This stands in marked contrast to the dynamics of franchise change in Western Europe and the United States, contexts where several parties successfully navigated parallel changes and provided an element of continuity to party politics throughout the 20th century.

Understanding the Party-System Volatility of Recent Decades

Much has changed for Latin American party systems since the 1970s. The majority of the parties mentioned in the section on “Party-System Turbulence at the Emergence of Mass Democracy” have seen their political roles vastly diminished, and many have all but ceased to exist. Argentina’s Unión Civica Radical and Peronist parties have become fragmented and disarticulated, as have Colombia’s Liberal and Conservative Parties. The APRA party in Peru has broken apart, arguably twice. Venezuela’s Acción Democratica and Christian Democratic Party have largely disintegrated. Costa Rica’s National Liberation Party is facing significant electoral decline, as is Mexico’s once-insurmountable Institutional Revolutionary Party. The party system which emerged during Brazil’s transition to democracy is in disarray and faces the prospect of collapse; the same could perhaps be said for Chile’s party system. Uruguay’s Colorado Party has become relatively marginal, although the National Party remains relevant. Taken as a whole, the party-system transformations of the neoliberal era in Latin America have been among the most abrupt and dramatic in democratic history.

In some countries, these transformations have led to new patterns of party-centered competition. Venezuela, Mexico, and Bolivia offer examples of systems in which new governing parties, structured in large part around opposition to the economic changes of the neoliberal period, have generated a dynamic of support and opposition that reflects a new party system in formation. On the other hand, some countries have experienced far more lasting party-system disruption. Peru arguably marks the extreme in this direction, in which politics has been nearly devoid of durable parties in recent electoral cycles.

Many other party systems occupy a diffcult-to-characterize middle ground in which politicians from once-established parties or their offshoots compete alongside political outsiders and representatives of altogether new movements. However, it is noteworthy that, once again, few countries have seen their party systems adjust to incorporate new constituencies and issue domains. Anti-neoliberal voters, pro-indigenous voters, voters motivated by new forms of crime and other security threats, and so forth have largely found their political voice either in new parties or outside the realm of party politics altogether.

Scholars have offered a range of explanations for the party-system changes of recent decades. Some scholars emphasize the policy and ideological challenges of governing Latin American countries during the neoliberal era. It may be possible to explain party-system turmoil by reference to economic performance (Remmer, 1991), although one may note that Latin American economies have had quite divergent economic trajectories in recent years and many have performed better during the period of party-system dissolution than they did during the more stable era of the mid-20th century. Alternatively, it is possible that ideological and policy pressures from the United States and the international system make it difficult to set economic policy in a way that avoids both international and domestic political and economic punishment. These pressures may have contributed to problems of ideological underrepresentation that eroded party-system stability and, at the limit, destroyed traditional parties (Morgan, 2011; Seawright, 2012). In explaining episodes of party-system collapse, Morgan emphasizes the comprehensive erosion of all kinds of linkages between parties and voters in Venezuela particularly, showing that the neoliberal period eroded not only identification and ideological connection between citizens and parties but also connections related to clientelism, charismatic leadership, and organization. Seawright’s broadly compatible explanation focuses somewhat more narrowly on the sense of betrayal Peruvian and Venezuelan voters felt as a consequence of corruption and parties’ ideological changes during the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. From a slightly different perspective, Cyr (2017) emphasizes similar themes by analyzing the ways that the relative degree of persistence of parties’ identity and organization allows some parties from the Peruvian, Venezuelan, and Bolivian systems to partially recover after the end of the neoliberal era. Roberts (2014) offers perhaps the most comprehensive development of this perspective, presenting an argument in which the ideological and policy pressures of the neoliberal era generate divergent party-system outcomes depending on prior party-system structures and regime conditions. This account remains a powerful theoretical and empirical statement, and probably makes the best possible case connecting party-system change to the pressures of the neoliberal era per se. Nonetheless, subsequent party-system dynamics in countries theorized to have stable outcomes, including Brazil, Mexico, and Chile, raise the question of whether parts of Roberts’s analysis may have been too optimistic regarding institutionalization.

Other analysts have offered arguments accounting for party-system change in terms of strategic and organizational aspects of parties themselves. In some theories, the problem is that parties change too much, too frequently, in the process eroding their party brand and losing their electoral value (Lupu, 2016). Alternatively, Latin American parties may have been too slow to change due to excessive intraparty organizational investments, limited intraparty ideological diversity, and so forth (Seawright, 2012, pp. 165–200; Wills-Otero, 2015). Ideological inflexibility may damage party systems because it limits the capacity of the system’s constituent parties to respond to the emergence of new issue areas, to shifts in the ideological distribution of voters, or to new strategic situations that arise because of changes in party-system structure.

Alternatively, some scholars have theorized a central role for corruption and corruption scandals as explanations of Latin American parties’ recent turmoil. When corruption is exposed, it may lead citizens to reject parties’ claims of being representatives in favor of viewing them as purely self-interested private actors. This, in turn, may provoke a kind of moral outrage or anger that motivates a search for alternatives outside the established party system (Coppedge, 2005; Seawright, 2012, pp. 144–164). If corruption has been more common since the third wave of democratization than it was previously in the region—a dubious possibility—then the difference may explain the surge of party and party-system breakdown. Alternatively, changes in journalistic practices and in the accessibility of news may mean that citizens become more aware of, and more punitive regarding, corruption even though the overall level is the same or lower than it was before.

Finally, some scholars point to structural causes of party-system instability, hypothesizing that party systems are overthrown by factors such as the persistent poverty and inequality of the region or by global trends in oil and other natural resource prices. Persistent poverty and inequality may generate a bedrock level of political dissatisfaction that destabilizes parties (Molina, 2001), although it is challenging to see how this explanation could account for the increased level of party-system destruction since the 1970s relative to the middle of the 20th century. Natural resource prices may be more successful here (Mazzuca, 2013); international oil prices in particular have been both more volatile and relatively higher since the early 2000s. If high prices for oil and other resources make party systems more fragile, then these factors could account for the increased volatility of recent times. Alternatively, the volatility of resource prices may undermine party systems by periodically wiping out systems of clientelistic distribution when prices fall.

Thus, scholars have offered a range of plausible and often empirically credible explanations for episodes of party-system volatility since the 1970s. Debates persist about which explanation or sets of explanations is best, but in explaining any given episode of party-system change it seems plausible that many or most of these factors may be contributing causes. Yet, there is a risk that, in offering case-by-case explanations and attending to the role of many contributing causes, a broader shared pattern of weakness in Latin American party systems may be missed.

Lingering Puzzles

Indeed, considering the overall trajectory of party-system change in Latin America since the rise of mass democracy, a fundamental anomaly emerges. Latin American party politics are defined by the existence of system-anchoring parties that are primarily electoral, durable, and yet brittle in terms of representation. While individual political leaders, military and other nondemocratic regimes, and social movements have clearly made parallel marks on the political history of the region, parties have been at least as central. In fact, the most famous and arguably the most influential leaders created parties or party ideologies bigger than themselves: Peronism, Aprismo, or Chavismo, to take three examples. Likewise, the region’s nondemocratic interludes have often had the intention of restraining or otherwise responding to party politics; consider Argentina’s Proceso, the Pinochet regime in Chile, or the Venezuelan Pérez Jiménez period. Thus, Latin American party systems are neither obviously epiphenomenal nor irrelevant, but rather often at or near the heart of their countries’ political systems. Furthermore, the parties in question routinely have a lifespan lasting decades, rather than the much shorter durations associated with purely personalistic movements.

It is noteworthy, as well, that most Latin American parties have maintained their electoral focus throughout most of their political history. With the significant exception of Cuba, even Latin America’s more authoritarian parties—such as Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party during much of the 20th century, or the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in the late Chavez and early Maduro period—have maintained an electoral orientation. Furthermore, interludes in which major Latin American parties adopt a paramilitary or revolutionary posture have been rare.

Thus, Latin American party systems are in some regards strikingly more similar to the party systems of Western Europe and North America than to the more volatile and often less electorally oriented party systems of much of the rest of the developing world. This makes it all the more striking and anomalous that few Latin American parties have ever managed to adjust their political appeals or incorporate new groups into their electoral coalitions. During the party-system transitions accompanying the rise of mass politics, arguably only Colombia’s and Uruguay’s party systems were notably successful in this regard. Furthermore, the more recent transformations through the neoliberal era and afterwards have mostly been marked by the replacement or diminishment of long-standing party-system anchors rather than their adjustment to include new voices. Thus, across a period of over a century, party systems in the region pose an as-yet not fully answered puzzle: Why are they durable and electorally oriented, but yet unable to shift in ways that maximize electoral success during times of social and economic transformation?


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                                                                          (1.) The characterization of specific elections in the United States as realigning, as well as causal claims used to explain realigning elections, have been vigorously disputed (Mayhew, 2002). However, the term may remain useful in a descriptive sense.

                                                                          (2.) This usage corresponds with the 20th-century elections in the United States that are most often described as realigning, although not with some of the 19th-century elections.