Party Organizational Structure in Latin America
Summary and Keywords
Partisan organizations are the set of structured patterns of interaction among political cadres and members alike that are prescribed either by formal rules of procedure or by traditions and unwritten rules. Scholars of Latin America have generally described local partisan organizations as weak but have also devoted significant attention to the study of informal party structures, whose robustness and complexity have tended to contrast with the general fragility of their formal counterparts. Although important data-related challenges have precluded more systematic and generalizable analyses of the causes and consequences of party organizations, meticulous theoretical works and case studies have explored the questions of what organizations look like, how they operate, how they were built, and what outcomes they result in. This literature has identified ideational and tangible resources as the primary predictors of organizational strength. Strong and easily identifiable party brands provide both politicians and partisans with incentives to join and remain in a political party even in times of bad electoral performance and limited selective benefits. Material resources are shaped by countries’ institutional frameworks and structure politicians’ priorities in terms of their career ambitions and their relationships to voters and partisans. In turn, robust organizations have been associated with longer party survival and a narrower margin of action of the party leaderships. The presence of an extended network of party members and sympathizers make parties more resilient to short-term challenges, which is no small feat in a region marked by relatively high electoral volatility and many institutions of fleeting existence. The recent release of several important data sets and the proliferation of knowledge of how parties work create exciting avenues for future research.
Organization building does not come naturally or automatically to political actors. It is a difficult, time-consuming, costly, and often risky enterprise.
Stathis Kalyvas (1996, p. 41)
Scholars of Latin America have produced important advances in the study of party organizations in third-wave democracies. This article reviews the relevant literature on the topic of party structures in the region, systematizing existing knowledge on three main questions. “What We Know About Partisan Organizations in Latin America” defines the concept of party organization and discusses what we know about Latin American partisan organizations—that relatively few of them are strong, and formal structures are frequently complemented by informal machines. “The Why and How of Partisan Organization Building” presents the factors that the literature has identified as significant predictors of organizational building, focusing on two broad categories of determinants: ideational capital and tangible resources. “Do Partisan Organizations Matter?” discusses the effect of partisan organizations on a number of outcomes of interest ranging from party survival and cohesion to democratic representation and systemic stability. Finally, “Methodological Approaches and Primary Sources of Data” presents some of the methodological constraints that challenge systematic comparisons of Latin American parties, identifies the sources of data available for such analyses, and offers some example of what the existing data could tell us about Latin American partisan organizations. The article’s “Conclusion” discusses possible directions for future investigations.
What We Know About Partisan Organizations in Latin America
What Is a Party Organization?
Partisan organizations are complex institutions with multiple attributes and characteristics (Janda, 1980, p. 98). In the words of one of the leading scholars on the topic, the existing literature on party organizations has dealt with this complexity by “provid[ing] a bewildering array of indicators of party organization and its strength” (Tavits, 2013, p. 16). Many of these, such as membership and local branches, are subject to a significant consensus among experts. Others’ inclusion in the concept has been called into question, as is the case with centralization and degree of personalization (Tavits, 2013, p. 19).
This entry embraces Janda’s (1980) conceptualization of a partisan organization as “the complexity of regularized procedures for mobilizing and coordinating the efforts of party supporters in executing the party’s strategy and tactics” (p. 98). Put differently and adapting Anderson’s concept of formalization (1968, pp. 398–399), as Janda does, a party organization is the set of “structured patterns of interaction [among political cadres and members alike] that are prescribed either by formal rules of procedure or by traditions and unwritten rules” (Janda, 1980, p. 98). Janda’s original work envisioned several dimensions: party organs (their presence and the presence of clear rules about their formation, composition, and the relations among them), physical structures (both their presence across the national territory and the presence of several tiers of units), actual meetings (congresses) of party cadres and members both at the local and the national levels, record keeping, and the ability of the party to be present in relevant social organizations (Janda, 1980, pp. 98–107). More modern definitions of the concept, including Tavits’s (2013) detailed theoretical discussion and Cyr’s (2017) influential study of post-crisis party survival and revival in Latin America, narrow the dimensions down to three: membership, professional staff, and local branches and structures.
Most of the literature on partisan organizations across Latin America is directly or tangentially concerned with two main aspects of party structures: their strength and their formality, with recent studies on Latin America specifically cautioning against the conflation of the two (Brinks, Levitsky, & Murillo, 2019; Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006). Indeed, the general weakness of Latin American partisan organizations seems to co-exist with some impressively strong informal structures (patronage machines) (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006). How do we distinguish between the two?
Brinks et al.’s (2019) research essentially provides some useful and convincing pointers. In their view, institutional strength is measured by the ability of the institution to accomplish its ostensible goals, that is, by “whether the required or forbidden practices are taking place” (p. 9). Thus, “a strong institution is one that sets a nontrivial goal and achieves it, while a weak institution achieves little or nothing either because it fails to achieve an ambitious goal or because it never set out to accomplish anything” (p. 8). Following the embraced definitions, in the specific case of partisan organizations, strength or weakness can be assessed by the ability of cadres, professional staff, and members to exist across the national territory and structure their ranks and behavior according to the hierarchies and rules stipulated in the party statutes, and of brokers to reach their constituencies and provide the politicians they work for with the desired votes.
Formality is operationalized by a very different set of standards. A formal institution, write Brinks et al. (2019), adapting Crawford and Ostrom’s (1995) ”grammar,” is “a set of formal rules structuring human behavior and expectations around a statutory goal by (1) specifying actors and their roles; (2) requiring, permitting, or prohibiting certain behaviors; and (3) defining the consequences of complying or not with the remaining rules” (Brinks et al., 2019, p. 8). Formal party organizations are thus “officially sanctioned” and “created through established party channels, usually according to guidelines established by party statutes” and “recognized by official party (and often state) authorities” (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006, p. 180). They include “official headquarters, bureaucracies, and local branches or cells” (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006, p. 180). By contrast, informal institutions are often unwritten social norms and practices that are not explicitly and publicly stated (Brinks et al., 2019). In the context of political party organizations, they “carry out partisan functions without official sponsorship” and include “personal, clientelistic, and patronage networks, as well as civic and social organizations that are not affiliated to parties but nevertheless engage in partisan work” (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2003, p. 180).
In light of these concepts, how has the literature characterized Latin American parties’ organizations?
Partisan Organizations in Latin America—A General Overview
Steven Levitsky once remarked that “Latin American party organizations have received remarkably little scholarly attention (Levitsky, 2001, p. 92). Seventeen years later, the observation seems to remain valid.1 The relatively marginal accounts of how party organizations are structured and work across the region present a somewhat bleak picture. According to one of the seminal texts on the subject, “in much of Latin America, formal party organizations are strikingly underdeveloped” (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006, p. 178). Lack of resources and a general lack of adherence to party statutes and the internal procedures stipulated in them mean that Latin American partisan organizations are viewed as “weak and ineffective” (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006, p. 178). Furthermore, they are frequently characterized as heavily dominated by their leaders; generally reliant on media and the state rather than human resources such as members and volunteers; and struggling with survival, especially past the death of their founders (Alcántara Sáez, 2004; Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006; Mainwaring, 1999; Mainwaring & Zoco, 2007).
Studies on the topic of partisan organizations in the region have not really explored closely and systematically parties’ internal life, presence on the ground, or activities (Alcántara Sáez, 2004, may be an exception to this omission). Some efforts have been made to classify party systems according to the solidity of their organizations (Mainwaring & Scully, 1995). There are, however, no broad comparative studies of party statutes and/or partisan structures—an omission explained in “Methodological Approaches and Primary Sources of Data.” Instead, most of our knowledge of how parties are structured and operate comes from detailed, meticulously constructed case studies (Coppedge, 1997; Cyr, 2017; Hunter, 2010; Levitsky, 2003; Mainwaring, 1999; Rosenblatt, 2018; Szwarcberg, 2015; Valenzuela, 1977).
Existing research indicates that party organizations are most robust in Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, and Paraguay, and weakest in Bolivia,2 Ecuador, and Peru (Alcántara Sáez, 2004; Mainwaring, 2018; Mainwaring & Scully, 1995). Venezuelan parties used to be among the strongest, most organizationally present, rooted in society and hierarchical to the extent that their penetration into civil society organizations and people’s everyday life posed serious constraints on democratic representation (Coppedge, 1997), until their collapse at the end of the 20th century (Cyr, 2017; Mainwaring, 2018). With the exception of the Workers’ Party (PT in its Portuguese acronym), Brazilian parties used to be largely informal organizations up until the turn of the century (Levitsky, 2001; Mainwaring, 1999), although this seems to have changed in the past two decades inasmuch as electoral rules, party funding, and free TV and radio time allowances have helped improve party discipline and create territorial organizations and party identities (Mainwaring, Power, & Bizzarro, 2018).
With the general exception of their Venezuelan counterparts (Coppedge, 1997), parties in much of Latin America seem to comply with Muñoz and Dargent’s (2016) observation that “most territorial organizations are patchwork quilts of local organizations that are held together by patronage resources” (p. 190) and with Mainwaring’s (1999) characterization of Brazilian parties as institutions lacking budgets, professional staffs, and physical spaces to meet (pp. 154–155). Activity seems to lie on the shoulders of individual politicians able to mobilize voters and resources (Mainwaring, 1999; Szwarcberg, 2015; Valenzuela, 1977) during electoral periods. Valenzuela’s account of the role of mayors and national legislators in Chile, and Ames’s exploration of the pork barrel practices of Brazilian congressmen, illustrate these dynamics (Ames, 1995). Juan Pablo Luna’s analysis of the strategies adopted by the Chilean Independent Democratic Union (UDI in its Spanish acronym) and the Uruguayan Broad Front (FA in its Spanish acronym), which deliberately invested in territorial expansion, and Cyr’s (2017) discussion of the presence and activity of Democratic Action (AD in its Spanish acronym) local branches and national and subnational elites in Venezuela do present an exception to this rule, but such cases tend to be deviations from the trend in the region.
An important caveat in this narrative criticizes dominant works’ exclusive focus on parties’ formal organizations (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006; Levitsky, 2001). In many cases across Latin America, weak partisan bureaucracies and routinization coexist with “vast, firmly rooted, but predominantly informal” (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006, p. 178) machines on the ground. The latter actively engage in clientelistic exchanges with local constituencies, distribute patronage, solve individual problems, and deliver votes (Auyero, 2001; Dargent & Muñoz, 2011; Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006; Levitsky, 2001; Mainwaring, 1999; Szwarcberg, 2015; Zarazaga, 2011). Such dynamics have been observed in a number of countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay, and Paraguay, and have been meticulously described in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay (Auyero, 2001; Luna, 2014; Mainwaring, 1999; Szwarcberg, 2015). González Ocantos and Oliveros (2019) provide more data about the spread and extent of the phenomenon. The traditional literature on the topic has centered on highlighting the role of local brokers and exploring the institutional incentives structure undergirding such systems (e.g., Mainwaring, 1999). More recent efforts have problematized the foundations of these machines (Novaes, 2018) and sought to further nuance the role and motivations of brokers (Szwarcberg, 2015) while also rethinking their significance for the parties they work for. Novaes (2018) shows that brokers in Brazil can switch alliances depending on the returns of their brokerage that different parties can provide, and Szwarcberg (2015) explores the variance in the use of clientelism defined by pragmatist and idealist Peronist brokers and the consequences of this choice on the latter’s political trajectories. Muñoz’s (2019) book on the use of clientelism at rallies explores the strategies Peruvian politicians employ in the absence of strong formal and informal organizations.
Overall, a number of studies have opened “the black box” of partisan organizations and sought to explain the dynamics observable in there. Many of the insights generated by these studies have provided important insights into the working of Latin American parties on the ground. Some of them have identified important patterns and biases in how organizations have been treated by the literature (Alcántara Sáez, 2004; Coppedge, 1997; Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006; Levitsky, 2001; Mainwaring, 1999; Mainwaring & Scully, 1995). Others have successfully argued against existing misconceptions about the general shape or implications of organizations (Alcántara Sáez, 2004; Coppedge, 1997; Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006; Levitsky, 2001). The general conclusions that these explorations have produced portray Latin American party organizations as relatively weak as far as their formal characteristics are concerned, and stronger and strategic in terms of their informal apparatuses on the ground.
The Why and How of Partisan Organization Building
Organizations are usually the result of strategic investments and deliberate action of political elites. As Kalyvas (1996) highlights, they frequently take significant time and effort to cultivate (see Cyr  for an excellent discussion on this topic). Why and how are these structures and territorial bases established?
The literature on Latin American parties offers a number of insights into what factors facilitate organization building and drive politicians to invest in the construction of an organization in the first place. However, most studies are limited in scope. Even though some works have sought to generate far-reaching conclusions applicable to a broader range of parties, most of our knowledge on the subject of Latin American parties’ organizations is primarily derived from case studies focusing on different outcomes of interest, such as parties’ capacity to strategically adapt to key changes in their society, the reasons behind their ideological moderation across time, and their electoral success (or failure) (Greene, 2007, 2016; Hunter, 2010; Levitsky, 2003; Madrid, 2012). Other cases have focused on specific types of political parties, such as parties originating from indigenous social movements or guerrilla organizations, left- or right-leaning formations, and authoritarian successors (Allison, 2006; Loxton, 2016; Luna, 2014; Madrid, 2016; Van Cott, 2005; Van Dyck, 2014, 2016). Still others have been grounded in the experience of particular countries, like Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, or Argentina (Cyr, 2017; Levitsky & Zavaleta, 2016; Zavaleta, 2014). A major exception is Levitsky, Loxton, Van Dyck, and Dominguez’s (2016b) edited volume, which devotes particular attention to the construction of partisan organizations and specifically seeks to theorize the latter in the context of the entire region.
This section is thus an effort at systematizing insights from a number of cases, subject to an important caveat. Although many of the presented conclusions and associations are derived from meticulous studies and methodical scientific thinking, few of them have been empirically and systematically tested across the region. In turn, the proposed relationships are rarely simple and frequently nuanced and/or even (occasionally) contradictory, as is the case with many attempts at classifying complex structures affected by both environmental stimuli and endogenous dynamics.
Partisan organization building generally entails two central issues: (a) parties’ ability to attract and retain politicians willing and able to give their allegiance to the party, invest their time and efforts in it, and represent it, running for office and engaging with voters and sympathizers; and (b) parties’ ability to mobilize strong support in the form of members, volunteers, and sympathizers also willing and able to work for the party and “cushion [it] against early failure” (Levitsky, Loxton, & Van Dyck, 2016a, p. 11) and/or fluctuations in its performance across time. Theories on organization building usually focus on one or both of these issues, highlighting the factors that directly affect them.
For the purposes of systematizing the existing insights on Latin American parties’ organizations neatly, these factors can be grouped into two sub-clusters: (a) ideological or ideational capital and (b) more tangible resources.
Ideological or ideational capital proves crucial in attracting both candidates (politicians) and members and sympathizers. Politicians benefit from parties’ “ideational capital,” that is, “the ideas/issues/principles that make up parties’ reputations” (Dargent & Muñoz, 2011, p. 45; see also Cyr, 2017; Hale, 2006), because they provide voters with information shortcuts (Luna, 2014, 2016). Voters compare their preferences to parties’ espoused principles and, following a logic of a “comparative fit,” choose a party that they most closely identify with. Candidates running under a party label that voters identify with get votes by virtue of being associated with said party, and do not have to incur the full costs of having to establish a reputation and earn voters’ trust on their own. Parties thus have something to offer to politicians seeking election and having limited resources at their disposal.
Strong party brands, defined as generalized ideas about “the kinds of voters the parties represent” (Lupu, 2016, p. 3) are also “key to building a stable partisan support base” (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 10). Internal inconsistencies and lack of ideological differentiation vis-à-vis other parties both prevent the formation of stable partisan attachments and weaken existing ones (Lupu, 2014, 2016). When voters do not know what political parties stand for, they are less likely to vote for them, let alone commit to them with the degree of loyalty that membership entails.
This raises an important question: If ideational capital generates the type of politician and voter allegiance essential for partisan organizations, what factors help parties develop such cohesion-inspiring capital? There are two related answers to this question: conflict (Levitsky et al., 2016a) and past trauma (Rosenblatt, 2018).
On the one hand, Levitsky et al. (2016a, p. 3) argue, “Extraordinary conflict [understood as] periods of intense polarization accompanied by large-scale popular mobilization and, in many cases, violence or repression” brings politicians and sympathizers together. Clashes have people take sides and rally along cleavages. On the other hand, threats, persecution, marginalization, or unfair treatment usually activate these cleavages in a way that results in long-lasting attachments, willingness to sacrifice time and effort for the party, and cohesion behind a set of ideas (Levitsky et al., 2016a; Rosenblatt, 2018). In such contexts, politicians usually develop long-term goals that “extend beyond the electoral arena” and seek to bring a cause into fruition (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 15; see also Greene, 2016), and ordinary voters engage in a deeper way that converts them into a valuable resource for political parties (Van Dyck, 2016; Rosenblatt, 2018). Powerful causes, then, can be important assets in parties’ quest to earn and retain faces and followers, and conflict and negative past experiences is one of the ways in which cohesion-inspiring ideas surface and crystalize.
The effect of ideas is either complemented, constrained, or supplanted by the effect of other resources. The two influences—ideas and resources—can operate concomitantly or separately, but both are important for the construction and maintenance of partisan organizations because they both affect politicians’ and voters’ willingness and ability to attach to parties and work for them (Cyr, 2017; Dargent & Muñoz, 2011).
The resources that parties and politicians have at their disposal differ in nature, importance, effect, and availability over time (for an excellent discussion of these resources, see Cyr, 2017). The focus here is on the resources that have a direct bearing on candidates’, local party cadres’, and members’ propensity to stick together and remain loyal to parties. Most of the literature on the topic has presented these resources in terms of material resources, inheritance, and resources for alternative strategies.
Tangible resources exert a crucial effect on politicians’ and members’ incentives to align themselves with and remain in a political party. The ability of political parties to provide campaign resources and access to nationally important posts, state jobs, and patronage meant cultivating lasting electoral support, to increase candidates’ dependence on parties. It also raises the likelihood that members will benefit from their allegiance to the organization. It thereby makes these actors more prone to “remain[ing] subject to party discipline and hierarchy” (Dargent & Muñoz, 2011, p. 45).
The resources at parties’ disposal are in turn generally shaped by the institutional arrangements in place in their environment. Institutions structure politicians’ incentives through their distributive effects on parties’ resources. Three key institutions are seen to affect parties’ organization building: (a) presidentialism, (b) political and fiscal centralization, and (c) state funding.
Constitutional design is a factor whose potential impact on political parties’ organizations has been the subject of multiple scholars’ attention in the context of Latin America. Theoretically, presidential systems are expected to be more unlikely to see strong parties, and presidents rarely invest in building parties (Linz, 1990; Mainwaring & Shugart, 1997; Samuels & Shugart, 2010). This is because presidential candidates (who are often their parties’ leaders) strive to appeal to a different, broader constituency than the rest of the party’s candidates, and their separate election leads them to cultivate their own bases of support (Samuels & Shugart, 2010, p. 9). Citing Skowronek (1993), Samuels and Shugart conclude that “independence [of candidates for different offices from one another] drives a wedge between partisanship and presidential conceptions of political responsibility” (2010, p. 9).3 In this conflict, vote-seeking incentives frequently prevail on organizational concerns (Samuels, 2002, p. 462), with party elites prioritizing electoral wins to developing an organization and stewarding the party as a complex entity subject to different pulls. The general weakness of Latin American partisan organizations, then, could potentially be reflective of presidentialism, which generates specific incentives that discourage party leaders from investing in partisan cohesion and organization building.
Unfortunately, this expected relationship cannot be conclusively tested and corroborated or rejected due to the lack of variation in Latin American countries’ constitutional design—all states in the region are presidential republics. National-level factors’ inability to explain within-country variation is another concern that should be kept in mind when assessing the relationship between party organizational weakness and constitutional design: all the latter tells us is that parties in presidential regimes are likely to be less organizationally robust than parties in parliamentary regimes and not why, for example, the PT is stronger than the PMBD in Brazil. In light of these limitations, presidentialism’s effect on party strength might have attracted more scholarly attention that it merits. Nevertheless, the careful theoretical exploration of the consequences of presidentialism on partisan organizations should be mentioned, especially in light of the few successes in party building observed in the region (Levitsky et al., 2016a) and the frequent and unflattering, though problematic, comparisons between Western European and Latin American parties and party systems (Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006).
Centralization also creates a specific set of incentives for politicians to stay in and strengthen their political parties. Unitary systems increase the stakes of winning elections by offering more power to the winner (Samuels, 2003). It encourages parties to overcome their coordination problems and to aggregate into national entities, rather than remain regional actors (Hicken, 2009). By this logic, parties develop at least one aspect of their organizations (their territorial penetration). In addition, they can be expected to mobilize organizationally in hopes of achieving a good electoral result, although this expectation should be less certain.
In contrast, political and fiscal decentralization purportedly weaken partisan organizations. The direct election of local authorities and the allocation of fiscal resources to municipalities can undermine the link between local politicians and the national party leadership. No longer dependent on national elites for the resources necessary to carry out their campaigns and undergird the patronage flows used for their election, local candidates could break away from formations they have previously been loyal to in order to emancipate in their own subnational parties organized around local issues (Dargent & Muñoz, 2011; Harbers, 2010; Morgan, 2011; Muñoz & Dargent, 2016). Case studies of the decentralization reforms in Colombia and Peru show that such institutional changes created a situation in which “party leaders suddenly had little to offer candidates,” local office-holders “emerged as political bosses” (Muñoz & Dargent, 2016, p. 199), and without appropriate resources to scale up to the national level, could not establish themselves as relevant national political actors. While the study’s generalizability is limited by the small number of cases it examines, its conclusions could explain relatively quick changes in organizations and should be kept in mind given other countries’ interest in decentralization (e.g., Chile).
Finally, state subsidies for political parties also affect partisan organizations, though their effect is ambiguous. Subsidies provide a predictable source of income for parties that are able to cross a particular threshold, and decrease the uncertainty surrounding parties’ financial viability. This scenario transcends the effect of parties simply having more resources available for investment in professionalization and organization building because subsidies are usually attached to requirements that parties build territorial and bureaucratic structures (Bruhn, 2016). Furthermore, subsidies are usually dependent on past electoral support—a factor that normally stimulates party elites to gain new constituents and possibly reach previously-uncontacted voters.
However, while state subsidies are significantly associated with decreases in volatility and the stabilization of party systems, they could also lead to a gap in representation. The latter emerges when public financing reduces party leaders’ dependence on membership contributions and volunteer work, thus “distanc[ing] the party base from an increasingly bureaucratized party elite” (Bruhn, 2016, p. 240). Because similar situations can alienate members and have deviant candidates punished (Greene, 2016; Seawright, 2012), public financing is a double-edged sword as far as partisan organizations are concerned.
In addition to institutional provisions, legacies from past periods also help shape the tangible resources that parties and politicians can rely on to build organizations. Central in the literature on the topic is the presence of organized networks parties could tap into to build their organizational presence, reinforce loyalty, and strengthen the ties linking individuals together. The sources of these networks are varied. Parties have traditionally tried to build on or co-opt unions (Keck, 1992) former insurgency and guerrilla groups (Allison, 2006; Holland, 2016), social and indigenous movements (Keck, 1992; Madrid, 2016; Van Cott, 2005), religious organizations (Keck, 1992; Samuels & Zucco, 2014), and/or business networks (Loxton, 2016). Where the membership of such preexisting formations is more extensive, parties are more successful as they can benefit from the work of more committed individuals (Allison, 2006). When societies are more densely organized and parties deliberately try to penetrate and use existing organizations to their advantage, the chances of national elites successfully forging new partisans (leading to more extensive and populous organizations) increase (Samuels & Zucco, 2015). Furthermore, where the resources channeled by such preexisting networks can be used for the strategic penetration into new terrain and the cultivation of new constituents, parties grow, can offer more political capital to their candidates, more selective incentives to remain loyal to their sympathizers, and eventually achieve not only viability across time, but also electoral success (Luna, 2014, 2016)
Finally, parties’ ability to attract and retain politicians and activists also depends on the availability and costs of alternative strategies (Levitsky & Zavaleta, 2016, p. 412). When the costs or organization building simply outweigh its usefulness, parties can forgo it altogether in favor of using other channels of reaching voters and gaining their trust. Indeed, television and mass media have weakened traditional forms of carrying out party politics by largely obviating the need for a direct contact between voters and party representatives (Mainwaring & Zoco, 2007; Zavaleta, 2014). Furthermore, candidates can turn to a number of party substitutes if they do not want to permanently commit to a political party. Defined as “organizational forms that can supply some or all of these same sorts of things [organizational support, reputation, or material resources] to candidates independently of parties,”(Hale, 2006, p. 19) substitutes further reduce politicians’ incentives to join parties where parties are discredited and have lost legitimacy in citizens’ minds (Hale, 2006; Levitsky & Zavaleta, 2016). Levitsky and Zavaleta identify four types of entities that politicians can lean on in their quest to win office: private firms, media outlets, local operators capable of delivering votes (see Novaes, 2015), and notables (Levitsky & Zavaleta, 2016, pp. 427–431). All of them are examples of informal structures in that they do political work even though their primary function had little to do with politics. However, in contrast to informal party organizations, they serve single politicians and their teams, rather than actual political parties.
In conclusion, the literature on Latin American parties has identified four very different types of resources—some ideological, most more tangible—derived from both parties’ pasts and their current environments. All of them help structure the incentives that potential party candidates and potential party members face when they evaluate the costs and benefits of joining a party. Some of these resources affect partisan organizations in a straightforward way. The influence of others is more ambiguous. More systematic research is needed to disentangle these effects and present them with all of their nuances.
Do Partisan Organizations Matter?
A third important set of questions on Latin American parties has to do with the significance of partisan organizations—that is, are organizations important in third-wave democracies in this region? Do they help produce any specific outcomes that are particularly desirable or unwanted? Is scholarly attention on them a relic of a past very much dominated by an explicitly Eurocentric concept of a party, or justified in light of some tangible effects?
Although several important works have indeed voiced their unease with definitions and standards that may be both foreign to these environments and obsolete at the beginning of the 21st century (Alcántara Saez & Freidenberg, 2001; Freidenberg & Levitsky, 2006; Mainwaring & Zoco, 2007), the literature seems to converge on the idea that organizations indeed contribute to a variety of tangible outcomes. Central among them are party consolidation and survival.
In Latin America, organizations are crucial for parties taking root in their political arenas (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 10). They “enhance[e] parties’ capacity to mobilize electoral support” (p. 11). Not only are party activists and members more likely to turn up to vote, but they also work on electoral campaigns, help others vote through the supply of both information and logistical aid, and facilitate the smooth and efficient operation of clientelistic machines (Cyr, 2017; Levitsky, 2003; Szwarcberg, 2015; Zarazaga, 2011). When local branches are not just vehicles for particular candidates and actively try to engage with organized civil society, they can also contribute to the crafting of enduring partisan attachments (Samuels & Zucco, 2015).
Additionally, “a strong territorial organization facilitates the capture of subnational office” (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 11; see also Holland, 2016; Van Dyck, 2014). The presence of a local office has been associated with “substantial electoral benefits in lower-level elections” for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Van Dyck, 2014) and in legislative elections for all three major parties (Samuels & Zucco, 2014) in municipalities across Brazil. In Colombia and El Salvador, the adoption of subnational electoral strategies (i.e., the choice to use the party’s local networks to field candidates in local-level elections) helped party cadres reach office. In turn, the exercise of local government helped “contribute to [parties’] longer-term success” (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 11), allowing them to build a reputation of capable and uncontroversial government authorities. Eventually, local presence in office was strongly associated with better performance in national elections (Holland, 2016). In Brazil, subnational power contributed to the PT’s successful establishment into previously hostile areas (Van Dyck, 2014; although Alves and Hunter  argue against Van Dyck). Such penetration, in turn, could lead to a uniformization of parties’ vote across the national territory (Jones & Mainwaring, 2003). For these reasons, organizations are singled out as one of three elements of party-building success (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 10).
Organizations are important even in the most challenging of political scenarios, where few types of resources can prove useful: party system crises and/or collapse (Cyr, 2017). Unlike many resources in political parties’ toolkit, organizations “tend to endure in the wake of national-electoral defeat” (p. 47) and later facilitate party survival and revival (i.e., a party’s successful return to its national political scene in purely electoral terms (p. 54). Physical presence across the territory in the form of local branches, professional staff and structures, and militants makes it possible for parties to remain active in communities’ lives and to better organize future electoral campaigns. It makes the pursuit and exercise of local office feasible and prevents the party from disappearing from voters’ minds. And, under specific circumstances, it is crucial for parties’ efforts to reclaim their former electoral relevance (pp. 70–75).
Therefore, partisan organizations have been convincingly associated with both parties’ consolidation and survival of often fatal cataclysms in Latin America. This is no small feat in a region where parties tend to be weak, and party-building efforts frequently fail (Levitsky et al., 2016a, p. 1). In turn, the consistently good performance of a set of parties in an electoral system naturally contributes to its increased stability (because party system institutionalization is measured as the sum of the differences in the vote shares of all parties from one electoral period to the next) and has the potential to enhance democratic accountability. Indeed, these positive effects spread to the system level (Mainwaring & Bizzarro, 2018). When a majority of parties in an electoral system hail permanent, rather than merely electoral, national organizations, electoral volatility tends to be lower, and the system’s overall level of predictability is greater in comparison to that in countries marked by few and impermanent partisan organizations. Lower volatility, in turn, is associated with more stable national policy (Flores-Macías, 2012).
Nevertheless, although partisan organizations help parties consolidate, survive, and remain relevant, their effect on both party elites and party voters is more nuanced. Elites’ margin of action and decision making are frequently limited by strong organizations. In Cyr’s (2017) words, “An active militancy may pose serious programmatic burdens” (p. 56). The resistance Lula’s Articulação faction faced upon trying to moderate the Workers Party’s (PT in its Portuguese acronym) ideological platform and switch to a vote-maximizing strategy in Brazil illustrates these dynamics (Hunter, 2007, 2010). “Moderate party leaders worked strenuously to convince their radical counterparts” of the necessity to adopt a more pragmatic approach to politics (Hunter, 2007, p. 460). Their efforts to adapt the party to the incentives of the system it operated in eventually resulted in important continuities in line with the party’s origin precisely because of the opposition of ideological activists in PT’s organization (pp. 461–462).
The Peronist Party’s (Partido Justicialista [PJ]) transformation before and during Menem’s government in Argentina tells a similar story. Reform-oriented party factions, such as the Renovation, had to organize, compete, and defeat more orthodox party leaders in order to further their goals (Hunter, 2010, chap. 5). For these purposes, they used the resources available to them as local office holders, built patronage-based local networks, and brought the networks together into “informal organizations with which they would compete for power within Peronism” (p. 110). With a like-minded president in office, these factions prevailed and effectively transformed a union-based party into a patronage-based party capable of embracing and implementing a neoliberal economic agenda despite the disagreement of many PJ activists. Organizations, then, are an important resource (Cyr, 2017) that can be leveraged by both partisans struggling to take their parties in a new direction and leaders seeking to preserve continuity with the past and/or retain their leadership roles within their formations.
In-depth case studies of individual parties, such as Levitsky’s (2003) and Hunter’s (2007, 2010), shed light on the significant potential that partisan organizations have in resolving internal ideological and power struggles, which then often affect national policy. The comparison between the PT and the PJ further allows for an important insight into how distinct organizational attributes facilitate or hinder, speed up or effectively delay institutional changes. Being a mass bureaucratic party with relatively strong and well-implemented rules for career advancement, discipline, and candidate selection, the PT transformed over the course of a significant period of time (Hunter, 2010). The change was gradual, as reformers had to reckon with significant internal opposition. By contrast, change within the PJ was relatively swift and took place despite most activists’ disagreement with the proposed reforms (Levitsky, 2003, chap. 7). Powerful and widely present across the national territory but loosely structured and weakly routinized, local Peronist organizations did not group together into a disciplined hierarchical organization (p. 24) In the absence of a firmly established and tightly tiered structure, the party “lacked recruitment filters, stable career paths, and secure tenure patterns” (p. 24), as well as well-grounded channels through which different actors could influence the party’s agenda and development. Therefore, once reformers matched the orthodox party bosses in power and a reformist president was elected into office, the PJ’s leadership “maintain[ed] near total autonomy from the party bureaucracy” and was able to quickly and relatively painlessly reorient the party (p. 30). Different organizational attributes then help structure the way reforms take hold, both at the party and, when the party is in office, at the national level.
This influence can be problematic from the standpoint of constituents. In patronage-based parties where some votes are typically dependent on the favors that a local party broker can bestow on poor voters seeking help, the dependence on such a broker often obviates poor constituents’ right to choose from a variety of candidates with different programmatic platforms. Democratic accountability is also violated as such voters cannot effectively hold party officials accountable at the ballot because they fear brokers’ future retaliation in withholding much-needed help (Szwarcberg, 2015). In a highly centralized system, voters may also be unable to cast a vote for their preferred candidate, or even a candidate of their own party, because coalition agreements imposed from the central office can stop local party activists and authorities from running for office (Guarnieri, 2011). In this sense, the way parties organize has a tangible effect on the choices voters face and their ability to hold parties accountable, which is directly related to democracy.
Methodological Approaches and Primary Sources of Data
Existing Constraints to the Study of Latin American Party Organizations
The aforementioned works frequently rely on detailed case studies in their exploration of Latin American parties’ organizations and thus tend to be limited in scope. The relative dearth of broader systematic comparisons of representative institutions in the region (Alcántara Sáez  and Mainwaring and Scully  being partial exceptions) is the unfortunate result of two facts. The first has to do with the comparative scarcity of data on partisan organizations. Most of the data sources allowing for cross-country comparisons, and even for more externally valid within-country cross-party comparisons, are relatively recent creations. The Democratic Accountability and Linkages Project (DALP) (Kitschelt, 2013) and the Varieties of Democracy Project (V‑Dem) (Coppedge et al., 2018; Pemstein et al., 2018) were only released in the second decade of the 21st century. Before them, most studies were based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork whose demands and time horizons only allowed for small-n comparisons. The resulting coding was difficult to validate by additional coders, given the nature of the data employed. Meanwhile, although the surveys in the Proyecto de Élites Parlamentarias Latinoamericanas (PELA) (Alcántara Sáez, 1994–2018) have been carried out since 1994, the information in them is based on politicians’ generalized assessments of organizations they were likely not to know well (especially when the questions ask respondents to assess other parties’ organizations) or not to want to divulge data about (see Tavits  for a more detailed discussion of this issue). Therefore, large‑n approaches to the study of partisan organizations only became possible very recently.
This point is in itself the subject to two caveats. First, these data sets additionally limit the scope of the possible comparative analyses. DALP includes the largest and most important parties in 17 Latin American countries in 2008–2009, so it cannot accommodate questions related to developments over time or specifically concerning small parties. PELA is similarly constrained: in addition to most respondents coming from the largest and most organized parties in each country, the fact that the sample of respondents from each party changes from one electoral period to the next makes cross-temporal comparisons problematic, if not impossible. V‑Dem includes an impressive temporal coverage, but coders are asked to reflect on the number of parties with a particular attribute or to identify traits that prevail among the largest parties in each country.
Second, all three data sets are based on experts’ and elites’ opinions of partisan organizations, rather than on subjective indicators describing party structures. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Elites may know surprisingly much or surprisingly little about their party’s organization, with the latter being especially true in contexts of weak parties. They are likely to have very different understandings of organizational survival, scope, or strength, which in turn could make comparisons impossible. Coders might be overly influenced by what they know (thinking, e.g., that a specific party works in a particular way after only observing it in its country’s capital or largest cities). The characteristics of the data sets thus significantly complicate the task of producing large‑n analyses of Latin American partisan organizations.
The task is further challenged by the significant volatility of Latin American political parties. As Nohlen (2005) and Levitsky et al. (2016a) make it clear, many parties in the region live short lives and die very young, before any significant organizational building can take place. The constant appearance and disappearance of political parties often combine with high electoral volatility (Carreras & Acácio, 2019; Mainwaring, 2018) to make many formations difficult to follow and code, and in turn additionally complicates the criteria for inclusion into possible large-n analyses. Thus, for example, although criteria related to parties’ ability to ever surpass their countries’ electoral thresholds yields a large number of parties—many of which are both not included in existing data sets and impossible to code because of their fleeting existence, low consolidation, and poor record keeping—standards relying on temporal survival run the risk of painting an inaccurate picture of otherwise turbulent or very fragmented political arenas.
Therefore, generalizable large‑n studies on partisan organizations in Latin America face significant methodological and data constraints that authors of quantitative studies should be aware of. With this caution in mind, “Primary Data Sources” presents the data sources that could be used in broader comparisons of representative institutions in the region.
Primary Data Sources
Four primary sources of data stand out.
***Kitschelt’s “Democratic Accountability and Linkages Project”4 (Kitschelt, 2013) data set contains both party-level and system-level variables related to how parties behave and interact with voters in more than 80 electoral democracies around the world for the years 2008 and 2009. The party-level variables outnumber the country-level variables, and are clustered in five subject areas, one of which examines the “basic organizational capacities parties may possess to build and maintain relations of democratic accountability” (Kitschelt, 2013, p. 10). Variables are based on averages of multiple experts’ coding. The Latin American portion of the data set contains data on individual parties in Mexico, Brazil, and all Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America, save the Dominican Republic. The data set makes it possible to determine which parties hail party staff and branches at the municipal level, if the latter are actively involved in community life and employ local intermediaries, how candidates for office and electoral strategies are chosen, what resources the party relies on to survive, and what organizations it is related to, and further explore parties’ unity of factionalism. The broad country (17 Latin American countries) and party (multiple parties within each country) scope of the database makes it particularly well suited for cross-national analyses of parties’ organizations in the late 2000s.
Alcántara Sáez’s “Proyecto de Élites Parlamentarias Latinoamericanas”5 (Alcántara Sáez, 1994–2018) is also based on expert survey responses and contains data from multiple waves of surveys from the mid-1990s to the present for all Latin American countries. The experts in question are members of parliament who are asked to evaluate their parties’ and other parties’ performance on a variety of measures. The questions most relevant for inquiries concerning partisan organizations have to do with parties’ possession of strong and numerous memberships, the latter’s participation in parties’ lives, the degree of internal democracy, and the presence of a continuous structure rather than a merely electoral one. One of the greatest advantages of these lies in the degree of familiarity that the respondents have with their formations. MPs presumably have a direct insight into their institutions and, being constant observers of voters’ behavior for the sake of their reelection (Mayhew, 1974; Paxman, 2002), are capable of providing useful information on what is a tricky subject. Their responses may be tainted by a social desirability bias, but their answers are still very useful even taken as upper bounds for the phenomena being explored.
Coppedge, Gerring, Lindberg, and Skaaning’s “Varieties of Democracy” project6 (Coppedge et al., 2018; Pemstein et al., 2018) is a third important source for data on political parties’ organizations. The data set covers most of the world, and responses are collected on an annual basis. It starts with observations from the early 19th century and extends to the present. The variables are system-level variables, but those dealing with partisan dynamics are useful for the purposes of getting a grasp of some characteristics of the main parties in each country. Five variables are particularly useful for the study of political parties.7 Two focus on the organizational resources of political parties: one explores the proportion of national parties that have permanent organizations, and another measures the proportion of political parties that have permanent branches at the local level. Three additional variables explore the linkages between political parties and constituents, the centralization of candidate selection, and the extent of territorial support for major parties. V‑Dem’s broad temporal and geographic coverage makes the database a powerful tool, especially when combined with other, more fine-grained sources of data that would allow for a comparison of individual parties against their nation’s prevailing partisan dynamics.
The remainder of this article, “Party Organizations in Latin America: Observations,” focuses on observations about several Latin American parties and party systems using these data sources: V‑Dem’s variables pertaining to parties’ organizational continuity and territorial presence (Coppedge et al., 2018; Pemstein et al., 2018); MPs’ responses about their parties’ membership, presence, and organizational continuity (Alcántara Sáez, 1994–2018); and statistics gathered at the local level and attesting to parties’ organizational extensiveness.
Party Organizations in Latin America: Observations
Figure 1 presents V‑Dem data on the proportion of national-level parties in each country that have permanent organizations. “Permanent organization” understands “a substantial number of personnel who are responsible for carrying out party activities outside of the election season” (Coppedge et al., 2018, p. 90). The data are coded on a scale from 0 (no parties) to 4 (all parties), but the Bayesian IRT model used to produce the data set effectively sets a new range for the values of the variable in interest (between –2 and 4), with higher values reflecting greater proportions. The figure thus offers a look into the trajectory of the party systems in all Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries inasmuch as the continuity of parties’ organizations is concerned.
The graphs show no uniform pattern in the country-level data over the past 47 years, although they do lay out significant cross-country and cross-sectional variation. Some countries have undergone a transformation toward a greater number of continuous party organizations (Chile, El Salvador, Panama, and Bolivia stand out), with many of these dynamics being reflective of countries’ transitions to democracy. In other states, the proportion of parties with permanent organization remained relatively unchanged for most of the period (e.g., the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Honduras, Uruguay). In most countries, only about half of all political parties have maintained continuous organizations at any given moment, and peaks above this proportion are exceedingly rare.
Narrowing down the focus of inquiry, Figure 2 presents data on the proportion of parties hailing permanent local branches. Experts’ answers are coded in a fashion identical to the coding of the variable described above. The actual values against range between –2 and 4, with higher scores reflective of greater proportions of parties with permanent local branches.
The graphs again suggest that less than half of all parties in a given country actively invest in permanent local branches. The countries exhibit temporal variations and present unique stories, with no immediately distinguishable uniform patterns. In this respect, V‑Dem’s data seem to reflect some of the conclusions about Latin American parties’ organizations that the scholarly literature has reached. Organization building and territorial presence are not commonly and uniformly embraced, and successful cases coexist with many failures.
Kitschelt’s (2013) data allow us to take individual parties as the unit of analysis and explore a question similar to the one Figure 2 purports to answer only for 2008. Variable “a1” in Kitschelt’s data set asks survey respondents to share their opinion about parties’ local-level staff and offices. Each party is coded by multiple experts who indicate if the party maintains such structures in most (a) or some (b) districts, only during elections (c) or not at all. Figure 3 presents the means of expert coders’ responses for six major Chilean parties—the Christian Democratic Party (PDC in its Spanish acronym), the Party for Democracy (PPD), The Radical Social Democracy Party (PRSD), the Socialist Party (PS), National Renewal (RN), and the Independent Democratic Union (UDI). The figure suggests that these major Chilean parties have permanent local branches and staff. The main difference among parties has to do with the territorial reach of these structures (i.e., whether they are present in most or only some districts) rather than with their permanence.
In turn, Alcántara Sáez’s data for the 2006–2010 legislative period in Chile allows us to go deeper into partisan organizations, as perceived by several Members of Congress representing each party. Faced with the request to evaluate the number of active members that their parties hail, virtually all national representatives indicate that said number is low, that is, that their parties do not hail widespread active memberships. Only the Independent Democratic Union and the Socialist Party seem to hesitate between a “medium” and a “low” level of militancy, but both lean toward the latter. In terms of the role these members play in the internal life of the party, a majority of all representatives believes that members participate mainly during elections Tables 1 and 2.
Table 1. Chilean MPs’ Evaluations of Number of Active Members
Total No. of Respondents
Total # of respondents
Source: PELA survey for electoral period 2002–2006.
Table 2. Chilean MPs’ Evaluations of Members’ Participation in Party Life
Scarce and Marginal
Only During Elections
Intense and Constant
Total No. of Respondents
Total # of respondents
Source: PELA survey for electoral period 2002–2006.
These data offer a nuanced insight into how parties work and organize on the ground. They raise further questions about partisan organizations that, given the significance of the latter, merit systematic and meticulous exploration.
Primary among these questions is a concern regarding the availability of data on partisan organizations. Systematic, inclusive studies of Latin American parties’ membership or territorial reach do not really exist because scholars are constrained by the scope and level of analysis of the data sources. Scholars willing to study party organizations either rely on the previously described indicators described or produce their own indicators for the narrow range of parties they wish to study. These limitations affect the type of questions suitable for scholarly examination. For example, as of 2019, it is virtually impossible to compare major Latin American parties to parties that are not as relevant actors on their national scene. This is because the DALP and PELA data sets only include parties that could be seen as relatively established in their countries or have at the very least “proven themselves” by gaining seats in their national legislatures. This impossibility imperils our ability to understand what makes a party successful and which parties are more likely to survive and consolidate.
Furthermore, even when data are available, many of the conclusions laid out in the texts above have not be systematically explored. For instance, remarkably little is known about what factors stimulate elites to invest in organization building and facilitate their job. What sort of conflicts compel party leaderships to reach out vertically and horizontally? What exactly is the effect of state resources on partisan organizations—are they really translating into more structures on the ground, or actually allowing elites to become further disassociated from their populations? Are institutions a determining factor in what party structures on the ground look like?
Equally unexplored are the questions related to the consequences of partisan organizations. Do stronger organizations indeed constrain leaders to an uncomfortable degree? Are moderation and strategic adaptation more or less difficult with a strong organization? What organizational aspects aid or hinder changes? Does the presence of far-reaching structures really generate all of the electoral positives it is purported to engender? Related to that, are parties with strong organizations associated with higher and deeper levels of democracy? Are voters less disgruntled and more enthusiastic about parties and democracy where partisan organizations are strong?
In a way, virtually all of the relationships established through a careful examination of the existing knowledge on party organizations in Latin America could benefit from a systematic analysis, which could really establish the scope conditions of such relationships.
Multiple, previously unasked questions also come to mind. Levitsky (2001) and Freidenberg and Levitsky (2006) have identified a divergence between Latin American parties’ formal statutes and basic functioning on the ground. How can this divergence be explained? Echoing Levitsky’s (2001) final observation, if Latin American parties differ from their European counterparts, how they best be conceptualized without borrowing categories from the literature on Western Europe?
Together with the theorized effects of partisan organizations described in “Do Partisan Organizations Matter?,” all of these questions merit additional scholarly attention and present a rich soil for further investigation.
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(1.) Important exceptions include Levitsky’s (2003) and Szwarcberg’s (2015) books on the Argentine Peronist Party; Hunter’s (2010) work on the Workers’ Party in Brazil; Cyr’s (2017) work on parties in Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela; Rosenblatt’s (2018) account of Chilean, Costa Rican, and Uruguayan parties; and Anria’s (2018) work on the Bolivian Mas.
(3.) However, the authors do recognize that the nature of presidential elections often calls for nationalized parties and thus facilitates party aggregation across the national territory.
(4.) All relevant materials, including the project’s data, codebook, and survey questions, are available online at Democratic Accountability and Linkages Project.
(5.) Relevant information about the project, including a link to the databases and questionnaires, is available at PELA: Observatorio de Élites Parlamentarias en América Latina.
(6.) Relevant information about the project, including links to the data, codebook, and an explanation of the measurement model, is available at V‑Dem: Global Standards, Local Knowledge website.