Scott Mainwaring on Party Systems in Latin America

July 17, 2018
Scott Mainwaring
Mainwaring is co-director of the Ash Center's Democracy in Hard Places Initiative

The Ash Center sat down with Scott Mainwaring, the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor for Brazil Studies and an Ash Center resident faculty affiliate. Mainwaring also serves as faculty co-chair of the Brazil Studies Program at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Mainwaring is editor of the recently published Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Please explain the concept of party system institutionalization for someone who may not be familiar with Party Systems in Latin America or your previous book on the subject?

Party system institutionalization refers to the stability and predictability of a party system. Who are the main parties? Are they stable or do they change greatly over time? Do they have a stable vote share or does their vote share change radically from one election to the next?

The book is focused primarily on Latin America. Why is the region particularly fertile ground for studying party system institutionalization?           

It's an interesting region because there's so much variance across countries in party system institutionalization, and also great variance in how party systems have changed over time. So, for example, the Chilean and Mexican party systems have been very stable and predictable over a long period of time—since free democratization in Chile in the late 1980s, and since, really, 1988 in Mexico (though that could be changing in Mexico). On the opposite end of the spectrum, you find cases like Guatemala and Peru. They're the obvious cases in which, in Guatemala, no party has won the presidency two times in a row and, in fact, often a party will win the presidency and then almost disappear. That's unfathomable to us in the US or any other advanced industrial democracy. To add just a bit, this has also changed over time in Latin America. Venezuela went from having a pretty stable party system from 1968 to 1988, to a complete collapse of the party system from the 1990s to the mid-2000s.

Why are parties central to studying democracies and democratic transitions?

In most countries, you get to state power through parties. The only exception would be, of course, if independents can run for office and have a realistic chance of winning, but that's not the norm in democratic politics. The norm is that parties are the vehicles for which candidates win, and so a stable party system means that there's predictability and stability in what kind of actors can win and what kind of policies they're likely to implement. This means that democratic politics becomes more predictable, more stable. Too much predictability and stability at the extreme isn't necessarily a great thing because it can lead to stagnation; but on the other hand, where the parameters are highly unpredictable and outsiders easily come into power—this is not good for democracy.

And, as a whole, are parties in Latin America today turning more toward the institutionalized or inchoate?

Well, over the last decades, slightly more toward the inchoate systems. A few systems became more institutionalized. That would be Brazil, El Salvador, and Panama, but others moved in the opposite direction. That would be some of the old, old party systems in the region, such as Argentina, which had two parties who always won—the same two from 1946 through 2015. Now one of those parties, the Radicals—which were created in 1890—they're a secondary party now. In Colombia, the two parties that always governed in the 18th and 19th centuries are now lesser parties. They haven't won the presidency in recent times—they lost in 2002 and they've really faded since then. So the tendency in Latin America, and this is a gross generalization, has been away from institutionalization, which is very contrary to what people expected three decades ago.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.