Five Reflections on Political Reforms in Latin America

˙ Voces

This post is also available in: Spanish

Political reform—the effort to redesign the functioning or constitutional architecture of a political regime, the electoral system, or political parties—has become an important issue in Latin America. During the past few years the region has seen a proliferation of political reform efforts in many countries, from Mexico and Chile to Colombia and Brazil. By all indications, political reform will be one of the great topics of discussion in the region for years to come.

Motivations behind reform efforts are diverse. In some cases, constitutional frameworks negotiated during times of democratic transition have simply been exhausted. In other instances, reformers are driven by chronic dissatisfaction with the functioning of the political system, and thus a conviction that institutional engineering can help palliate these problems.

Five reflections on Latin America’s experience with political reform are in order.

1. Ask the right questions

The first thing that any political reform needs is a proper diagnosis of the problem. In order to do this, it’s essential to ask the right questions. In fact, any attempt at institutional engineering in a liberal democracy must answer the following questions:

  • How can the political system be crafted to allow an adequate degree of representativeness in public policies—that is, to reflect the broadest possible scope of opinions and social interests?
  • How can we ensure that public institutions have the capacity to adequately respond to social demands?
  • How can authorities be guaranteed the space and autonomy to identify public interest beyond social, economic, and political pressures?
  • How can we create incentives for transparency and political integrity—and, correspondingly, disincentives for patronage and corruption?
  • How can political institutions protect the exercise of fundamental freedoms that mark the limit of the state’s legitimate actions?
  • How can the exercise of power be subjected to citizens’ scrutiny, not just periodically, but permanently?
  • How can the different branches of the state maintain a fluid relationship that is nonetheless subject to mutual checks?
  • How can we make sure that the political system has safeguards and escape valves in the face of political crises?
  • How can we incentivize robust political parties that are anchored in social groups and effectively aggregate voter preferences?
  • How can we create incentives for a cohesive party system, with a centripetal dynamic, the capacity to build agreements, and a reasonable degree of stability—all without impeding the emergence of new political forces?
  • How can electoral competitiveness and fairness for all political parties be assured?
  • How can we assure that electoral results are transparent and accepted as valid by voters?
  • How can the architecture of a political system be both stable and correctible in the case of decay or misalignment with social realities?


Each of these questions is underlined by a central principle of democratic governance—from putting limits on power and ensuring its problem-solving capacity to ensuring the decision-maker’s ability to represent the diverse voices of society and the capacity to identify public interest beyond special interest pressures. In the end, though, they all point to the same fundamental issue: How can we maximize the legitimacy of a democratic system?

To initiate a process of reform with an a priori position as to what should be reformed, and how to reform it, without having first carried out a diagnostic exercise is a grave mistake. What results is likely a reform that scratches the political system, and scratches it well, but scratches it where an itch does not exist.

2. Think systemically

The rigor needed to diagnose problems is, however, only the first step. To add it es essential to add a certain sophistication about institutional solutions and the dynamic effects they produce. The interactions between the characteristics of the political regime, the electoral system, and the party system are very complex. Carelessness inevitably leads to unforeseen consequences.

Unfortunately, many of the political reforms that take place in Latin America are a kind of patchwork quilt, in which pieces are often assembled contradictorily, intended only to solve short-term problems. This lack of systemic thinking is reflected in some of the tendencies of political reform that we’ve seen in Latin America’s recent past. These shortcomings have generated tremendous inconsistencies in the region’s political systems. Perhaps the most obvious example is the gradual strengthening of presidential power (for example, through presidential reelection provisions, which have multiplied across the region), which coexists with a systematic and growing party system fragmentation (for example, through the widespread adoption of ballotage clauses), thereby making the exercise of presidential leadership more and more difficult.  Whatever is given with one hand is taken away with the other. A minimum level of systemic reasoning, coherence, and long-term vision are indispensable if such reforms are to improve democratic governance.

3. Strengthen political parties

Nevertheless, there has been regional consistence in some areas. A brief overview of the history of political reforms in Latin America during the last generation reveals a trend: despite the broad consensus that parties are essential, they have been— alongside party systems—systematically weakened. In this there is a convergence between the rise of preferential voting systems, of independent candidates, and of diverse electoral incentives for the fragmentation of the party system. All this is compounded by the enthronement of a populist, anti-party discourse, and the emergence of television as the quintessential arena of political debate.

This has resulted in a growing personalization of politics, in which parties have been blurred and come to be seen as a pathological agent in political life. What is most remarkable that that for years we have applied the political balm of personalized representation—through preferential voting systems and independent candidates—although there is no evidence whatsoever that this has strengthened the legitimacy of democratic institutions. After all, the prevailing opinion in the region about legislatures could hardly be worse. The only incontrovertible impact of this trend has been to weaken political parties.

As much as they may seem like a calamity and as much as they may be a shadow of their former selves, parties continue to be essential for democracy if we wish to avoid the chaotic transmission of social demands and the wholesale corporatization of politics. One of the central objectives of any political reform should be to strengthen parties. That demands that we think seriously and rigorously, much more than we have done so far, about the future of political representation. 

4. Beware of the problematic combination

For decades, political science warned us against the dangerous combination of presidential systems with fragmented party systems. However, over the past generation, this pairing has become the norm in Latin America, which has not resulted, with few exceptions, in authoritarian breakdowns (Peru in 1992 is perhaps the most evident exception). In the process we came to think that we have squared the circle in Latin America and that we had tamed multi-party presidential rule.

While this idea is not entirely misguided, neither is it devoid of costs. And the costs are becoming increasingly evident. As a general rule, the costs of mutli-party presidentialism are paid in modest doses of corruption, patronage, and the dismantling of the party system. Here the case of Brazil is emblematic. An Executive that must routinely deal with over two dozen parties in Congress has few ways of building stable majorities. One of them—with limited cost for the political system in the short term, but prohibitive in the long term—leads directly to the tortuous Mensalão and Petrobras scandals. Purchasing a legislative majority becomes the tool of choice for exasperated presidents.

The message for political reformers is simple: be careful with mirages. The combination of presidential rule and a multi-party system is problematic and requires a very careful institutional design to mitigate its risks.

5. The limits of institutional orthopedics

It is plausible and sensible to believe that institutions are very important and mold the behavior of political actors and society. Believing that there is an institutional remedy for each conflict and political problem is, however, a sophisticated form of hallucination.

At a minimum, we must be clear that the results of institutional reforms are generally not seen in the short term. Thus it is important for rules to have a certain stability, not just to make them credible and for political actors to be able to plan for the long term, but also to give new rules the space to show results. The compulsion to look towards institutional reforms at every step is a symptom of political immaturity; it is an eloquent proof of how little a society cares about rules, of the notion that all rules are worth the same and no rule is worth anything.

Institutional reforms may be a reassuring resource for political actors, one that gives them the feeling of engaging in ‘Politics’ with a capital ‘P’, when, in reality, real politics consists of solving substantive problems rather than procedural ones. Here it is important to keep in mind the warning made years ago by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr:

“(I)s the difficulty we encounter these days in meeting our problems really the consequence of defects in the structure of our government?… My concern is that this agitation about constitutional reform is a form of escapism… Fascinating as constitution-tinkering may be, like the Rubik cube, let it not divert us from the real task of statecraft. Let us never forget that politics is the high and serious art of solving substantive problems.

The fact that many Latin American countries are immersed in the discussion about how to improve the institutional design of their democratic systems is a cause for celebration. Hopefully, however, they will go into it with their eyes open: open to asking tough questions and looking in the mirror to diagnose the problem as it is and not as they want it to be; open to the complexity of this exercise and the need for truly systemic thinking; open to the urgency of reflecting seriously about the future of representative institutions; open to critically examining the evidence derived from Latin America’s political systems and teasing out real solutions from illusions; open to the incomplete and often inadequate nature of institutional remedies, and above all, to the need of patience in gauging their effects.

The evidence painfully gathered in Latin America and beyond suggests that if they do all this, reformers stand a much better chance of succeeding at this difficult endeavor.