In many democracies, particularly in Latin America, well-meaning reforms intended to enhance democracy have achieved just the opposite, with governments that are strong on paper but weak in practice. And with each election cycle, citizen rage is brought ever-closer to the boiling point.
LONDON – Pedro Castillo is an authoritarian left-wing populist without the charm or charisma of most populists. Keiko Fujimori is a recently incarcerated right-wing populist, the daughter of a former dictator who is serving a 25-year sentence for murder, kidnapping, and corruption. Together, Castillo and Fujimori received fewer than one in three votes in the recent first round of Peru’s presidential election. Yet one of them will be the next president.
This much is certain: whoever wins the runoff will have a hard time governing. Castillo’s Perú Libre party has only 37 of the 130 congressional seats. Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular has just 24. She might just manage to assemble a majority because three other rightist parties have 45 seats among them. But compromise and coalition-building are not what Peruvian politics is about. Most parties are shells built around a single leader’s transient popularity. They spend their time and energy shooting down every other politician who tries to govern. That is what Fujimori and her party did to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who narrowly defeated her in 2016, and to Martín Vizcarra, who became president after Kuczynski resigned in 2018.
Ecuador, on Peru’s northern border, is in a similar bind. Guillermo Lasso, a conservative banker, will become president after a narrow runoff victory over Andrés Arauz, a left-leaning economist and close associate of Rafael Correa, the former president recently sentenced to eight years in jail for graft. But Lasso’s CREO party will have just 12 votes in the 137-seat congress, which could rise to 31 if he can count on the support of the center-right Social Christians. By contrast, Correa’s party has 48 seats, and Pachakutik, an indigenous people’s movement whose candidate came in a close third in the presidential race, has 27.
Lasso won not because he promised faster economic growth, but because a majority of voters did not want to relive the Correa years’ toxic mix of populism and strong-arm tactics. Like the next president of Peru, Lasso will face great difficulties governing. His plans for market-friendly reform will most likely gather dust.
It is not just that voters are becoming more fickle and politicians more feckless. The rules of South American democracy promote political fragmentation and divided government. But taking power from politicians has not delivered satisfaction to voters. On the contrary, weak governance has produced chaotic politics, mediocre policies, poor social and economic outcomes (the epic failure to control COVID-19 is only the latest example), and increasingly frustrated citizens.
The type of regime (presidential or parliamentary) and electoral system (majoritarian or proportional) define a country’s politics. The combination of parliamentary governance and proportional representation has yielded model democracies in Scandinavia. The parliamentary first-past-the-post formula of the Westminster system, copied by Canada and other Commonwealth countries, also works well. American exceptionalism shows up in the coupling of presidential and majoritarian arrangements (single-seat districts in the House, two seats per state in the Senate). Former President Donald Trump notwithstanding, this combination has sustained nearly 250 years of stable democracy.
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And then there is the oddball combination of presidentialism and proportional electoral systems, which exists only in Latin America. Presidents are elected for a fixed term of office and remain, regardless of whether they enjoy a parliamentary majority. And proportional systems, which allocate seats according to a party’s vote share, deliver the kinds of fragmented parliaments Peruvians and Ecuadorians have just elected and countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Chile have had to endure in recent years.
With two-round presidential elections now enshrined in most Latin American constitutions, the final winner can claim a vigorous mandate, from which all manner of deep and important reforms will follow. That vow, typically delivered in solemn tones on election night, vanishes under the harsh light of dawn. The strong majority of the runoff quickly turns into a weak minority in the legislature.
Some presidents, like Sebastián Piñera in Chile, end up caving in to the whims of ever-shifting parliamentary coalitions. Others, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, are forced to rely on the votes of groups (the so-called Centrão) with which they share few if any ideas; the result is volatile and unpredictable policymaking. Others, like Fujimori’s father, Alberto, simply close down parliament and assume quasi-dictatorial powers – as Castillo has threatened to do if Peru’s legislature does not do his bidding.
The combination of a fixed-term executive presidency and a proportional electoral system was never a great idea. It has been made worse by the decline of another crucial democratic institution: political parties. Many Latin American countries never had strong and stable parties. In the few that did – Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay – parties are a shadow of their former selves. For example, Chile today has 15 legally constituted parties and a half-dozen in the process of gaining legal recognition. No party or coalition commands a working legislative majority. In 2020, only 7% of Chileans expressed trust in parties, which have been described as “hydroponic”: floating above society with no roots in it.
The decline of parties throughout the region is partly the result of well-meaning reforms. It was thought that making the electoral system more proportional would better reflect society’s increasing diversity; instead, it produced myriad tiny parties that represent no one. Introducing primaries was supposed to make parties more democratic internally; it did, but at the risk of making them vulnerable to being taken over by media-savvy celebrities. The gain in transparency that came with campaign finance reform also caused a collapse in party discipline, as party bosses lost leverage over publicity-seeking parliamentarians. Greater use of plebiscites has allowed small groups of activists to hijack the policy agenda.
The problem is not uniquely Latin American. Yale political scientists Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro argue that similar “decentralizing reforms” in the United States and Europe, meant to “return power to the people,” weakened parties and led to “policies that are self-defeating for most voters.” Paradoxically, the closer to the grassroots political power moves, the more disenchanted the grassroots become.
So, Peru and Ecuador, like Brazil and Chile before them, will have leaders that are strong on paper but weak in practice. They will promise much and be able to deliver little. Soon enough, voters will grow frustrated and vow to “throw the rascals out” and replace them with someone who truly takes popular interests to heart. Scholars and activists will propose further reforms meant to empower voters. And then the cycle will repeat, enraging citizens further. It is not a pattern that will end well.