This week, Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, became the first sitting Latin American vice-president to be formally charged with corruption. Vice-President Boudou, during the period when he was Minister of the Economy (2009-2011), is accused of helping to illegally halt bankruptcy proceedings by Argentina’s tax bureau against the company Ciccone. This event has occurred in the same week that the Argentine government stated that the next bond payment is all but ‘impossible,’ while the monthly inflation rate runs into double figures.
In Venezuela, the embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, is facing frequent street demonstrations, which have witnessed a sizable number of fatalities, food and energy shortages and rapidly rising prices.
In both countries however, what is puzzling is not necessarily that support for both governing parties remains relatively high, but that opposition parties remain so weak and disorganized. This is particularly puzzling given that the general context in both countries should be particularly auspicious for the opposition. What explains the persistent weakness of opposition parties in some Latin American presidential democracies?
Part of the answer probably lies in the nature of the presidential regime itself. In highly fluid party systems, which lack party organization and structure, opposition party members often drift to the president in search of the budgetary goodies Latin American executives frequently have at their disposal. Néstor Kirchner and the defection of Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) governors and legislators is a case in point (of course, the budgetary prerogatives at the disposal of the executive are also probably endogenous to the weakness of the party system). Part of the answer can also most likely be found in the explanations for competitive authoritarianism.
But I think we need to go back a little further to the period of economic reform in the late 1980s and early 1990s to understand the persistent weakness of opposition parties. Kenneth Roberts, Noam Lupu, Jason Seawright and Jana Morgan have all produced excellent work recently that has explored the collapse of Latin American party systems. We can draw some insights from this work. During the period of economic reform, where traditional left-leaning or populist parties were responsible for economic reform, this has led to the collapse, or at least partial collapse, of the party system (what Kenneth Roberts has called a de-aligning critical juncture). In these instances, this has sounded the electoral death knell of both the traditional right (as the left assumed their policy space), and the traditional left, who became outflanked by populist or radical outsiders that railed against market reform.
These outsiders become the new insiders (in Argentina, it was one faction within the Peronists; in Venezuela it was the Chavistas). The opposition ends up as a mismatch of various parties, many of which have suffered resounding electoral defeats (e.g. COPEI and AD in Venezuela). These parties are organizationally weak and have lost their traditional electoral bases and party machines. In many instances, they are forced to adopt positions that predominantly amount to ‘anti-politics’ as opposed to coherent programmatic policies.
However, this picture is still very rough. What we need is a more systematic investigation of the weakness of opposition parties in Latin American presidential systems.