It’s my party

Transforming Labor-based Parties in Latin America poses an important challenge to existing literature on party systems and institutionalisation


Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America: Argentine Peronism in Comparative Perspective
Steven Levitsky
2003, Cambridge University Press
290 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

A KEY QUESTION posed by neoliberal reform in Latin America was why muscular, often dominant, labour-based parties remained supine as their leaders engineered radical policy shifts often diametrically opposed to their members’ interests.

Steven Levitsky takes a step towards answering this question in Transforming Labor-based Parties in Latin America, and in doing so challenges established positions on the relationship between party institutionalisation and democratic stability.

Levitsky’s principal theoretical focus is the adaptation of labour-based political parties to the dramatic changes in political economy of the late 1980s and 1990s. Labour-mobilising parties faced up to the need for fundamental change against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and market-oriented policy revolutions that posed fundamental questions of survival for their nationalist policy platforms.

Fragile transition

Across the world, labour-based parties began to shed the baggage of tradition and embrace market norms, shuffling sheepishly towards the programmatic centre. The erosion of traditional class structures exacebrated this process, weakening parties’ links with trades unions and encouraging them to broaden their appeal. The costs of not adapting were potentially high, both for the parties themselves and for the party systems they propped up. Their ability to adapt, therefore, had important implications for democratisation in a region still shaping its fragile transition from authoritarian rule.

The question of whether labour-based parties were able to adapt has important implications in Latin America: where they fail to do so, party systems may fragment. In Argentina and Chile where labour-based parties adapted, both party systems and regimes remained intact, even strong enough to weather severe crisis. But where powerful labour-based parties collapsed during the neoliberal era, such as in Peru and Venezuela, party systems unravelled and democratic systems tottered.

Levitsky examines in detail the case of Argentina to explore the capacity of an established labour-based party to adapt to the rapidly changing environment. His main focus of analaysis is how and why the Peronist Justicialist Party (PJ) adapted to the new conditions from the mid-1980s onwards, although towards the end of this book he provides a valuable comparative section which contrasts the PJ experience with that of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) in Peru, and Democratic Action (AD) in Venezuela.

Peronism had consistently opposed liberal economic policies since the movement was created with strong links to organised labour. In the 1980s, however, the PJ transformed itself from a labour-based party into a clientelistic one in which unions played an increasingly less significant role. At the same time, it adapted its economic programme under President Carlos Menem, who dismantled the statist model and embraced neoliberal policies that turned on their head traditional Peronist tenets. Yet Menem faced little opposition from party leaders and cadres, the party retained much of its working-class base, and it won four straight national elections after 1989.

Levitsky attributes the PJ’s ability to adapt, and its subsequent contribution to Argentina’s democratic stability to its low, formal levels of institutionalisation. Traditionally referred to by its supporters as a “movement”, the Peronist party is unusual for lacking a central bureaucracy, effective party organs and routinised internal rules and procedures, giving it a substantial degree of strategic flexibility. It was this flexibility, in the neoliberal era, which allowed it to survive and even prosper.

Levitzky’s central argument is that the lower levels of institutionalisation and loose structure found in many populist parties – commonly associated with inefficiency, disorder and poor representation – can in fact enhance parties’ flexibility dyuring times of crisis. In this respect, he carves an important new furrow in the literature on party institutionalisation, the study of which has been dominated by a theoretical canon developed for Europe and North America. This advanced country bias has meant a failure to take informal and weakly institutionalised party structures into account.

This book is an important contribution to the analysis of party structures and systems in Latin America, and poses a challenge to established positions on institutionalisation. It is essential reading for students of Latin American politics and will be of value to those interested in comparative political systems more generally.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books