A Review of Audacious Reforms: Institutional Invention and Democracy in Latin America


Changing the Rules or Changing the Game?

by | Dec 14, 2001

Audacious Reforms: Institutional Invention and Democracy in Latin America. By Merilee Grindle

For many Latin Americans, the hopes raised by political democracy over the past two decades have been dashed by the realities of persistent poverty and growing social inequality, and by the limited capacity of elected governments to respond to these problems. With few expectations, power has remained highly concentrated in the hands of technocratic elites and modern-day caudillos, corruption remains prevalent, and large portions of the citizenry have been excluded from public debate and public services.

It is not surprising, therefore, that since the early 1990s increasing numbers of citizens have become disenchanted, cynical or downright enraged with traditional parties and political leaders. In some cases, these sentiments have been expressed in passive ways, such as declining electoral turnout (despite compulsory voting) and negative opinion polls. In others, rage erupted in violent protests, such as the Venezuelan caracazo of 1989. In yet others, voters have turned to new political movements and “outsiders” who propose to do away with corruption and return democracy to the people. Among the most successful of the latter was President Alberto Fujimori of Peru, whose surprise election in 1990 and widely popular auto-golpe in 1992 signaled the demise of an entire generation of party elites–and ultimately of democracy itself.

Having experienced firsthand both the dismal failures of Peru´s party system in the 1980s, and the high costs of the Fujimori alternative in the 1990s, I was intrigued by the premise of Merilee Grindle´s new study, which is that truly democratizing reforms can and have occurred from within this region’s flailing political systems. In analyzing the

introduction of direct elections of governors and mayors in Venezuela, popular participation in Bolivia, and direct election of the mayor of Buenos Aires, Grindle argues that these were not incremental or cosmetic changes, but truly “audacious” reforms that significantly altered the distribution of power and changed the way politics was subsequently played, in ways that even the authors of such reforms traditional political elites themselves–may not have imagined.

Why would rational politicians choose to give up power? What accounts for their selection of certain rules and institutions rather than others? How does the introduction of new rules alter the nature of political interactions? These are the central questions posed in this book, which is rich in detail and a pleasure to read. The reader enjoys a front row seat at back room deal making, as former President Carlos Andres Perez tries to retain a respectable place in Venezuelan history by decentralizing power; as a small group of intellectuals and international advisors in Bolivia cook up the Popular Participation scheme; and as Radical and Peronist leaders in Argentina negotiate an historical pact that would allow President Carlos Menem to run for reelection in exchange for a broad package of reforms.

In analyzing these cases, Grindle argues that institutional change must be understood from theoretical perspectives that stretch beyond narrow conceptions of “rational choice,” defined as individual politicians´ immediate concerns about electoral gains and maximizing political support. For example, although Menem´s desire for immediate reelection drove him to negotiate with his political rivals, Grindle claims that the cost he paid was very high in terms of future constraints on his power and that of his party, and that extensive negotiation of constitutional reforms was not the easiest route to reelection. In the case of Venezuela, decentralization did not play a central role in Perez´s electoral campaign or that of his rivals. Grindle concludes that these decisions were motivated by broader concerns about the legitimacy and governability of the political system, as well as the longer term survival of the parties and their machines.

At the same time, Grindle challenges conventional views about the role of social conflict and interest group lobbying. In none of the countries did she find strong evidence that the reforms were advocated or forced upon politicians by mobilized groups in civil society. Instead, she claims that the reform agenda is best explained as a result of elite projects, in which public intellectuals, prominent legal scholars and others were called together in special commissions by political leaders to make recommendations about how to best respond to problems of governance. Yet presidential commissions generally produce reports that languish on the shelf. Why did politicians actually take up these proposals? For Grindle, this is best explained by their perceived threat of systemic crisis. (“Why did politicians decide to give up power?” one Venezuelan legislator told her, “It’s easy! It was fear!”). In the face of generalized discontent and increasing violence, seasoned politicians were willing to change some of the rules in order to try and remain in the game.

But did these changes have the desired effect? Did they produce longer term system legitimacy, and did the veteran players remain in the game? This is where the stories get more complicated. Grindle argues that although the reforms had an elitist origin, they helped to galvanize potential beneficiaries and strengthen various groups within civil society. In Bolivia, for example, she finds that rural communities and organizations often responded strongly and positively to the new local institutions of government. In each case, politicians and parties faced more complex arenas for competition, while citizens gained more options for participating in politics and greater input into decision making about resource allocation. Hence the book ends on a very optimistic note, concluding that these steps did help to boost system legitimacy overall.

Glancing across the region today, however, this optimism seems premature. Despite his lofty aspirations, Perez did nothing to reduce the massive corruption in Venezuela and will probably go down in history as a crook rather than the father of democratic reform. Both leading parties have been discredited, power has been recentralized in the hands of the executive, and President Hugo Chavez seems to be taking his cues from Fujimori (and his notorious advisor, Vladimiro Montecinos) rather than enlightened policy teams. In Bolivia, confidence in government remains at low levels, and the country has been wracked by nationwide strikes and protests that suggest a persistent legitimacy problem. Although no successful outsider has yet to step into the fold, the Bolivian terrain would also seem ripe for a Fujimori or Chavez. In Argentina, new political forces also seem to coexist with longstanding conflicts and persistent corruption at the top.

So what went wrong here? First of all, it seems important to distinguish between micro-level decentralization and macro-level politics. At the local level, changing the rules in these countries has indeed helped to involve more people in politics. This is even the case in Peru, where direct election of mayors and city council members, combined with a new “quota law” that mandates 30% participation of women on all party lists, has considerably increased participation and diversity of local representatives. These changes, in turn, may have raised popular consciousness and expectations about what government can do, while economic downturns combined with the slow pace (or absence) of change at the top may have exacerbated negative public attitudes towards national institutions.

Furthermore, while Grindle´s emphasis on the role of leadership and good policy design is heartening to those of us who try to contribute to democracy from our perches in universities and think tanks, these events suggest that we need to pay more attention to issues of organization and advocacy. It is fundamental to create (or recreate) intermediary organizations that can bridge this micro-macro gap, aggregate the diversity of new interests in these societies, build broader consensus for policy change and hold governments accountable over time. Ideally, these tasks should be assumed by political parties, and this region’s dilapidated party systems need to be strengthened rather than exterminated, expanding on the kinds of reforms Grindle analyzes here. However, these responsibilities must be shared by organized civil society, and in particular by advocacy organizations that combine a national presence and policy influence with a broad mass base. While a handful of elites can change the rules of the game, it generally requires a strong and autonomous civil society to defend these changes over time and assure that leaders themselves adhere to the rules.

Spring/Summer 2001


Cynthia Sanborn is a professor of Political Science at the Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru. In July 2001 she will assume the dual post of Bloomberg Professor of Philanthropy at Harvard, and Director of the Program on Philanthropy and Social Change in Latin America, co-sponsored by DRCLAS and the Hauser Center for Nonprofits.

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