Thin Air for Democratic Governance

The 2006 Andean Elections 



by | May 3, 2006

The concurrence of more than a dozen elections throughout Latin America in 2006 signals the region’s commitment to consolidate electoral democracies. This unprecedented event also highlights dramatic disparities in the quality and legitimacy of democratic regimes. While some democracies have strongly moved in the direction of good governance and sound economic performance, others have experienced significant turmoil, widespread mobilization of the citizenry, and, for the most part, poor economic performance. The countries of the High Andes (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru) are located at this lower end. Over more than a decade, these countries have witnessed intense political conflict, corruption scandals, and social mobilization that resulted in early termination of the mandate for at least six presidents. Not surprisingly, citizens have shown high levels of dissatisfaction with the democratic process that began nearly three decades ago, since it has failed to address fundamental socio-economic inequalities.

This essay argues that political instability in the High Andes (which excludes Colombia and Venezuela) is a combination of weak political institutions, politicized ethnic and regional divisions, and high-stakes redistributive conflicts over natural resources. The current electoral processes are likely to polarize existing political divisions as voters will have to choose between outsiders and traditional politicians rather than programmatic options along a conventional left-right spectrum. Presidents with weak legislative contingents are likely to lack the appropriate mechanisms for building governing coalitions, while regional elites and ethnic groups are likely to demand greater autonomy and devolvement of power. Elected leaders, unable to satisfy citizens’ demands, could take the conflict to the streets, thus exacerbating the institutional conflicts. Alternatively, the streets could recall their frustrated leaders in the absence of legitimate channels for them to be held accountable.

Building democratic governance in the High Andes requires the ability of political elites to find credible compromises over time, to persuade street protestors as well as the regional and ethnic groups to moderate their political discourse at the bargaining table. Paradoxically, it is the polarization of the political space and the radicalization of electoral promises what seems to be fueling the most successful electoral campaigns.


Since their return to democratic politics, the constitutional structure of High Andes regimes represented “difficult combination” presidential regimes. During the transition to civilian rule, constitution-makers adopted majority runoff formulas to elect presidents in order to provide the executive with a broader mandate; legislators in turn, were elected under proportional representation formulas in order to give greater representation to the people. This institutional arrangement sponsored the proliferation of political parties while simultaneously constraining the congressional support for the presidents’ party. Without explicit provisions for power sharing, these young democracies experienced, with varying degrees of intensity, high levels of legislative deadlock and political conflict. Only Bolivia avoided executive-legislative conflict during the nineties, with the adoption of a quasi-parliamentary mechanism of executive election that required the formation of partisan coalitions to elect the government if no president attained an electoral majority. These presidential appointment coalitions were sustained for governing purposes as well. Its neighbors in turn could not avoid the perils of presidentialism. In Peru, legislative deadlock was a justification for President Alberto Fujimori’s self coup in 1990 and the adoption of a hyperpresidential regime later in the decade. In Ecuador, the balance tilted in favor of the legislative branch, as Congress played a major role in the destitution and replacement of three unpopular presidents in 1997, 2000, and 2005.

Difficult combination politics have had a perverse effect on democratic performance and legitimacy. When they existed, government coalitions were usually cemented with corruption, making clandestine transactions and payoffs to political parties and defecting legislators. Institutions of control and oversight, including the judiciary, were consistently ignored, overridden, or stacked. Institutional weakness affected the policymaking process in these countries. Insufficient or volatile policies contributed to delayed economic growth, and many governments also experienced dramatic failures to address social inequalities. As the result of poor government performance, citizens in these countries have repeatedly expressed their disbelief in democratic institutions and frustration with their political representatives.

The recent demands for greater inclusion of newly mobilized actors, most importantly regional elites and indigenous groups, have added a second layer of political tensions in the High Andes, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, although Peru seems likely to follow suit. Traditionally there has been a delicate equilibrium of power between the highland political class and the lowland business elites that sustained governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. But in the context of economic decline and the need for greater economic discipline at the end of the nineties, elites in the Ecuadorian Costa and the Bolivian province of Santa Cruz have demanded greater decentralization of government resources and more autonomy from the center. These expressions of regional discontent played an important role in the events leading to the adoption of a dollarized economy in Ecuador and the fall of President Jamil Mahuad in 2000, as well as the resignation of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa in 2005.

The ethnic divide has had an even greater impact in the shaping of democratic politics in Ecuador and Bolivia over the past decade. In both cases, indigenous movements turned to competitive politics to demand formal inclusion in the decision-making process. In both cases, indigenous leaders won elections for municipal, legislative, and executive offices: the Ecuadorian Pachakutik party was part of the government coalition of President Lucio Gutiérrez in 2003 and the indigenous leader Evo Morales became president of Bolivia in December 2005. The political participation of indigenous peoples in these two countries achieved far greater social rights and cultural recognition from the government than in any other Latin American country that is ethnically diverse. But indigenous groups have also been powerful players of street politics. Indigenous protests and nationwide blockades over economic adjustment and privatization of natural gas directly contributed to the fall of the governments of Ecuador’s Mahuad in 2000 and Bolivia’s Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003. With varying degrees of intensity, an ambiguous attitude towards the rules of democratic politics as being “the only game in town” reflects the unfinished inclusion of indigenous movements in the domestic political processes. While the Bolivian indigenous movement maintains a radical anti-establishment electoral discourse, the Ecuadorian Pachakutik coexists with strong regional political parties and is more accountable to its constituents at the local and provincial level.

In Peru, neither the regional nor the ethnic divide has been successfully politicized. The main geographic divide is one of center-periphery, where the remote and unorganized provinces have not strongly challenged the predominance of Lima’s business and political elites in the decision-making process. Ethnically, no indigenous political organizations have successfully competed for public office, even though President Alejandro Toledo ran a winning campaign reminding voters of his indigenous ancestry in 2001. The paradoxical absence of an indigenous party in a country with a significant share of indigenous population traces back to the 1980s, when the frequent clashes between the Shining Path guerrilla and Fujimori’s government eliminated any form of communal organization for political purposes. The current presidential candidacy of Ollanta Humala promises to challenge these two traditions in Peru. On the one hand, his electoral discourse seeks to mobilize and politicize the indigenous vote, although they still lack an indigenous movement comparable to that of neighboring countries. On the other hand, he seeks to dispute the electoral predominance that traditional candidates have over Lima by articulating a discourse that seeks better redistribution of government resources to the regions.

A third element that has contributed to volatile politics in the region lies in the redistributive conflicts raised from the administration and control of large natural resources. In Ecuador, the unexpected losses from oil revenues contributed to the demise of the Mahuad government in 2000, while the upswing of prices helped the survival of the Gutiérrez government throughout 2004. In Bolivia, the controversy over allocation of natural gas was a triggering factor for Sánchez de Lozada’s fall from government, and the issue of legalization of coca crops has been a key element to explain Evo Morales’s victory in 2005. In Peru, the issue of national sovereignty over natural gas and mineral resources appeared in Humala’s campaign as well.


In addition to “structural” factors, there are important elements that most likely will shape the ongoing political process. From the perspective of voters, surveys show a dramatic loss of confidence in the ability of democratic institutions to address existing socioeconomic inequalities and improve their living conditions. Political parties appear to have lost their ability to renew themselves with fresh candidates and new issues, and instead, have been dismantled or involved in corruption scandals that further eroded citizen support for democratic institutions.

Faced with uncertainty, disgruntled voters in recent years have tended to favor completely new political figures with charismatic qualities but no political experience (outsiders), or to look to the past for better times by voting a former president back in office. According to political scientist Javier Corrales, this could be explained as a natural reaction of rational voters: in the face of uncertainty, people can buy insurance, thus electing a “known devil,” or they play the lottery, electing a random outsider. This is a relevant distinction to explain the electoral choices in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Instead of a traditional left-right ideological divide, the political arena seems to reflect an “outsider vs. establishment” political continuum that overlaps or replaces the traditional divide.

The 2005 election of Evo Morales in Bolivia represents another case in a long list of outsider-turned-presidents in the region. Of the top three candidates in the Peruvian election, Ollanta Humala portrays himself as an indigenous “outsider,” whereas the other strong candidate, Alan García, was a former president in the 1980s. The third candidate is the conservative Lourdes Flores. In Ecuador, Álvaro Noboa could be considered a “senior” outsider, since he has lost two consecutive presidential campaigns since 1998, but his personalistic PRIAN party has held congressional seats since. While the election forecast is wide open, another relevant contender is former Finance Minister Rafael Correa, whose main claim to fame, during a short, three month tenure in 2005, was to announce plans to reverse dollarization and default on foreign debt commitments. But in Ecuador, these outsiders compete and coexist with strong traditional parties such as the coastal-based Social Christians (PSC) and the sierra-based Social Democrats (Izquierda Democrática, ID).

In addition to outsiders, the influence of “zombie” politicians may still affect the current political process. These are former presidents who were ousted from office and lived in exile with pending legal issues at home, such as Abdalá Bucaram (Ecuador), Lucio Gutiérrez, Alberto Fujimori, and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. While they are not eligible to run for office again, they have maintained important organizations and political networks at home, and in the cases of Gutiérrez and Fujimori, their popularity with some sectors may redirect electoral loyalties away from front runners.


Elections in the High Andes are likely to produce presidents with high popular expectations but low partisan contingents, regardless of the candidate. Weak legislative contingents are likely to impose serious limits to assembling governing multiparty coalitions, especially in the presence of intense redistributive conflicts. For outsiders, such as President Morales, the political dilemma consists of forming governing coalitions with the same traditional parties and business groups that were publicly attacked and criticized during the campaign trail. In this scenario, presidents could seek to adopt gradual policy reforms, making political concessions to adversaries and imposing necessary adjustments, at the risk of “betraying” the large popular masses who voted for radical change. The alternative is to push ahead with a plebiscitarian style of government, alienating potential collaborators and seeking support on the streets for an ambitious agenda of social reforms independent of political parties. But evidence shows that a plebiscitarian presidency is unsustainable in the long run unless it has discretionary control over large flows of government revenues.

The 2003 election of Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador offers a postcard illustration of the outsider’s dilemma. A former military officer, Gutiérrez joined the indigenous movement to overthrow President Mahuad in 2000 for his orthodox economic policies. Though he was briefly jailed for insurgency, he was soon allowed to form his own political party, Movimiento Sociedad Patriótica, and was elected to the highest office in coalition with the indigenous Pachakutik party. Once in office, he quickly adopted orthodox policies to—ironically—strengthen the implementation of the dollarization agenda left by Mahuad. The policy reversal broke the alliance with Pachakutik, and the minority government had to form ad hoc coalitions with nearly all legislative parties, including the traditional and outsider, coastal and highland, ideological and populist. The outsiders’ journey ended badly when people on the streets recalled the president’s mandate, mainly for encroaching on the judiciary and appointing partisan judges in exchange for political support in Congress.

The challenge for newly elected leaders in the High Andes is to find the appropriate coalition mechanisms that would legitimize policy choices and help secure stable governments. The recent Bolivian election and the upcoming Peruvian and Ecuadorian ones suggest that democratic stability will remain elusive in this region. Whether elected presidents are outsiders or traditional politicians, impatient voters will expect them to come up with an ambitious agenda of much needed reforms. But the lack of congressional majorities and the redistributive demands coming from economic, regional, and ethnic groups will undermine their ability to sponsor the stable coalitions able to deliver such reforms.

Spring | Summer 2006Volume V, Number 1

Andrés Mejía Acosta is a professor at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. His research interests include elections, political parties, legislative politics and budget politics in Ecuador and Latin America. He is the author of Gobernabilidad Democrática (Quito: Konrad Adenauer, 2002). His current book project explores the impact of formal and informal political institutions on the policymaking process.

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