By Sabatini, Christopher
World Affairs , Vol. 165, No. 2
Throughout Latin America, party systems have become unmoored from the traditional ideologies and collective identities on which they were once based. As voter distrust of political parties has increased and the major parties have moved to the center of the political spectrum, new demands and parties are redefining party systems in Latin America. In contrast to the ideological discourse of the past, politics and citizen demands are increasingly being defined in terms of specific issues, such as governmental efficiency, anticorruption, or cultural identity. Those demands have given rise to a new breed of political party in Latin America, organized around concrete "quality of politics" issues that defy traditional notions of left and right. In Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico, parties have sprung up to represent citizen concerns about public integrity, accountability, justice, and political participation. As parties and party systems throughout Latin America struggle to adjust to structural and ideological shifts and even crises, the question for the future stability of electoral politics and democracy will be the extent to which those demands, and the "quality of politics" parties that they spawn, can form the basis of a new party system.
Citizen confidence in political parties in Latin America has declined at a steady and alarming rate. According to the 2000 Latinobarometer surveys that measure citizen attitudes in sixteen countries in the region, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they had little to no trust in political parties. (1) Citizens feel that political parties do not represent their interests; that politicians are only out for their own enrichment at the public expense; and that once in power, politicians have failed to govern effectively. The growing distrust of political parties also brings with it growing skepticism about traditional party promises or prescriptions. Party rhetoric, symbols, and ideological promises possess less of a hold on voters now and, in fact, are often a liability for aspiring politicians.
At the same time, parties and party systems have become markedly less oriented along a left-right spectrum in Latin America. The collapse of communism and the failure of traditional leftist state-centered economic prescriptions have led to a moderation of the left in Latin America and the growth of what was once the conservative right. The leftist parties that have remained electorally viable have done so by adjusting their rhetoric and programs to the new global and economic realities of the time. Parties such as the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) of Brazil, the Socialist Party of Chile, the Partido Revolucionario Democratico of Mexico, the Radical Party of Argentina, and even the Sandinistas of Nicaragua go to great lengths to assure voters that their election will not mean a profound reorganization of the market-based, liberal economic framework. In an effort to gain elected office, those parties have jettisoned the radical economic platforms of the past--the nationalization of the economic means of production and antagonism to the world economy. Instead, one-time leftist leaders such as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of PT and Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas now publicly proclaim their acceptance of the basic liberal, market-based reforms that have been put in place over the last two decades. For the parties and their leaders today, the broad goal of economic justice and socioeconomic equality is to be pursued within the existing liberal economic framework, which only decades ago they decried as an imperialist plot.
As neoliberal policies successfully contained inflation and stabilized careening economies in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, the economically conservative right in Latin America increased its electoral appeal. Unthinkable only twenty years ago, conservative parties have emerged with considerable strength and support and have become the political reference point in several party systems in the region. …