Barry S. Levitt: Power in the Balance: Presidents, Parties, and Legislatures in Peru and Beyond

By Cameron, Maxwell A. | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Barry S. Levitt: Power in the Balance: Presidents, Parties, and Legislatures in Peru and Beyond


Cameron, Maxwell A., Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Barry S. Levitt

Power in the Balance: Presidents, Parties, and Legislatures in Peru and Beyond

Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012, xv + 340 pp.

Power in the Balance is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on constitutionalism in Latin America, and an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary Peru. As the title implies, Levitt is primarily interested in the balance between the legislative and executive branches of government in the period between 1985 and 2006. This interest arises from the sense that politics became acutely unbalanced under the rule of President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). The power of the executive was augmented at the expense of the legislature, and not only as a result of the new constitution adopted in 1993 following the April 1992 presidential self-coup. More subtly, a gap emerged between the formal rules of the constitution and the everyday practices and behaviour of politicians--and the political system was dangerously destabilized as a result. The story has a happy ending, however, as Levitt persuades us that constitutionalism has been at least partially restored in recent years; since 2001, a more positive dynamic has emerged in relations between the branches of government.

What explains the waxing and waning of constitutionalism in Peru? Levitt emphasizes the degree of organization and influence of political parties, on the one hand, and variation in the adherence of political elites to constitutional norms, on the other. For a legislature to serve as an influential and effective check on the power of the executive it must be more than an assembly of undisciplined and bickering politicians. Reasonably coherent and organized parties are necessary to make legislatures strong enough to shape and direct national affairs through their faculties of legislation and oversight. But that is not enough. The strength of a nation's constitution also depends on whether political elites are prepared to play by the rules of the game. This, in contradistinction to the constitution itself, is what Levitt calls constitutionalism: whether constitutional rules effectively constrain the actions of politicians. In Peru, a fatal combination of economic crisis and political violence in the late 1980s led to the emergence of a regime in which organized parties were replaced by electoral movements, and the constitution was repeatedly retrofitted to serve executive power. The consequences for democracy were predictably catastrophic. The partial rebirth of parties, and a restoration of the rule of law, however, led to a revival of constitutionalism after Fujimori fled Peru in 2000.

Levitt's argument opens itself to a number of queries. In the first instance, we might ask whether events in Peru in recent decades were shaped more by changes in norms or by the balance of power among political forces with different degrees of commitment to constitutionalism. …

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