Latin America: When parties become cartels, people are going to rebel against them [Party Co-Op Series]

Thanks to the Latin American experience political science realized the significance of the institutionalization of political parties and party systems. The actual forms and logic of cooperation among parties has received so far less attention, even though party alliances play a crucial role in a number of countries of the region. In this episode, Zsolt Enyedi and Jennifer McCoy examine party cooperation in Nicaragua, Chile, Venezuela and Colombia. 

Jennifer McCoy is Professor at Georgia State University, author of numerous articles and books on the region. 

Zsolt Enyedi: Before we dive into our four cases, let’s have a look at Latin America as a whole. What are the relevant institutions that influence party cooperation?

Jennifer McCoy: Latin American countries are presidential systems with separate elections for legislatures and presidents. For the legislatures they tend to have mixed electoral systems, some seats are distributed proportionately within larger districts (in some smaller countries the whole country is one district), and then some seats are allocated to single member districts. They also often use runoffs for presidential elections, and they tend to have campaign finance rules and media regulations that help to make the competition more equitable. There is also public financing for parties and regulation on how much advertising in media is allowed. This varies by country, but they’re relatively advanced on that kind of regulation aimed at making elections equitable.

If you compare this institutional setting with those based on pure proportional electoral rules and on single-chamber parliamentary systems, what would you say, is the overall environment conducive to the cooperation of parties, or it is rather detrimental to it?

I think overall, it is conducive primarily due to the runoff elections, because in the run-offs, of course, parties must cooperate. The support of those who didn’t make it into the second round of the election will be sought by one of the top two winners. 

We also see cooperation currently, because some cases are autocratizing under populist leaders and so there’ll be an interest in cooperating to defeat those candidates. 

The runoff format obviously necessitates some degree of cooperation in the second round of the elections, but are these simply ad-hoc alliances that disappear after the election? Or are they durable structures that repeat at election after election?

Usually, they are ad-hoc for that period in government. But they tend to last for that period because ministerial positions are distributed and because passing legislation is possible only if the president and some parties cooperate.


In the 1980s the Sandinistas were in power, led by Daniel Ortega. The opposition was split, some parties boycotted the elections while others participated in it. But in 1990 the National Opposition Union, composed of 14 parties, surprisingly united and won the elections. What was the character of these forces, what pushed them towards cooperation and what were the principle obstacles they needed to overcome in order to form an effective alliance?

They had strong incentives at the time. Nicaragua was fighting a war that was partly sponsored by the United States, the Contra war. The economy was in shatters with hyperinflation and with the shortage of goods, partly due to the sanctions imposed by the United States. So, they had a lot of policy- and ideological incentives to cooperate, to defeat the government and thereby to open up aid from the United States. The opposition ranged ideologically across the board from the extreme left to the extreme right. They had a very hard time coming together. They were helped with outside mediation, basically, primarily, again, from  U.S. nonprofit and government sponsored organizations. 

In the end, they finally decided on a consensus candidate, who was not a traditional, experienced politician, because there was too much rivalry among all of those. They chose the widow of a martyr who had been murdered by the earlier dictatorship of Somosa, Violeta Chamorro, a great symbol of freedom and peace. But after they won the election, the alliance basically fell apart. The unravelling of the coalition was precipitated by controversial decisions. For example, the first government of Violeta Chamorro, which was basically run by her son-in-law who was her chief-of-staff, decided to invite the Sandinista head of the military to be the Minister of Defense. They had a good strategic reason to do this, to keep the peace with the military, but it was a controversial decision. The austerity didn’t help either. By the next election the broad alliance collapsed. 

There seem to be at least two generalizable aspects to this story. One is the external pressure, a factor that seems to shape cooperation in many contexts. The other one is the need for a leader who can symbolically represent the entire alliance. This role is often filled by someone who is not a professional politician belonging to one of the parties that formed the alliance. In turn, this also means that he or she may not be a politician who has the capacity and expertise to actually run alliances and governments.

That’s exactly right. That is the trade-off. Chamorro was like the mother of Nicaraguans. Without any experience. And even her son-in-law, who then was running her government, didn’t really have much political experience either.

Prior to the podcast, you told me that at a later stage Ortega himself entered into a party alliance with some of his erstwhile rivals…

Exactly. When Ortega was defeated in that election in 1990, that was the end of the Sandinista Revolution, the beginning of competitive party politics. Ortega lost one election after another, but then made a pact with the Constitutionalist Liberal party, his erstwhile enemy, whose leader was convicted of corruption. The hypothesis is that Ortega used his influence over the Supreme Court to let that guy out of prison. Later Ortega extended his pact further, allying with the Catholic Church and changing his policies to attract support from the conservative members of the society on social issues. He started to share power with various conservative forces. I would say this was a nefarious cooperation, a collusion of rivals driven by personal ambitions.

What was the reaction of the voters seeing their party coming together with the archenemy?

Well, in 2006 Ortega was able to come back to power. He changed his strategy to appear non-radical. He even changed his party’s colors from black and red to pastel colors. He made inroads into the Catholic vote. But indeed, his own supporters started to desert him for abandoning his principles and being so clearly self-interested. Later he shifted to oppressive means, so it is difficult to say how many support him.


In our second country, Chile, the end of the Pinochet regime brought a center-left alliance, the Concertación to power in 1989. How could the Socialists, Radicals, and Christian Democrats collaborate so effectively that the alliance stayed together until 2010?

Well, this was a really interesting alliance, because the Socialists, the party of Allende who was overthrown in the coup by Pinochet, felt that the Christian Democrats, and in general the moderates, the middle class and the professionals of the country, tacitly supported the coup against their leader. And yet they were able to make this alliance. Their overriding goal was to defeat Pinochet. So, the common enemy was a major incentive. The surprising thing is that this alliance lasted for 20 years. They were able to do this because they agreed to keep the market economy policies that Pinochet had put in place, including the privatization of education and of social security. The drawback of this was that they did not address inequality, and the underlying polarization and grievances.

Considering the institutional incentives, did any of the major political institutions in Chile, the electoral system, the directly elected presidential power, the existence of two chambers, or the party finance regime play a role in helping or hindering alliance-building?

I would say in Chile the electoral system was the more important incentive for coalitions. This system was the only one I know in the world that relied on binomial districts. Only two seats were distributed per district and since the first party or party-bloc received both seats only if it received twice as many votes as the second.  In practice this system favoured the second bloc, the Right, by giving them representation in most districts even though they were a minority coalition.  This was a great incentive for the Concertación to stay together for many years. Even though Concertación won majority in the Congress, the did not have sufficient majority change the electoral rules, because some seats in the Senate were reserved for life for Pinochet allies. 


In this series we focus on electoral cooperation of parties, but parties can cooperate at many levels, and in some instances this cooperation can even define the political regime. In 1958 in Venezuela the large parties, the Democratic Action, the Democratic Republican Union and the Christian-Democratic COPEI signed the so-called Punto Fijo pact. What was the rational behind this pact and what were its consequences?

They signed this because they had a great deal of political learning based on their first attempt at democracy a decade before. During that attempt, that lasted only three years, the social-democratic party, Acción Democrática, was governing unilaterally. They won a large majority, but their unilateral government alienated many, particularly on the right: the Catholic Church, the businesses, as well as foreign interests, including oil corporations. And eventually it resulted in the military coup that came in for the next decade. In 1958 when they tried again, they went for a power-sharing pact among the three center-right and center-left parties. They would still run elections to determine the president, but the ministerial positions would be distributed among the three parties in the cabinet. They also agreed on more incremental economic reforms. The original formula of power-sharing ended after the first two terms, but the pact proved to be very effective, creating democratic stability for almost four decades. But it had costs for the governing parties, who grew increasingly aloof from the population. Additionally, the parties were very centralized, they didn’t have internal democracy. 

I would consider Venezuela as an example of nefarious cooperation, aimed at collusion and at keeping other parties out. The two larger parties ended up dividing up the institutions, the electoral council, the Supreme Court, everything. 

They were also not open to generational change. Eventually these traditional parties lost their support, and that  opened the door to the Hugo Chavez period.

What you call nefarious collaboration is very similar to what Peter Mair and Richard Katz called cartel-party, where the essence is the toning down of competition, keeping outsiders out as much as possible, and sharing power, but at the same time, providing some sort of resemblance of competition. If I understand well, this logic applied to the Venezuelan case too, leading to alienation among voters. Did the same phenomenon also make the society more polarized, more extreme, did this configuration help radicals and non-democrats to rise and challenge the system or was it contained?

It did increase polarization. And there was a general alienation from the entire political establishment in the 1990s, from what was an essentially a two-party system. Additionally, the fall of the oil prices led to inequality and social unrest. Well before Chavez came in, the two parties were losing vote share. They also suffered from the defection of many of their leaders. Caldera, the predecessor of Chavez, was a case in point, he left his old party, started a new one and won the presidency with only 34% of vote share because they didn’t have runoffs back then. The general disgust with the political establishment definitely opened the door to political outsiders. By the 1998 elections, won by Chavez, all of the major candidates were political outsiders, and the ones that under duress accepted the endorsement of the traditional parties lost big.

These are basically the dark shadows of party cooperation. Now, more recently, the Chavez-Maduro regime has been challenged by various opposition umbrella groups, including Democratic Coordination and Democratic Unity Roundtable. These alliances hesitated between boycotting the elections and participating in them, and when they decided for the latter, they used various methods for choosing their candidate, including joint primaries. What were the major organizational and ideological dilemmas of these opposition groups? What is the chance for a united party?

They had a lot of dilemmas, a lot of challenges. The first time they tried to cooperate was during the recall referendum. They lost and they cried fraud, but they were unable to agree on an alternative to Chavez and so did not present a clear alternative to the voters. The next (municipal) elections they lost too, partly because their supporters were demoralized by the fraud-rhetoric. At the subsequent election for the National Assembly, the Social Democrats (AD), who were concerned about the rise of a young, technocratic center-right party, pressured the opposition parties to boycott the elections. The result was that Chavez received a 100% control of the legislature. And that’s when he began to change and politicize all institutions, from the Supreme Court to the electoral authority. So, since 2005 at every election the opposition has to make a decision, to participate or not. The elections have been getting more and more tainted, manipulated, less and less fair, but because they still have the chance to win, they typically participate.

The parties have experimented with various methods of selecting their candidates. In 2006 they started out using opinion polling to choose a joint presidential candidate because they didn’t really have the capacity to carry out their own primaries. Then, in subsequent presidential elections, they used primaries that they were able to run themselves. And that worked pretty well, actually. But for the legislative elections they didn’t have the capacity to hold primaries, so they used opinion polling again. In different elections there were different rules about whether they could run on a joint ticket with the symbol of the alliance. If both the alliance and the individual parties could appear on the ballot, the parties had to decide. When they decided to put their candidates under the individual party list, they often lost overall, but they wanted to show their strength as parties. 

They had some big successes. The Chavista government used to gain supermajorities by exploiting the gerrymandered, disproportional nature of the electoral system, but in 2015 it was the opposition that managed to take advantage of the electoral rules and they won a supermajority in the National Assembly. They boycotted the 2018 presidential election for lack of fair rules. In 2021, in spite of the increased repression, the opposition parties decided to participate in regional elections after negotiations improved the electoral conditions a bit, but their cooperative capacity had declined. They couldn’t decide on a single candidate to run for many governors and mayors. When united they often won, but in a large number of cases they were running against each other. And even though if you added up all the votes they would have defeated the Maduro candidates, but because they were divided Maduro won big across the board for governors and mayors. 

This is a fascinating story. I found particularly interesting the reliance on polls, because that implies, first, that you trust the polls. Second, in this case the outcome is predetermined by original popularity of leaders. If one of the parties has a very strong and popular candidate, that party can be sure that its candidate will be the finally chosen leader and the others have to accept the verdict even if they have doubts about the ability of that politician to govern. So I wonder whether we can draw any lesson from this Venezuelan example? Are polls, appropriate indicators of future victories? And is this process the best to choose the joint leader?

There are definitely trade-offs. But parties may have no capacity to carry out primaries. Furthermore, the Venezuelan electoral system is a mixed one, with both proportional representation and single member districts and the candidates don’t need to live in the district. There were many discussions among the parties about the choice of candidates, should it be based on the strength of the party in the past, on current political polling or the importance of politicians within the party. There is no perfect way to do it. And Venezuela has a pretty sophisticated polling capacity. But there were, of course, cases when the seats were distributed based on negotiation among parties.


As far as the fourth country, Colombia, is concerned, right now we are at the beginning of an electoral campaign, the campaign for the May 2022 elections. The government is challenged by three potential alliances, a center-right one, centrist-left one and the leftist Historical Pact for Columbia. Both are expected to hold “consultations”, essentially primaries, a couple of weeks from now. What are the traditions of party cooperation in Colombia, why do we have three oppositional alliances and not one, and what are the institutional incentives in the country for broad cooperation?

Colombia had a similar experience to Venezuela in some ways, but it had a 150-year-old competitive democracy, albeit a very elitist one. The two main parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, also had a period when they had a power-sharing pact between them. That was after a decade of violence in the 1950s. For the next 16 years the two parties had a preordained agreement to alternate in power. For the voters there was not much choice, nobody else could run at the presidential level. Dissatisfaction grew, there was also a guerrilla insurgency, and the two main parties began to split. The fundamental logic behind the splits is fairly general: for the individual leaders who are not chosen for a relevant position the only chance to move forward is to split off and form a new party. The party system fragmented, deinstitutionalized. By the time of the 2014 elections 16 parties were represented in the legislature. But forging coalitions was not difficult because most new parties were splinters from the same ideological camps. 

Next to the need for forming governmental coalitions in a fragmented system, contemporary alliance-building often has the purpose of preventing the victory of a feared alternative. For example, in 2014, the left supported a center-right candidate in the run-off in order to save the peace process from the far right who wanted to abolish it. In 2018 the election ended up in a runoff between the left and the right, the center had been dropped out by the voters. As far as the current election is concerned, the one you were talking about, the incentive for centrist politicians for alliance-building is to avoid a repeat of a run-off between the extremes. 

We indeed have a center right, a center left, and a left coalition in Colombia, and then we have a right wing party running mostly by itself. The consultation, the primaries, will be in March to choose the candidates of the three coalitions and of the right-wing party. There are some independent candidates too. It is an extremely competitive election. 

What we are talking about in this case, and in some other cases, is a complex institutional environment that, on the one hand, encourages political entrepreneurs to split or at least maintain the identity of their own party separately, but at the very same time to cooperate with other parties. Neither complete merger of the opposition is on the table in most of these cases, nor a kind of strategy that would keep complete independence for each party, and would allow the parties to start to think about the coalition only after the election. They must think and communicate about some form of cooperation already during the electoral campaign. But cooperation very rarely means complete fusion.

They’re still maintaining their identities even when they are willing to sacrifice enough to run a single candidate. But the alliances continue in the legislature. And perhaps Colombia is little bit different than the others in that there is not a clear enemy that everyone else is uniting against. It’s not polarized around a single incumbent who is autocratizing or was a dictator like Pinochet in Chile and therefore there has been no need for a very wide coalition. But the situation may change with the rising polarization in the country, first around the peace process, and now around major social protests.

Let’s have an overall reflection on the Latin American experience. We are talking about parties that can not only be held responsible in some instances for bad governance, but sometimes even for undermining democracy, and causing major civil conflicts, sometimes even civil wars. So, the stakes in Latin American politics often appear to be considerably higher than in European or other established democracies. Keeping this in mind, how shall we evaluate the behavior of political parties? How shall we consider their achievements in terms of trying to cooperate for decreasing the tensions? To what extent party cooperation is rather an avenue for increasing clientelism and corruption? 

There’s a wide variety within Latin America, but 

overall there have been instances of fantastic learning and innovation in party cooperation, especially when they’ve gone through a devastating period of a military dictatorship, or extreme violence, as we mentioned in the cases of Chile, Colombia and Venezuela. 

Power sharing was really important in these cases. And Nicaragua is also a relevant case in point, the early coming together against a very repressive situation was a great incentive, and they’ve done quite well. But another lesson to learn is that

if the parties become cartels, if they begin to exclude others, if they become unresponsive, particularly when they begin colluding to protect their own corrupt practices, then the whole thing is going to blow up again, and the people are going to rebel against those parties. 

And they will, because Latin America has been able to maintain electoral practices since the mid-1970s, so the people do use that right of voting, and they will reject establishment parties. And then there is the phenomenon of recent collaborations against populist authoritarian alternatives. (The cooperation against Bolsonaro in Brazil could be another case). When parties are uniting for a principle, then it is particularly important not to let their personal ambitions and rivalries override the collective interest that they’re fighting for.

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