Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts

Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts

Jones, Mark P

Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully, eels., Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. Illustrations, maps, figures, tables, 424 pp.; hardcover $70, paperback $27.95.

During the past 50 years, Christian Democratic political parties have been very prominent political actors in Latin America. From Chile to El Salvador to Mexico (and many places in between), Christian Democratic parties have had a profound impact on the nature and success of democratic government in the region. Yet in spite of their important role in numerous Latin American countries, we have lacked a comparative study of Christian Democracy in Latin America. Fortunately, this glaring disciplinary lacuna has been filled with the publication of this excellent book.

As two of the world’s leading authorities on Latin American political parties, Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully are ideal editors for this volume. As in their outstanding and highly influential Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America (1995), here once again they have identified an important topic, designed a framework for a coherent and mutually reinforcing volume, and assembled a prominent group of very talented scholars. The product is a superb book that will be of great interest to those concerned with democracy in Latin America, political parties, and Christian Democracy.

The volume has three sections, each of which contains four chapters. The first section studies several important aspects of Christian Democracy in the Latin American region. The second section examines two Latin American Christian Democratic parties that are currently still prominent players in their respective party systems: the Chilean Christian Democratic Party (two chapters) and the Mexican National Action Party, PAN (two chapters). The third section explores the decline suffered by the majority of the region’s Christian Democratic parties over the past dozen years. Chapters are included on the Independent Political Electoral Organizing Committee in Venezuela, the Christian Democratic parties in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the Popular Christian Party in Peru (although in this case the decline is shown to be less evident than in the other three). A final chapter examines the phenomenon of Christian Democratic decline in Latin America from a broader comparative perspective.

In Chapter 1, Scott Mainwaring skillfully highlights the prominent impact of Christian Democratic parties on political life in six Latin American countries (Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela) during the latter half of the twentieth century. He also examines the role played by Christian Democratic parties in the dual game (electoral and regime) that took place in most Latin American countries during that period as a majority of the countries in the region oscillated between authoritarian, fragile democratic, and consolidated democratic regimes. In addition to providing an exceptional review of the mechanics of the game itself, Mainwaring underscores the important part played by the Christian Democratic parties in these simultaneous, and at times contradictory, games. Finally, Mainwaring introduces the 11 other chapters and places them in the theoretical and organizational plan of the volume.

Mainwaring and Scully then explore the diversity of Christian Democracy in Latin America, providing a very helpful introduction to the study of Christian Democracy in the region and charting the varying performance of the parties (including a comprehensive summary of their electoral performance in 11 countries). Chapter 2 also utilizes data from Manuel Alcántara’s Proyecto de Elites Latinoamericanas (PELA) to provide an innovative analysis of the attitudes of Christian Democratic legislators (compared to other legislators) on a series of important social and economic issues in Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela. The chapter then carries out a comparable analysis of citizen attitudes using data from Ronald Inglehart’s World Values Survey (WVS) for Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela. (Comparable analysis was not possible for Costa Rica and Ecuador because the WVS was not conducted in these countries.) A similar analysis is conducted on legislator and citizen ideological self-placement using a traditional left-right scale. All these analyses underscore the diversity of Christian Democracy in Latin America, a diversity for which Mainwaring and Scully offer four explanations in the final portion of the chapter.

Paul E. Sigmund examines the transformation of Christian Democratic ideology in the world in chapter 3. He reviews the origins of Christian Democracy through a discussion of the features of Catholic social thought and examines the policy preferences of several parties, ranging from the Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union in Germany to the Christian Democratic Party in Chile. The chapter does an excellent job of linking and comparing Christian Democracy in Western Europe and Latin America. Sigmund concludes that in general, Christian Democratic parties differ less from other parties currently than they did in the past, yet most continue to share an identifiable concern with a set of principles stemming from the parties’ Catholic foundations (for example, support for human rights and solidarity).

Chapter 4 concludes the first section with Kirk A. Hawkins’s sophisticated analysis of the formation of Christian Democratic parties in nine Latin American countries (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela). The chapter presents six hypotheses to explain variation in the timing of this party formation and then tests the hypotheses using a Weibull regression model (that is, duration analysis). The results of this analysis indicate that the formation of Christian Democratic parties was principally the product of efforts by the Catholic Church to foment their development (that is, to disseminate Catholic social doctrine). The conclusions of this duration analysis are then reinforced through case studies of Chile, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

In Chapter 5, Carlos Huneeus provides a detailed study of the Chilean Christian Democratic Party. The chapter begins with a review of the party’s establishment and institutionalization before the 1973 coup that ushered in 16 years of military dictatorship. The chapter then provides a thought-provoking analysis of the evolution of the party since the return to democracy in 1990. This latter section highlights the party’s principal current deficiencies (such as the failure to offer popular policy proposals, the limited renewal of the party’s officeholders, and the decline of intraparty democracy), but also stresses that given the party’s solid level of support among the electorate, it still has the ability to reverse its present progressive decline and regain its status as Chile’s most prominent political party.

Chapter 6 complements the previous chapter with Ignacio Walker’s evaluation of the Chilean Christian Democratic Party’s future. Walker reiterates the party’s origins and the factors explaining its rapid rise to become the country’s most prominent political party by the mid-1960s. Then he analyzes the party’s current deficiencies as well as its potential for renewal and future success. As does Huneeus, Walker points to the party’s internal difficulties (elite ossification but also vicious factional infighting) as some of its most serious problems. At the same time, he astutely reminds us of the party’s considerable assets, including a solid programmatic base (though, like Huneeus, he believes that the party’s policy program needs to be modernized) and a highly capable and respected cadre of nationally known leaders. Huneeus and Walker convincingly argue that the Chilean Christian Democratic Party is at a crossroads; its actions over the next decade are likely to determine whether the party returns to its earlier prominence or continues its progressive decline, like many of its brethren in the region.

The histoiy of Mexico’s PAN is thoroughly described by Soledad Loaeza in chapter 7. Loaeza traces the party from its establishment in 1939 through its consolidation as the most prominent opposition party under the PRI dictatorship to the historic victory of its candidate, Vicente Fox, in the 2000 presidential election. Given the relatively sparse English-language literature on the PAN, this chapter will be invaluable to readers who wish to understand the origins and structure of this increasingly relevant Mexican political party.

In Chapter 8, Beatriz Magaloni and Alejandro Moreno complement Loaeza’s institutional analysis with an illuminating examination of the pattern of popular support for the PAN, using both aggregate electoral data and individual-level public opinion data. The authors demonstrate that at the mass level (that is, among party voters), the PAN is ideologically incoherent, and that while its supporters in the electorate do share common traits related to religious beliefs and support for democracy, those same supporters are very heterogeneous in their views on key issues related to the economy and social policy. The authors also show that this mass-level heterogeneity contrasts starkly with the homogeneity of the party elite, which holds comparatively homogenous (conservative) views on economic and social issues. Magaloni and Moreno conclude that, at least at the mass level, the PAN is best considered as a catchall party, a reality that makes it difficult for the party to pursue a better-defined policy agenda without alienating a significant segment of its voter base.

The rise and decline of one of the best known and historically most prominent Christian Democratic parties in Latin America, the awkwardly named Independent Political Electoral Organizing Committee (COPEI) of Venezuela, is cogently analyzed in chapter 9. Brian F. Crisp, Daniel H. Levine, and José E. Molina explain COPEFs creation and quick emergence as the “second” party in what was then a two-party-dominant system, a status it held from 1963 to 1993. They explore a number of important facets of the party’s mass support and level of institutionalization. Of particular interest is their excellent analysis of COPEFs organizational structure and its methods of selecting its candidates for public office.

Crisp et al. attribute COPEFs decline over the past dozen years to several factors. The most prominent are the party’s painful split before the 1993 general elections (linked to the defection of COPEFs principal founder and long-time leader, Rafael Caldera), combined with the progressive erosion of citizen loyalty based simply on partisan identification (a process hastened by the dismal performance of the last COPEI government, that of President Luis Herrera Campins, 1978-83).

In Chapter 10, Philip J. Williams and Guillermina Seri skillfully chart the rise and fall of the respective Christian Democratic parties in El Salvador and Guatemala. In both countries, the first democratic governments to emerge in the 1980s (following years of dictatorship) featured Christian Democratic presidents: José Napoléon Duarte in El Salvador and Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo in Guatemala. After this brief success, however (each party held the presidency for only one term), each party saw its popular support decline rapidly. In both countries, the Christian Democratic monopoly on voters at the center and left of the political spectrum was broken by emerging center-left parties, as well as populist parties, as democratic institutions consolidated and former insurgents and paramilitaries on the left and right began to participate fully in the democratic system. Currently, both Christian Democratic parties have become minor players in their countries’ respective political systems; they are much more concerned with avoiding mandatory dissolution (which occurs if the party fails to reach a very modest electoral threshold) than with retaking the presidency.

Various Christian Democratic parties have participated in the Peruvian political system, beginning with the Popular Union in the 1930s, followed by the Popular Democratic Movement in the 1940s, the Christian Democratic Party in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Popular Christian Party, which was founded in 1966 and continues to exist today. As Gregory D. Schmidt convincingly demonstrates in chapter 11, Christian Democracy in Peru represents a contrast to the other countries discussed in this section of the book. The Peruvian Christian Democratic parties never obtained a level of success and power comparable to that of their counterparts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Nevertheless, the movement’s current manifestation, the Popular Christian Party, is a prominent political force in the country. For example, the party’s candidate in the 2001 presidential election, Lourdes Flores Nano, won 24 percent of the vote.

In Chapter 12, Scott Mainwaring expertly synthesizes and expands on many of the topics through an analysis of the transformation and decline of Christian Democracy in Latin America. The chapter makes three major points. First, over time, the Latin American Christian Democratic parties have tended to become less programmatic and ideologically distinct, and more heterogeneous (that is, they devolved into catchall parties). second, because of the comparatively inhospitable political context in which they had to compete, Christian Democratic parties have been less successful in Latin America than in Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy until 1993, the Netherlands, and Switzerland). Third, the future of Christian Democratic parties in Latin America is not bright. While a few, such as the Christian Democratic Party in Chile and the PAN, may continue to enjoy some success, Mainwaring makes it quite clear that the glory days of Christian Democracy in Latin America are decidedly in the past.

This outstanding volume fills a large void in the scholarly literature. As the contributing authors make abundantly clear, Christian Democratic parties have played a major role in the political history of numerous Latin American countries, and it is impossible adequately to understand political events in countries such as Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela without a thorough understanding of the parties’ origins and functions. For students of political parties, the volume also provides a rich comparative study across the region, in terms both of party formation and of electoral success and survival. Given the scarce amount of work on the internal organization and functioning of individual political parties in Latin America, furthermore, all scholars of political parties should be grateful for the well-crafted studies in this volume (the Crisp et al. and Loaeza chapters are particularly useful in this respect). I strongly encourage all students of Latin American politics, political parties, and Christian Democracy to read this excellent volume.


Mainwaring, Scott, and Timothy R. Scully, eds. 1995. Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Proyecto de Elites Latinoamericanas (PELA). 2004. Salamanca: Universidad cle Salamanca.

World Values Survey (WVS). 2004. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Mark P. Jones

Rice University

Copyright Latin American Politics and Society Fall 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved