Party System Collapse in Venezuela and Peru

From Thaw to Deluge: Party System Collapse in Venezuela and Peru

Dietz, Henry A


What conditions facilitate party system collapse, the farthest-reaching variant of party system change? How does collapse occur? Numerous studies of lesser types of party system change exist, but studies of party system collapse are rare. This study draws on the existing literature and the cases of party system collapse in Venezuela (1988-2000) and Peru (1985-95) to advance some answers to the important questions about the phenomenon. The study posits three conditions that predispose political party systems to collapse: the presence of an acute or sustained crisis that questions the ability of system-sustaining political parties to govern; extremely low or extremely high levels of party system institutionalization; and the emergence of an anti-establishment figure with the desire and personal authority to generate a viable alternative to the established party system. The study also posits a three-election sequential process during which collapse takes place.

Is party system collapse an identifiable category of party system change? Political party systems long have been a concern of political science, although they are less studied than individual political parties. Scholars looking at political party systems, like those examining individual political parties, have identified and analyzed four core dynamics: emergence, institutionalization, maintenance, and change. Four types of political party system change also have been identified. They fall along a continuum from the least extreme, supportive shift, to the most extreme, collapse. Intermediate types of party system change include dealignment and realignment.1 The most extreme variant of party system change, collapse, is the least studied, and is the central concern of this article.

Party system collapse involves the disappearance of an entire party system by democratic means. In the postcollapse landscape, individual political parties that composed the party system before its implosion either disappear or are transformed. Relationships among the political parties or movements that replace them differ from those that structured the precollapse system. This study draws on two cases of party system collapse: Peru 1985-95 and Venezuela 1988-2000.

The Peruvian and Venezuelan polities share some broad similarities: Spanish colonial heritage, constant military intervention in the political process, the appearance of second wave democracies after World War II (Huntington 1991, 19-21; Molina 1998, 51-57; Roberts 2002, 15-18), and prolonged crisis in which mixes of economic, political, security, and social tensions fueled regime and party system change (Burgess and Levitsky 2003; Molina and Pérez 2004; Roberts 1996). Yet the political party systems of these two countries exhibit a critical difference that trumps the similarities in their polities. Peru’s party system during the 1980s was weakly institutionalized or “inchoate” (Mainwaring and Scully 1995, xii; Cotler 1995; Mainwaring and Torcal 2005). In sharp contrast, Venezuela boasted what observers characterized as a highly institutionalized twoparty system (Molina 2002; Myers 2004; Penfold 2001). Nevertheless, both the Peruvian and Venezuelan systems underwent collapse, the extreme form of party system change. Why and how the Venezuelan and Peruvian party systems were swept away, despite their dramatically different levels of institutionalization, is the central puzzle addressed in this study.

Extreme variation in the independent variable, institutionalization, allows for Przeworski and Teune’s “most different” comparative strategy, which centers on “eliminating irrelevant systemic factors” by focusing on “variation of the observed behavior at a level lower than that of systems” (1970, 34). Thus, two lower-level settings (political party systems) are compared; these exhibit at least one strikingly different characteristic, but the same outcome (collapse) for the dependent variable (party system change) has occurred. This strategy allows us to identify common explanatory factors in settings (the Venezuelan and Peruvian party systems) that differ along a critical dimension.

We approach our undertaking inductively and view it as a revelatory case study.2 Because party system collapse is largely unstudied, this study begins by searching the literature that examines the less extreme variants of party system change: supportive shift, dealignment, and realignment (see Mainwaring and Torcal 2005, 2-3 for their encouragement of just such a strategy). The goal is to identify variables and propositions from this literature that may contribute to an understanding of party system collapse. Another concern is the process of party system collapse itself, especially with the likelihood that once the process gets under way, its momentum becomes a factor contributing to that collapse.


The literature agrees that a party system is more than the sum of its parties; it also encompasses the set of patterned interactions among those parties (Mainwaring and Scully 1995, 4; Mair 2002; Seawright 2004, 3-4; Lane and Ersson 1987, 155). How that pattern or set of patterns can be described varies considerably, as Janda (1993) notes in his review of the literature. Party system collapse obviously has grave repercussions for any polity that claims or wishes to be democratic. After all, if voters reject the traditionally dominant political parties and their party system as mechanisms for aggregating demands, recruiting political leaders, and transferring power, that rejection signals profound problems of legitimacy for the broader political regime.

The collapse of a political party system occurs when large numbers of voters desert the system-sustaining parties in a short period; the weakened system-sustaining parties cannot regain support or reconstruct the intrasystemic relationships that structured the party system before the collapse began; and new political parties emerge and a different configuration of interparty competition takes shape.

The literature on less extreme types of party system change suggests three factors that interact to bring about party system collapse: the appearance of a crisis that shakes the foundations of the political regime and that the dominant political class is unable to manage, a weakening of party system institutionalization, and the appearance of an attractive antiparty-system personality.

Crisis and Voter Discontent

Scholars find that a prolonged crisis leads to societal discontent, expressed as withdrawal of support by the electorate from one of the established or system-sustaining parties and voting for another systemsustaining party. If the chosen alternative disappoints expectations, voters turn their backs on all system-sustaining parties and support an anti-establishment leader whom they view as an alternative to the existing political class (Crabtree 2001; Levitsky 1998, 2004; Miller and Schofield 2003; Rose and Mackie 1988).3

Deteriorating economic conditions are widely viewed as a primary source of discontent with the political class. Other sources include the choking off of channels for participation (in either the government or the system-sustaining parties), corruption, and high levels of citizen insecurity. If these discontents are widespread among critical interest groups (be they elites, the middle sectors, labor, or the poor) and system-sustaining party leaders do not address them on any systematic basis, then the discontented will search for alternatives.4 During the 1990s in Venezuela and Peru, neoliberal policies stimulated macroeconomic growth, but the wealth created by that growth failed to trickle down beyond the middle sectors. The political class in both countries appeared self-absorbed, corruption ran rampant, crime rates increased, and banditry in the countryside sometimes degenerated into insurgency. A multidimensional crisis existed in both countries in the 1990s, and the respective electorates vented their frustration by voting the system-sustaining parties out of office.

Level of Party System Institutionallzation

The literature dealing with Latin American democracy assigns high importance to creating and nurturing stable political institutions.5 It goes without saying that political party systems, along with individual political parties, are among the most critical political institutions of the modern polity. When the pattern of activity that defines a political institution is stable, viewed as the norm, and citizens are more or less satisfied with the results of those activities, the pattern is said to be institutionalized.6

Recent studies have argued that a high degree of party system institutionalization is necessary if political party systems are to aggregate interests efficiently, recruit a broad range of political leaders, socialize citizens to accept the legitimacy of elections, and hold corruption within manageable bounds (Coppedge 1994; Mainwaring and Scully 1995, chap. 1; Roberts and Wibbels 1999; Seligson 2002). Studies of party system change, especially those examining the variant of realignment, posit direct relationships between a high degree of party system institutionalization and (to a lesser extent) the level of institutionalization achieved by individual system-sustaining political parties, and success in resisting abrupt change (see Mainwaring and Torcal 2005, 6).7

Anti-Establishment Personalist Leadership

A third variable, personalistic leadership, appears throughout discussions of party system change (Mainwaring and Torcal 2005, 5). Weber’s theory of leadership assumes that personal qualities come into play when processes embedded in modernization undermine the authority of traditional political institutions (1947, 328-49). The loss of legitimacy by traditional institutions opens the way for claims of authority based on personal qualities, but such “charismatic” authority cannot be transferred to others and is limited to the lifetime of a single individual.

The twentieth century saw numerous leaders who substituted personal authority for discredited political institutions. Contrary to Weber’s expectations, populist leaders in the twentieth century often used their charisma to undermine institutions that were modern and democratic. Latin American examples include Fulgencio Batista’s coup against Cuba’s feckless democracy in 1952, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla’s discarding of the fractious Colombian political party system in 1953, and General Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of Chilean democracy in 1973. Nevertheless, these examples confirm Weber’s insight that personal leadership can undermine discredited political institutions.

Mainwaring and Scully (1995, 71-72) point out that political party systems and political parties that retain a quotient of support have proved resilient in the face of attacks against them. Thus an anti-establishment leader’s power to threaten a system of political parties reaches a critical level only when dissatisfaction with the choices offered by the system-sustaining parties is intense and long-lasting (usually for two or more presidential periods; see Seawright 2004, 4). Once this critical level is attained, however, the antisystem leader can bring down the oncedominant system or reconstruct it so thoroughly that it bears no resemblance to what it once was.


What sorts of observations or empirical measurements can be used to understand party system collapse? Does the collapse of a party system intensify voter alienation, or is it the other way around? For instance, can the threat of party system collapse persuade voters to return to their historical partisan allegiances (at least temporarily), or does it feed their disaffection? No clear-cut answers exist to these questions, but ultimately, disaffection and collapse appear mutually reciprocal and reinforcing (Mair 2002, 105; Miller and Niemi 2002, 183-84).

Lipset and Rokkan (1967) are among the few scholars to model party system change. Their pathbreaking work viewed socioeconomic cleavages in Western Europe as having created party system landscapes that froze following the extension of suffrage and the mobilization of new partisan supporters. Thus, the party systems of Western Europe in the 1960s reflected cleavage structures that had been in place for more than four decades, which means that most party organizations were older than much of the national electorate. However, Dix (1989) found the concept of socioeconomic cleavage to be of limited utility for understanding party system change in twentieth-century Latin America.

Studies of supportive shift, realignment, and dealignment have identified party system landscapes that appeared “frozen” for extended periods but actually experienced rapid and significant thaw. Instances include post-World War II party systems in Europe, Canada, and Japan (Mair 2001, 2002, 101-6; Mair and Sakano 1998; Stewart and Clarke 1998, Wellhofer 2001). This body of work raises questions about the validity of Lipset and Rokkan’s model of political party systems as frozen landscapes. It also suggests that once thawing begins, it creates political currents in which the remnants of the once-“frozen” party system interact in new (and not so new) ways. In other words, when voter affect for the dominant system-supportive political parties falls below a certain critical threshold (or “tipping point”), changes in the party system have been set in motion that may be irresistible.8

A glance at political party system change in Venezuela and Peru in the 1980s and 1990s suggests the metaphor of glacial dynamism as a replacement for Lipset and Rokkan’s frozen landscape model. Glaciologists know that the surface of a glacier may appear little affected as atmospheric warming sets in motion deepseated change. If unchecked, however, these changes will bring about a meltdown. Analogously, during the early phase of party system collapse, the party system’s visible landscape can retain its familiar features; but deep within the system, changes are accumulating. When the cumulative pressures caused by these changes reach some tipping point, fractures in the party system become visible. Signature landmarks that gave the party system its structure are transformed or disappear. If the changes continue unabated, the party system is swept away in a deluge.

The extreme changes experienced by political party systems in Venezuela and Peru also suggest that party system collapse occurs in stages, anchored by three presidential elections. First, following the baseline presidential election, a hidden thaw begins under the party system’s frozen landscape. An example of such a thaw might be an abrupt rise in abstention rates, which occurred in the Venezuelan presidential election of 1988, when abstention increased to 18 percent (in mandatory voting) from a previous high of 12 percent. Next, the second anchoring presidential election reveals a fractured party system landscape that confirms massive, deep-seated deterioration, or thawing. Such deterioration took place in Venezuela in 1993, when Caldera became the first non-AD/COPEI president, and large chunks of the vote went to Andres Velasquez, the CAUSA R candidate. This realization alarms the political class, leading it to undertake efforts to contain or reverse the thaw or to resort to finger pointing and blaming. If the thaw continues unabated, it creates the conditions for an antisystem leader who may use personal authority to accelerate the fracturing of the party system. The third presidential election constitutes the deluge that sweeps away the fractured party system. Again in Venezuela, the deluge in 1998 occurred when AD and COPEI both abandoned their own candidates. In its aftermath, remnants of individual political parties that structured the collapsed party system may cling to existence or recover, but the institutions and processes that characterized the earlier configuration are lost irretrievably.


The political party system that formed the heart of Venezuela’s democracy over four decades evolved from a multiparty configuration to a two-and-a-half-party system by the early 1970s. The core competition was between Acción Democrática (AD), a social democratic party occupying the center left, and the Social Christians, Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independente (COPEI), which dominated the center-right. These two political parties received more than 90 percent of the popular vote in presidential elections throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Kornblith and Levine 1995). A third party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), was a reformist offshoot of the Venezuelan Communist Party; it occupied an ideological position to the left of AD but became increasingly centrist as the 1980s progressed (Ellner 1988). After fleeting success as vehicles for personalist leaders, political parties on the far left and far right played no significant role in Venezuelan politics from 1969 to 1993 (Myers 2004).

The last national election dominated by AD and COPEI occurred on December 4, 1988, when they received more than 94 percent of the presidential vote and almost three-quarters of the votes for seats in the legislature (see table 1) . The only cause for concern was an unanticipated 6 percent rise in the rate of abstention. However, on assuming power, President Carlos Andrés Pérez (AD) encountered an economic crisis of staggering proportions. The new government was forced to seek financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and to adopt austerity measures as a condition for the loan. Pérez’s maladroit implementation of these measures, following a campaign during which he implied that Venezuela would return to the halcyon days of petrobonanza prosperity, led to three days of rioting in ten of the nation’s largest cities (Romero 1996, 393-403).

An eerie post-riot calm was interpreted by many observers as the return of political normalcy, and this mistaken perception was reinforced ten months later when most voters supported AD and COPEI candidates in regional and local elections. However, two developments suggested that change was occurring beneath the party system’s apparently stable glacial landscape. The militantly leftist party Causa R won the governorship in the industrial state of Bolívar; and the rate of abstention approached 55 percent. Few alarm bells sounded, however, because abstention in regional and local elections had always been higher than in balloting for president and the national congress.

Venezuela’s macroeconomic indicators improved during the early 1990s, but optimism among the elites gave way to shock on February 4, 1992, when junior army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez mounted a coup that came within an eyelash of overthrowing the government. To make matters worse, President Pérez granted Chávez access to television on the condition that he urge his followers to lay down their arms, but Chávez used the opportunity to justify his resort to force as an attempt to end corruption and reverse the neoliberal economic policies that were “oppressing the people.” His appearance put a face on extraconstitutional opposition to the Punto Fijo party system (Lopez-Maya 2003, 78). On November 27, 1992 a second unsuccessful coup, this time led by air force and navy units, fatally weakened the Ferez government (Agüero 1995, 215-30). Ferez himself was impeached the following May. Nevertheless, in the regional elections of December 6, 1992, the two pillars of Venezuela’s party system actually increased their share of the total vote. COPEI was the overwhelming beneficiary of open military dissatisfaction with President Pérez.

The national elections of December 5, 1993, however, revealed unprecedented party system fragmentation. No presidential candidate received a third of the popular vote, and the combined AD-COPEI total fell under 50 percent for the first time since 1958. MAS joined with partisans of Rafael Caldera and propelled the octogenarian to a second presidency. Causa R finished only a few percentage points behind AD and COPEI. These results constituted a political earthquake.

How and why did Venezuela’s party system thaw so dramatically between December 1992 and December 1993? Obviously, in the years leading up to December 1992, significant melting had occurred beneath the outwardly frozen party system landscape. The event that rearranged that landscape was the struggle inside COPEI. Rafaël Caldera’s decision to seek the presidency independently of COPEI (the party he had founded in the 1940s) opened old wounds inside the party. In 1988, younger party leaders gave the presidential nomination to Eduardo Fernández, who, although he was defeated, continued as COPEI’s secretary general. Following Chávez’s unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, Fernández threw his support to Perez’s AD government. Caldera, in contrast, stopped just short of endorsing the coup attempt. While this position was in tune with the sentiments of most Venezuelans, his candidacy remained anathema to those who had wrested control of COPEI from him. Thus, by 1993, a severely splintered COPEI was no longer a meaningful alternative to AD.

But other alternatives did exist. One was Rafaël Caldera as an independent, promising to restore state-centered economic management and subsidies for the poor and to break the AD-COPEI stranglehold on power. More radically inclined voters could opt for Causa R, whose presidential candidate, Andrés Velásquez, emphasized his opposition to neoliberal policies and promised aid to the urban poor. He thereby played to the alienation felt by voters who had been left behind during the petroleum bonanza of the 1970s and by groups that were experiencing downward socioeconomic mobility in the 1990s.

Caldera’s 1993 electoral triumph signaled that Venezuelans were not prepared to abandon post-1958 democracy, despite their disillusionment with AD and COPEI. As one of the two godfathers of that democracy, Caldera had an authority that his AD and COPEI opponents lacked. Caldera promised a return to the social justice policies of his first administration (1969-74), an orientation that AD, COPEI, and MAS had shared until the neoliberal second Pérez administration.


Peru’s three-election sequence toward collapse begins with the presidential elections of 1985 (baseline), 1990 (thaw), and 1995 (deluge). But Peru’s party system actually collapsed in far less time than ten years, and subnational elections were critical straws in the wind for observing the onset of a thaw.

Peru has seldom had institutionalized political parties, if that term implies organizations with deep-seated ideologies, coherent rules, and lives beyond a particular leader or founder.9 Parties first formed in the 1850s; most were led by elites who competed for a small number of votes, as suffrage was severely restricted by gender, legal status, and wealth. These elites controlled Peru during its so-called Golden Age of Aristocracy and comprised what Dahl (1971) would term a competitive oligarchy. Mass politics did not emerge until the presidential election of 1931, when two anti-establishment figures (Luís Sánchez Cerro and Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre) appeared on the scene. Haya de la Torre’s APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana, or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance) proved to be the best-organized and most coherent political party in Peruvian history. But constant interventions by the military made it difficult for all parties and their leaders to practice their craft and for constituencies to develop loyalties.

In 1963, Peruvian democracy seemed to be entering a new era. Competitive elections saw Fernando Belaunde of Accion Popular (AP) win on a centrist platform that included municipal elections throughout the country (previously all mayors had been appointed). But this experiment in democracy was abruptly canceled in 1968 when the military seized power and ruled until 1980.

The year 1980 saw the restoration of civilian rule, the emergence of an unprecedented,, if wobbly, party system, and the onset of an unparalleled stretch of democratic rule. The Peruvian political party system throughout the 1980s consisted of four parties or groupings: the United Left (IU), a fractious coalition of several Marxist groups; APRA, comprising the center-left; AP on the center-right; and the Partido Popular Cristiano (PPC, in later elections also known as CODE), representing the business right. By either winning elections (presidential or municipal), winning seats in the congress, or being major players during the decade, these four constituted Peru’s party system, inchoate as it might have been by other standards.

Peru made what appeared to be significant advances in the 1980s toward a sustainable democracy, at least in procedural terms. All panics that wished to compete could do so; national (presidential and legislative) and municipal elections were held as scheduled (every five and three years, respectively); claims of fraud or corruption in the electoral process were virtually absent; incumbents relinquished power to their successors, thereby allowing alternation of power; and the military showed no interest in interfering with the electoral process.

Table 2 reveals how changes in partisan control of the presidency occurred during the 1980s: first a move from AP to APRA and then from ARA to Alberto Fujimori’s Cambio 90. In addition, municipal elections showed that a variety of parties were viable power contenders. In Lima’s mayoral races, AP won in 1980, followed by IU in 1983 and APRA in 1986, suggesting a healthy turnover of power (not to mention adherence to the rules of the game).

The 1980s, however, were a decade of economic travails for Peru, beginning early with slow growth and rising foreign debt under Belaunde and then collapsing rapidly during Alan Garcia’s administration, when overextended heterodox economic policies, accompanied by a catastrophic effort to nationalize the banking industry, led to a sharply decreasing GNP, drying up of foreign and domestic investment, and hyperinflation that reached 7,600 percent in 1990 (Crabtree 1992). In addition, the presence of the Shining Path movement (.Sendero Luminoso) throughout the 1980s produced widespread political violence, intimidation, and a military that became notorious for human rights abuses. The combination of economic collapse and sociopolitical violence brought crushing levels of poverty, un- or underemployment, public health problems, and a litany of other ills.

Given this context, table 2 shows the progressive decline in support for Accion Popular. In 1980, AP’s presidential victory was accompanied by approximately similar wins in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. But Belaunde’s economic problems made 1983’s municipal elections a referendum on AP, whose mayoral candidate in Lima garnered only 12 percent in Lima and whose municipal candidates totaled 17.5 percent nationally. In contrast, IU and APRA together took more than 60 percent of the national vote, and ILI’s Alfonso Barrantes won Lima’s mayoral race. AP had had its chance with the electorate; it had failed.

For a moment, APRA and ILI appeared to be ascendant. ILJ’s 1983 victory in Lima precipitated much rejoicing on the left. But when Barrantes ran as ILJ’s presidential candidate in 1985, he was soundly defeated by Garcia and APRA, and then a year later lost a close re-election race to APRA. These successive defeats brought on a spate of anguished self-examinations and recriminations that left IU splintered and fatally weakened (Crabtree 1992, 164-70).

APRA, meanwhile, seemed triumphant. Garcia’s presidential victory was accompanied by majority wins in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies and then its 1986 win in Lima. APRA had all the reins of power in its hands. But ineffective policies against Shining Path, deteriorating economic conditions, and constant rumors of corruption and fraud brought about a vertiginous slide in public approval ratings.10 What is notable here is the failure of the parties that made up Peru’s party system to address the deepening economic and social crisis of the late 1980s.


Two basic reactions of system-sustaining party elites once deepseated tensions cause frozen party system landscapes to buckle were identified earlier: efforts to contain, reverse, or otherwise manage the thaw, and attempts to place blame for it. In Venezuela and Peru, both reactions displayed proactive and defensive variants. Proactive variants included reaching out to newly mobilized groups that expressed discontent with the party system. The established political class made at least halfhearted attempts to strengthen safety nets for the poor, grow the economy, provide temporary work for the unemployed, root out corruption, and make political participation more meaningful. Defensive tactics sought to stem the erosion of support for system-sustaining political parties by increasing the flow of patronage to party militants and allied independents.

Attempts to place blame for the thawing of support for system-sustaining political parties in Venezuela and Peru occurred both within these parties and across them. Such recriminations often led to an “every party for itself mentality, in which party leaders acted as if politics were a zero-sum game (if you win, we lose, and vice versa); or a rupture in the interpersonal and interinstitutional relationships that had given the dominant party systems their strength.


The December 1993 national elections fractured Venezuela’s long-frozen party system landscape. AD and COPEI continued to have the largest congressional delegations. MAS, together with the Caldera government, had more deputies and senators that at any time in its history, but fewer deputies than either of the newly influential political parties, Causa R and Convergence. In spite of its many years of opposition to AD and COPEI, MAS did not emerge as the party system’s major leftist alternative. That honor went to Causa R, which, in the presidential and congressional elections of 1993, came within 3 percent of the AD and COPEI vote. Indeed, some Causa R leaders maintained that their candidate, Andrés Velásquez, had actually won the presidential election, and that AD and COPEI had stolen the victory. Although the allegations were never proven, many Venezuelans believed them, thereby discrediting the political party system and post-1958 democracy.

During the first half of Caldera’s administration (1994-99), AD and COPEI leaders made few joint efforts to contain, reverse, or manage the party system thaw that had deprived them of the presidency. AD and COPEI had cooperated in 1989 to pass legislation increasing the power and autonomy of local governments, following the urban rioting on February 28-29, 1989. AD and COPEI also backed President Ferez after Chávez’s unsuccessful coup of February 4, 1992.

President Caldera focused on saving Venezuela’s liberal democratic system, but he was ambivalent toward AD and MAS and intensely hos tile to COPEI. Caldera had been elected in 1993 because of his opposition to the economic policies of the Plegislaturerez government. In 1993 and 1994, however, state revenues from petroleum sales remained low, and declining investor confidence dried up foreign investment. These and other constraints made it impossible for Caldera to resurrect state capitalism and import substitution industrialization, as he had promised to do in his campaign.

At the beginning of the third year of his term, Caldera reversed course and announced a new economic program, Agenda Venezuela, which was essentially a return to neoliberal economic policies. This shift led to a split in MAS; most of the party actively opposed Agenda Venezuela. In order to govern, Caldera turned for support to AD. In return for helping pass legislation through Congress, Caldera gave AD leaders resources they needed to sustain the party infrastructure (Alfaro Ucero 1997). This arrangement made AD secretary General Luis Alfaro Ucero the second most powerful individual in the country, but the deal also identified AD with a government that became even more unpopular than its predecessor.

A final effort to deal with the thaw occurred in 1998, when AD and COPEI approved nonconcurrent legislative and presidential elections scheduled for December 6. The former were moved to November 8 in hope of minimizing the coattail effect of Hugo Chávez’s burgeoning presidential candidacy (Molina 2002, 226-28). Initially this change appeared to contain the thaw. Chávez failed to capture a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, and the two system-sustaining political parties won well over half the governorships. However, after Chávez won the presidency, he drew on his popularity to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress.

A strong showing by AD in the 1995 regional elections made Alfaro Ucero’s position inside AD unassailable (Maingon and Patruyo 1996). But his ascendancy drove most youthful leaders out of the party. His presidential candidacy failed to attract even a 10 percent approval rating in 1998 campaign polls. When party leaders stripped Alfaro of AD’s presidential nomination, blaming and recriminations were so bitter that Alfaro was expelled from the party.

Anger, bitterness, and tension also permeated COPEI in the wake of Oswaldo Alvarez Paz’s third-place finish in 1993.n Distracted and in shock, COPEI made only halfhearted preparations for the regional and municipal elections of 1995. The results showed that support for COPEI candidates had declined by almost 50 percent from two years earlier. At this juncture, COPEFs national organization turned to former president Luis Herrera Campins for leadership. Herrera gambled COPEI’s electoral fortunes in 1998 on independent Irene Sâez, a former Miss Universe who was mayor of the affluent municipality of Chacao in metropolitan Caracas. When Sáez’s standing in the polls fell below 10 percent, COPEI’s national leadership retracted the party’s presidential nomination. Their new choice was Henrique Salas Romer, the maverick governor of Carabobo State, who seemed to have an outside chance of defeating Chávez (McCoy 1999). But less than 2 percent of the voters cast their ballot for Salas using the COPEI ballot. Herrera’s influence within COPEI evaporated.

As the 1998 campaigns drew to a close, AD, COPEI, and MAS were discredited and dispirited. They appeared incapable of coping with the country’s decadelong downward economic spiral. The old guard in AD and COPEI had marginalized or driven out most young leaders, and their once-vaunted party organizations were in tatters. A charismatic military officer had arisen whose popularity rested on opposing the existing political party system and the liberal democracy its leaders had nurtured. Efforts to contain, reverse, or manage the 1993 thaw had been for naught.


As the first hints of a system thaw started to appear in the mid- and late 1980s, the reactions of Peru’s party elites reflected both finger pointing and unsuccessful efforts to sustain the system.

Whereas in Venezuela, elite members of the system-sustaining parties attempted to implement a variety of reforms once a thaw had started, their Peruvian counterparts found themselves more or less stymied. Many of the reforms Venezuela undertook had been in place in Peru since the 1979 transition, when a voting age of 18, universal suffrage (including illiterates), nationwide nonconcurrent municipal elections, no immediate presidential re-election, and other equally important reforms were implemented. Throughout the 1980s, moreover, all participants observed these rules, and all agreed that whoever won the popular vote would take office.

Therefore, when Peru’s thaw first appeared in the 1989 Lima municipal election, most reasonable and realistic reforms were already in place. What happened in Peru was a clear sequential deterioration: one system-sustaining party would win an election (e.g., AP in 1980), perform poorly while in office, and at the end of five years be replaced by another (APRA in 1985), which would repeat the same pattern. But AP could not recover from its defeat in 1985 to run successfully in 1990, by which time APRA was also in tatters, as was the left. The PPC, while important in Lima, never became a major national presence. All four parties were thus discredited.

Support for and loyalty to the party system were either weak or missing altogether. None of the leaders of the four system-sustaining parties was willing to work for the survival of the system. Competition was in zero-sum terms: if one party won, another one lost, and therefore electoral competition was fierce and highly personal, as opposed to organizational. That the party system itself might also lose seldom appeared as a factor in anyone’s calculations.

In addition, Peruvian political leaders were unable during the 1980s to form any sort of elite settlement or accord. Tanaka (1998, 83-84) notes several attempts to create such alliances, but all came to nothing. He concludes that Peru’s society during this decade was becoming more and more complex and thus more and more difficult for its political party system to represent. Yet the tenor of the discussions between and among the nation’s political class failed to focus on adjusting to the changes and challenges of society at large.

What did appear were partial and largely evanescent agreements between or among individual elites, who either could not speak for, or had no desire to speak for the party organizations they represented. No one demonstrated any interest in working for the system they putatively supported and that supported them. By the time of the first Fujimori administration in 1990, moreover, electoral politics had become almost entirely personalist because of the widespread delegitimation that all major parties had undergone and the virulent antiparty feelings in the Peruvian electorate.

Not surprisingly, recriminations were sparked and reformist efforts hindered by this increased personalism. AP depended almost entirely on Fernando Belaunde, but it could not pull itself back together after being crushed in 1985, and its weakness weakened the system overall. The PPC was a small party with severe limitations. Its center-right orientation never extended beyond metropolitan Lima and the city’s middle- and upper-class districts.

In 1988 AP and PPC formed an alliance known as Fredemo, which supported Mario Vargas Llosa’s presidential run in 1990. This coalition of two centrist-rightist parties was at least momentarily attractive to many voters. But Fredemos appeal existed primarily because of the nonpartisan nature of Vargas Llosa as a candidate. And while Vargas Llosa’s militant neoliberalism scared off many voters, support from two discredited parties was at least as important in his defeat.

The left under IU showed significant strength in Lima in the early 1980s when it won the city’s mayoral race, but its appeal lay more with its leader, Alfonso Barrantes, than with its ideological persuasiveness. Barrantes performed admirably during his three years as Lima’s mayor, but his two quick defeats in 1995 and 1996 brought the tensions within IU to the surface (Roberts 1996). Many of the left’s presumed constituency deserted the party, which, in turn, led to more recriminations.

Even APRA’s vaunted organizational bedrock strength dissolved quickly. When Alan Garcia took command of the party and then assumed the presidency of the nation, the party seemed invincible. But García’s (and his party’s) often extreme partisan behavior offended many independent supporters. By 1990, García and the party had squandered their opportunity to govern effectively.

Peru’s episodic history with democratic rule reveals that its political parties have torn one another down with no regard for the sustainability of the system as a whole. Examples abound. In Peru’s truncated democratic experiment of the 1960s, Belaúnde’s AP party won a plurality in the congress but not a majority. Instead of being able to form a coalition with either APRA or the Unión Nacional Odriísta (UNO, the personalist vehicle for previous dictator Manuel Odría), AP confronted an unlikely alliance of these two previously bitter enemies that consistently blocked, emasculated, or claimed credit for AP’s initiatives. The APRA-UNO alliance not only frustrated loyalists from all three parties but also gave the Peruvian military, itself anxious for reforms to take place, a justification for seizing power in 1968.

In the early 1980s, AP under Belaúnde avoided major run-ins with APRA, which was embroiled in battles of succession following Haya de la Torre’s death in 1979. Yet as García emerged as head of the party, APRA did all it could to obstruct Belaúnde’s government during the runup to the 1985 presidential elections. AP could do little against APRA’s superior organizational strength.

But García’s presidency confirmed the worst fears and predictions of APRA’s opponents. Once APRA controlled the whole of the political system-presidency, Congress, Lima’s and most of the nation’s other mayoral positions-the party and its leaders showed themselves to be incompetent, partisan, and corrupt (Graham 1992). Thus they brought on themselves widespread citizen frustration and allowed not only antiAPRA but also antiparty system leaders to emerge (Mario Vargas Llosa and Fredemo; Alberto Fujimori and Cambio 90) in 1990.

All in all, as of 1990, none of the four system-sustaining parties could demonstrate that it had the capacity to confront a multifaceted crisis (economic collapse, organizational weaknesses, no new ideas, and Shining Path). Conditions were ripe for a charismatic, anti-establishment candidate to emerge.


Our conceptualization of party system collapse envisions the thaw becoming a deluge, sweeping the old system away, when support for the system-sustaining parties falls precipitously from one presidential election to another and what remains is “post-alluvial.”12 In a change of this extreme magnitude, the historical system-sustaining parties lose their ability (or abilities) to attract votes in an electoral competition. Instead, newly ascendant political parties or personalistic movements win office by calling for an end to the existing system of political parties and sometimes the political regime itself.

We see the final phase of party system collapse as having two basic components: a swift and fatal decline in voter support for the historically dominant political parties, which obliterates the structural dynamics of the old party system; and victory by a nonsystem alternative, frequently led by a neopopulist figure who uses control of the national government to bury the historically dominant political class.

The Venezuelan Deluge, 1998-2000

The presidential contest of December 6, 1998, the last held under the 1961 Constitution, melted the fractured party system landscape bequeathed by the national elections of 1993. Dissatisfaction with the economy played a major role, as Caldera’s presidency saw Venezuela’s economic miseries accelerate. A banking crisis had eliminated almost 60 percent of total national bank deposits, and the price of oil on international markets had fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s. Most Venezuelans held the government and AD responsible, and viewed Caldera’s alliance with AD as yet another example of corruption and cronyism. COPEI was seen as corrupt, and so weakened by internecine warfare with Caldera as to be incapable of governing (McCoy 1999).

Twenty months later, on July 31, 2000, Venezuela operated for the first time under the new 1999 Constitution. In what electoral officials called a “mega-election,” voters chose the president, all governors and mayors, and all members of the new National Assembly. AD and COPEI declined to contest the presidency. Support for Hugo Châvez was similar to the backing he had received in the election of December 1998: in both contests, voters preferred the one-time coup leader by a 3-2 margin (Carrasquero and Welsch 2001).13

AD and COPEI together took slightly more than one-fifth of the total seats in the National Assembly. Only AD won any governorships, all in small states, although the party elected a respectable number of mayors. This pattern was repeated in the municipal and neighborhood council elections held on December 3, 2000; Châvez and his allies won majorities in most locations and AD finished a distant second (see table 1).

In 2001, AD and COPEI deteriorated further. AD split; one faction was dominated by the national leadership while another drew support from several of the party’s regional leaders. COPEI continued to hemorrhage middle-level leaders who could not be replaced. In essence, neither AD nor COPEI stood any realistic chance of returning to power in the foreseeable future.

Another event that contributed to the deluge of 1998-2000, however, had occurred in 1994, when then-president Caldera pardoned Chávez for his 1992 coup attempt and restored his political rights. Soon afterward, Chávez reassembled his team and added leaders of the defunct Democratic Republican Union (URD) and the fossilized Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV). Chávez’s populist Bolivarian Movement subsequently took on a Marxist cast that attracted leftist intellectuals. In late 1997, Chávez created a new political movement, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), which subsequently swept the presidential elections of 1998 and 2000 (Garrido 2000; Vivas 1999).

Thus, events between 1998 and 2000 constituted a deluge that destroyed Venezuela’s system of political parties. Perceptions of economic mismanagement and never-ending corruption convinced most voters that AD, COPEI, and MAS were beyond redemption. Beginning with the presidential election campaign of 1998, the traditional political parties were overwhelmed by a youthful populist who pledged fundamental differences to give the masses a voice that the old party system had stifled. The results of the mega-elections of 2000 saw the complete collapse of Venezuela’s traditional system.

The Peruvian Deluge, 1989-1995

The 1989 municipal elections presented clear early evidence that a thaw was under way and that Peru’s old party system was deteriorating rapidly. In Lima, Ricardo Belmont, a popular TV personality but a political novice, won a 45 percent plurality; the next-largest total (26.8 percent) was for the Fredemo alliance. APRA and IU could gather only 11 percent apiece. The year 1989 was thus in many ways a watershed for the traditional party system. From that year on, party system vote totals decreased dramatically, falling first to around 70 percent in 1990 for congressional elections and then to a startling 37.6 percent in the second round of presidential elections. Henceforth, support for the old system as such never rose above 20 percent.

As the 1990s proceeded, the once-dominant four-party system collapsed in presidential, legislative, and municipal elections (see table 2). In addition, President Fujimori made every effort to ensure that no opposition parties received any help from the state (Tuesta 1996; Conaghan 2001; Crabtree 2001). One sign of weakness occurred in 1992, when Fujimori seized power in an autogolpe. Despite much international criticism, Fujimori’s move received strong public backing, and the old parties could mount no opposition to the takeover.

The party system of the 1980s had, by the early 1990s, collapsed. AP and APRA, each of which had won presidential elections by substantial margins in 1980 and 1985, in 1995 took a total of less than 6 percent of the popular vote. IU, which had won Lima’s mayoral race in 1983 and whose candidate finished second in the 1985 presidential contest, took half of one percent of the total popular vote in 1995. PPC in 1995 took slightly more than 3 percent nationally but posted no candidates in municipal elections. Thus, each system-sustaining party imploded, with all four falling into irretrievable collapse in little more than a year.

From 1995 on, elections revolved around personalities. Fujimori’s movement (Cambio 90-Nueva Mayoria) dated from 1990 and was his vehicle for winning and maintaining power. In the 1995 elections, none of the major opposition candidates carried labels from the four pivotal parties of the 1980s. Likewise, local elections throughout the country showed that individuals and their movements won much more frequently than did party-label candidates.


At the beginning of this article, three propositions were extracted from the literature on three types of political party system change (supportive shift, realignment, dealignment) to see if they might be useful for understanding the causes of a fourth and less studied type of change, party system collapse. We can now ask if our case studies supported these propositions and whether our cases suggest modifications to them. In addition, an inductively derived process of how party system collapse takes place was sketched. Does probing for the causes of party system collapse within the parameters of this process confirm its utility, and by using it do we add to the understanding of party system collapse?

The first proposition posits the existence of an acute, prolonged crisis as critical in initiating party system collapse. Collapse begins because of the inability of those who lead the system-sustaining political parties to manage the crisis. This lack of capability discredits them and their party system. Data from the case studies here support this proposition. Economic decline and impatience with corruption shaped crises in both Peru and Venezuela. Blocked participation was a basic component of the Venezuelan crisis; in Peru it also led to frustration with political elites, but was less central in shaping the crisis. In contrast, the rise in personal insecurity (because of Shining Path) was central to the Peruvian crisis while it remained secondary in Venezuela. But the important point is that in both countries there was a prolonged crisis, and those who controlled the system-sustaining parties were perceived by voters as incapable of resolving it.

The longer the crisis persisted, the greater was the tendency of system-sustaining-party leaders to turn on each other, rather than to manage it cooperatively. In both cases the crises fed on themselves. Rising dissatisfaction with first one party and then with another produced disenchantment with the whole system. As voters either saw their quality of life slip further behind their expectations (Venezuela) or saw themselves falling into desperate straits (Peru experienced 7,600 percent inflation in 1990, along with terrorist advances by Shining Path), their willingness to consider alternatives to the established party systems increased as well. ‘

The second proposition concerns party system institutionalization. In general, the literature holds that the greater the degree of party system institutionalization, the greater its stability and (conversely) the lesser the likelihood that it will collapse. This idea has an appealing logic; after all, strongly institutionalized party systems are less apt to give ground to populist leaders, are more apt to have the support of other essential groups in the society (business and other elites, the military), and are better equipped to ride out the occasional storm that may overtake them.

But the Venezuelan and Peruvian cases suggest otherwise. The party systems of these two countries experienced the same extreme process of party system change (collapse over a short time and in similar fashions), even though their party systems exhibited levels of institutionalization that were polar opposites. By all standards and definitions, Venezuela’s party system was hyperinstitutionalized while Peru’s was inchoate, a comparison that suggests an important modification to the literature: political party systems located at either extreme of the institutionalization continuum (inchoate and hyperinstitutionalized) have a greater likelihood of collapsing than those in the center.

How do we explain this unanticipated finding? The predisposition of inchoate party systems to collapse under stress seems obvious: systems having lower levels of institutionalization (Peru) would be expected to have less staying power than those in which the components exhibit greater cohesion. By this line of reasoning, highly institutionalized party systems (Venezuela) should resist collapse; but this proved not to be the case. Party systems that are centrally and hierarchically controlled tend to resist integrating new generations and to renew the channels that tie them to sectoral organizations. They become unresponsive and brittle, and like their inchoate counterparts, they lose their capability to innovate when they confront crisis.

The third proposition asserts that once the legitimacy of established political institutions has deteriorated beyond a certain point, their authority is vulnerable to replacement by personalist authority and criticism of their behavior. In the cases considered here, Hugo Châvez and Alberto Fujimori took advantage of discredited political party systems to acquire personal authority. They also used that authority to further undermine the established system of political parties and accelerate the thawing process.

The case studies also support a conceptualization of party system collapse as a process anchored by three presidential elections. In both cases, a thaw occurred between the baseline and subsequent presidential elections. The second election fractured the party system landscape as severe declines in voter support convulsed the previously dominant party system. Low turnout and eroding support for the system-sustaining political parties in regional and local elections appeared as straws in the wind; nevertheless, precipitous decline in support in presidential elections showed that collapse was under way.

The reaction of system-sustaining party leaders to the fracturing of party system landscapes was ineffective and counterproductive. In neither Peru nor Venezuela could those elites craft countermeasures that dealt effectively with voter alienation. They resorted to behavior that proved self-destructive: blaming. Finger pointing and recriminations over who was responsible for declining support increased tensions between the system-sustaining parties. They failed to cooperate in any meaningful sense. The choices made by voters in the subsequent presidential election, the third of the three-election cycle, confirmed the collapse. In this third election the discredited party system disappeared. Whatever remained was post-alluvial and unrecognizable. Individual parties might recover on their own under new leadership disassociated from the old order, but a re-emergence of the previous party system as such is not possible.

In sum, Peru and Venezuela had competitive party systems that appeared, for a time, to make progress in legitimating their role as aggregators of political interests and themselves as channels for recruiting political leaders. Peru’s party system, with roots going back to the 1950s, crystallized only following the demise of an ambitious but overreaching military regime that failed in its attempt to establish a singleparty state. Venezuela’s two-and-a-half-party system was a regional model for decades, and generations grew up viewing AD and COPEI as legitimate and effective institutions. Party identification and loyalties in Peru, with the possible exception of APRA, were shallow; and depended heavily on personalities. In Venezuela, identification with the system-sustaining parties was deep and institutional. Nevertheless, both political party systems disappeared for many of the same reasons and in a similar process of collapse.


1. Supportive shift, the least disruptive type of party system change, occurs when groups of voters change their partisan identification from one key player in the established system of political parties to another. While it favors or inhibits individual political parties, it does not fundamentally change the existing party system configuration. Brooks and Manza (1997) and Miller and Schofeld (2003) found that system-supportive shifting occurred in the United States between 1972 and 1992.

Dealignment is more pervasive. It occurs when large numbers of voters who traditionally supported the major system-sustaining political parties cease to identify with any political party. They become independents. Some of the “dealigned” may continue to vote, but others turn their backs on partisan politics altogether. Most of those who do vote cast their ballot for an established power contender (Poguntke 1996; Scarrow 2000). Dealignment surfaced in the United States during the 1960s and characterized the partisan orientation of many U.S. voters as recently as the 1992 presidential election (Clarke and Suzuki 1994; MacKuen et al.1989). It also has been common in the democracies of Western Europe since the 1980s (Dalton et al. 1984; Dalton and Wattenberg 2000).

Realignment, a third and deeper kind of party system change, involves shifts in partisan preferences, from identification with a traditional political party to a new movement or party or to one that had been marginally important. Historically, realignment has occurred when a system of political parties underwent profound changes, such as Germany between 1928 and 1932 (Neumann 1956; Bernhard 2001), Mexico during the late 1990s (Klesner 1997), and Canada ear lier in the same decade (Carty et al. 2000; Clarke et al. 1996; Stewart and Clarke 1998). Yet despite the far-reaching nature of these transformations, at least one major political party and critical interparty relationships from the earlier configuration survived.

2. Yin (2003, 43) argues that the revelatory case is an appropriate research strategy when the investigator has access to a situation previously inaccessible to scientific observation.

3. In extreme cases, dissatisfaction with the dominant political parties may discredit the party system itself. Studies that examine the realignment of political party systems suggest several indicators of alienation from the existing system of political parties. They include higher levels of electoral abstention; increased bloodshed, including escalating violent crime and insurgency; expansion of the ideological distance separating the political parties; growth in the number of political parties; and growth in the number of groups seeking to bypass political parties and make demands directly on government institutions (Bernhard 2001; Mainwaring 1998, chap. 2; Mainwaring and Scully 1995, chap. 1; Mair and Sakono 1998; Molina 1998; Myers 2004).

4. Examples include Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Paraguay (Barczak 2001).

5. This study adopts the treatment of party system institutionalization by Mainwaring and Scully (1995, 4-21). They depart from earlier studies that assigned primary importance to the number of political parties composing the party system and the ideological distance between them (Sartori 1976). In a more recent paper, Mainwaring and Torcal (2005) offer four dimensions of party system institutionalization (volatility, rootedness in society, legitimacy, and nonpersonalist control) to compare a variety of nations (Latin American and others).

6. Parsons (1951, 480-535) defines institutions as “patterns of action” that persist over time. Declines in support, if unchecked, lead to the appearance of new action patterns.

7. Mainwaring and Scully (1995, 22) do acknowledge that some party systems with middle levels of institutionalization, like those in the United States and Spain, appear to be highly institutionalized systems, but they do not pursue this insight.

8. Mainwaring and Torcal (2005, 9) also note the limited utility of the “frozen” metaphor for less-developed countries.

9. Mainwaring and Torcal classify Peru’s party system as “extremely volatile” (2005, 8-9) and offer a variety of indicators to show how weakly institutionalized the system has been since 1980.

10. Crabtree (1992, 159) notes that Garcia, in July 1985, had over 90 percent approval ratings. These slid steadily to under 50 percent by mid-1988, and never surpassed 20 percent after July 1989. see also Graham 1992.

11. As late as July 1993, public opinion polls indicated that COPEI might regain the presidency. But one year later, party leaders found themselves in a struggle for survival with President Caldera.

12. We do not posit a specific figure here. But if a party system were to win two-thirds or three-quarters of the vote in one election and a third or less in the next, such a drop would, we argue, suggest the magnitude of deluge we have in mind. Seawright (2004, 4) posits a two-election cycle but does not include a baseline election as we do here. Otherwise Seawright’s notion of party system collapse agrees with ours; we both want “to exclude gradual changes in party systems that consist of a slow ‘decline’ of the major parties” (Seawright 2004, 4).

13. Chávez’s principal opponent in the July 2000 presidential contest was lieutenant Colonel Francis Arias Cardenas, his righthand man during the unsuccessful military coup of February 1992. Arias received roughly one-third of the total presidential vote.


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Henry A. Dietz is a professor in the Department of Government and associate director of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, both at the University of Texas, Austin.

David J. Myers is an associate professor of political science at the Pennsylvania State University. He specializes in comparative politics of Latin America with an emphasis on political parties and urban politics. He has authored or coedited 8 books and more than 60 articles and book chapters.

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