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Organization and Labor-Based Party Adaptation: The Transformation of Argentine Peronism in Comparative Perspective

  • Steven Levitsky (a1)


This article examines the capacity of Latin American labor-based parties to adapt to the challenges of economic liberalization and working class decline. It presents an organizational approach to explaining party change, highlighting the ways in which informal and weakly institutionalized structures may contribute to party adaptation. It argues that loosely structured labor-based parties, such as many mass populist parties, possess a distinctive advantage in adapting to environmental change. Though a source of inefficiency and even internal chaos, populist legacies such as fluid internal structures, nonbureaucratic hierarchies, and centralized leaderships yield a high degree of strategic flexibility. The argument is applied to the case of the Argentine Justicialista Party (PJ), a mass populist party that adapted with striking success to the socioeconomic changes of the 1980s and 1990s. The weakly institutionalized nature of Peronism's party-union linkage facilitated the dismantling of traditional mechanisms of labor participation, which resulted in the Pj's rapid transformation from a labor-based party into a predominantly patronage-based party. At the same time, the Pj's nonbureaucratic hierarchy and weakly institutionalized leadership bodies provided President Carlos Menem with substantial room for maneuver in developing and carrying out a radical neoliberal strategy that, while at odds with Peronism's traditional program, was critical to its survival as a major political force. The conclusion places the Peronist case in comparative perspective by examining the cases of five other Latin American labor-based parties.



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1 Labor-based parties are parties whose core constituency is organized labor. Such parties depend on union support (in the form of organizational resources, votes, and social peace) for their success, and in exchange they often grant unions influence over the party program and the candidate-selection process.

2 Koelble, Thomas, “Recasting Social Democracy in Europe: A Nested Games Explanation of Strategic Adjustment in Political Parties,” Politics and Society 20, no. 1 (1992); Kitschelt, Herbert, The Transformation of European Social Democracy (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1994), 225.

3 “Primary goal” is taken from Harmel, Robert and Janda, Kenneth, “An Integrated Theory of Party Goals and Party Change,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 6, no. 3 (1994), 265.

4 Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York:Harper and Row, 1957); Schlesinger, Joseph A., “On the Theory of Party Organization,” Journal of Politics 46, no. 2 (1984), 383–84.

5 Panebianco, Angelo, Political Parties: Organization and Power (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1988), 243.

6 Stokes, Susan, Mandates, Markets and Democracy: Neoliberalism by Surprise in Latin America (New York:Cambridge University Press, 2001).

7 Thus, Adam Przeworski and John Sprague's conclusion that the erosion of industrial working classes would lead to the decline of electoral socialism proved overly pessimistic; see Przeworski, and Sprague, , Paper Stones: A History of Electoral Socialism (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1986), 183–85.

8 Rose, Richard and Mackie, Thomas T., “Do Parties Persist or Fail? The Big Trade-off Facing Organizations,” in Lawson, Kay and Merkl, Peter H., eds., When Parties Fail: Emerging Alternative Organizations (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1988), 557; Wilson, Frank, “The Sources of Party Change: The Social Democratic Parties of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain,” in Lawson, Kay, ed., How Political Parties Work: Perspectives from Within (Westport, Conn.:Praeger, 1994).

9 Panebianco (fn. 5), 242–44; Harmel and Janda (fn. 3), 266–67.

10 Scholarship in this tradition includes Panebianco (fn. 5); Koelble, Thomas, The Left Unraveled: Social Democracy and the New Left Challenge (Durham, N.C.:Duke University Press, 1991); Koelble (fn. 2); and Kitschelt (fn. 2).

11 Strom, Kaare, “A Behavioral Theory of Competitive Political Parties,” American Journal of Political Science 34, no. 2 (1990), 577; Kitschelt (fn. 2), 212–13.

12 Kitschelt (fn. 2), 212; Roberts, Kenneth M., Deepening Democracy? The Modern Left and Social Movements in Chile and Peru (Stanford, Calif.:Stanford University Press, 1998), 47.

13 Sartori, Giovanni, “European Political Parties: The Case of Polarized Pluralism,” in Dahl, Robert and Neubauer, D. E., eds., Readings in Modern Political Analysis (New York:Prentice-Hall, 1968); Wellhofer, E. Spencer, “Strategies for Party Organization and Voter Mobilization: Britain, Norway, and Argentina,” Comparative Political Studies 12, no. 2 (1979).

14 Panebianco (fn.5),267.

15 For a similar argument, see Mainwaring, Scott, Rethinking Party Systems in the Third Wave of Democratization: The Case of Brazil (Stanford, Calif.:Stanford University Press, 1999), 2125.

16 Strom (fn. 11), 577–79.

17 Kitschelt, Herbert, “Austrian and Swedish Social Democrats in Crisis: Party Strategy and Organization in Corporatist Regimes,” Comparative Political Studies 24, no. 1 (1994), 1721.

18 Deschouwer, Kris, “The Decline of Consociationalism and the Reluctant Modernization of Belgian Mass Parties,” in Katz, Richard S. and Mair, Peter, eds., How Parties Organize: Change and Adaptation in Party Organizations in Western Democracies (London:Sage Publications, 1994), 83; Kitschelt (fn. 2), 216.

19 Panebianco (fn. 5), 262–67.

20 Kitschelt (fn. 2), 216.

21 Panebianco (fn. 5), 272–74.

22 Huntington, Samuel P., Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1968), 1317; Kesselman, Mark, “Overinstitutionalization and Political Constraint: The Case of France,” Comparative Politics 3, no. 1 (1970); Panebianco (fn. 5), 261.

23 Levitsky, Steven, “Peronism and Institutionalization: The Case, the Concept, and the Case for Unpacking the Concept,” Party Politics 4, no. 1 (1998).

24 Janda, Kenneth, Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey (New York:Free Press, 1980), 1927.

25 Huntington (fn. 22), 15; McGuire, James W., Peronism without Perón: Unions, Parties, and Democracy in Argentina (Stanford, Calif:Stanford University Press, 1997), 710.

26 March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P., Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics (New York:Free Press, 1989).

27 Janda (fn. 24), 19; Panebianco (fn. 5), 58–60; Mainwaring (fn. 15), 26–27.

28 Jones, Mark, “Evaluating Argentina's Presidential Democracy, 1983–1995,” in Mainwaring, Scott and Shugart, Mathew Soberg, eds., Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1997), 272.

29 McGuire (fn. 25), 1.

30 Huntington (fn. 22), 15–17.

31 Zucker, Lvnne G., “The Role of Institutionalization in Cultural Persistence,” American Sociological Review 42 (October 1977), 729.

32 Ibid., 728.

33 Nelson, Richard R. and Winter, Sidney G., An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1982), 74110; March and Olson (fn. 26), 24.

34 Nelson and Winter (fn. 33), 74–83; Zucker, Lynne, “Organizations and Institutions,” in Bacharach, Samuel, ed., Research in the Sociology of Organizations, vol. 2 (Greenwich, Conn.:JAI Press, 1983), 5

35 North, Douglass C., “A Transaction Cost Theory of Politics”, Journal of Theoretical Politics 2, no. 4 (1990), 364–65.

36 Kitschelt (fn. 17), 17–21; also Michels, Roberto, Political Parties (1911; New York:Free Press, 1962), 174–76.

37 Kitschelt (fn. 17), 10.

38 Downs, Anthony, Inside Bureaucracy (Boston:Little, Brown, 1967), 9697.

39 Schonfeld, William R., “Oligarchy and Leadership Stability: The French Communist, Socialist, and Gaullist Parties,” American Journal of Political Science 25, no. 2 (1981), 231.

40 Michels (fn. 36).

41 Panebianco (fn. 5), 58.

42 Harmel, Robert and Svasand, Lars, “Party Leadership and Party Institutionalization: Three Phases of Development,” West European Politics 16, no. 3 (1993), 68.

43 A mass populist party is a mass-based party born of a populist movement, which Collier and Collier define as a movement “characterized by mass support from the urban working class and/or peasantry; a strong element of mobilization from above; a central role of leadership from the middle sector or elite, typically of a personalistic and/or charismatic nature; and an anti-status quo, nationalist ideology and program”; see Collier, David and Collier, Ruth Berins, Shaping the Political Arena (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1991), 788.

44 Panebianco (fn. 5), 262–67.

45 Palomino, Hector, Cambios ocupacionales y sociales en Argentina, 1947–1985 (Occupational and social changes in Argentina, 1947–1985) (Buenos Aires:CISEA, 1987).

46 Catterberg, Edgardo, Argentina Confronts Politics: Political Culture and Public Opinion in the Argentine Transition to Democracy (Boulder, Colo.:Lynne Rienner, 1991), 8182.

47 Palermo, Vicente and Novaro, Marcos, Politica y poder en elgobierno de Menem (Politics and power in the Menem government) (Buenos Aires:Norma Ensayo, 1996), 143.

48 Levitsky, Steven, “From Laborism to Liberalism: Institutionalization and Labor-Based Party Adaptation in Argentina, 1983–95” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1999), 216–17.

49 Corrales, Javier, “From Market Correctors to Market Creators: Executive-Ruling Party Relations in the Economic Reforms of Argentina and Venezuela” (Ph.D diss., Harvard University, 1996).

50 Ibid., 213–17.

51 Jones (fn. 28), 274.

52 See Bartolini, Stefano and Mair, Peter, Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1990), 234. Although PJ membership entails a lower level of commitment than in most European mass parties, this figure is nevertheless strikingly high.

53 Levitsky, Steven, “An Organized Disorganization: Informal Organization and the Persistence of Local Party Structures in Argentine Peronism,” Journal of Latin American Studies 33, no. 1 (2001), 4043.

54 Ostiguy, Pierre, “Peronism and Anti Peronism: Class-Cultural Cleavages and Political Identity in Argentina (Ph.D diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1998).

55 McGuire(fn.25).

56 Author interview with congressional deputy José Lopez, Buenos Aires, September 15, 1997.

57 Author interview with party activist, Buenos Aires, September 9,1997.

58 Downs (fn. 38), 96–100.

59 Author interview with local party leader, Quilmel, province of Buenos Aires, May 8,1997.

60 Author interview with Mayor Juan José Alvarez of Hurlingham, Hurlingham, province of Buenos Aires, July 18,1997.

61 On hub-and-spokes dynamics, see Knoke, David, Political Networks: The Structural Perspective (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1990), 1112.

62 McGuire(fn.25).

63 For a detailed history of the “62,” see McGuire (fn. 25).

64 Ibid., 99.

65 Author interview with former CGT general secretary Oscar Lescano, Buenos Aires, October 27, 1997.

66 Clarín, July 11, 1986,12; October 6, 1986, 10.

67 Clarín, September 28, 1991, 14.

68 Author interview with pharmacy employees union leader José Azcurra, Buenos Aires, October 20,1997.

69 Author interview with hospital workers union leader Carlos West Ocampo, Buenos Aires, October 13, 1997.

70 Catterberg, Edgardo and Braun, Maria, “Las elecciones presidenciales Argentinas del 14 de mayo de 1989: la ruta a la normalidad,” Desarrollo Económico 115 (October-December 1989), 372.

71 Auyero, Javier, Poor People's Politics: Peronist Networks and the Legacy of Evita (Durham, N.C.:Duke University Press, 2000); Levitsky (fn. 53), 51–57.

72 Palermo, Vicente, “El Menemismo, Perdura?” in Iturrieta, Aníbal, ed., El pemamiento politico argentino contemporáneo (Contemporary Argentine political thought) (Buenos Aires:Editor Latinoamericano, 1994), 322. On the Menem reforms, see Gerchunoff, Pablo and Torre, Juan Carlos, “La politica de liberalizatión económica en la administración de Menem,” Desarrollo Económico 143 (1996); and Palermo and Novaro (fn. 47).

73 Gwartney, James et al., Economic Freedom of the World, 1975–1995 (Vancouver:Fraser Institute, 1996), 79.

74 Gerchunoff and Torre (fn. 72), 736.

75 Author interview with José Luis Manzaao, Buenos Aires, December 5,1997.

76 Levitsky (fn. 48), 219–26.

77 Clarín, July 14,1988, 2, 15; July 29,1988, 7.

78 Clarín, July 11, 1988,2–3; July 14,1988,14–15.

79 Clarín, July 16,1989, 23; July 17,1989, 7.

80 Author interview with Antonio Cafiero, Buenos Aires, October 3,1997.

81 Clarín, June 24,1990,13.

82 Author interview with Cafiero (fn. 80).

83 Author interview with Manzano (fn. 75).

84 Author interview with Roberto García, Buenos Aires, June 23,1997.

85 Author interview with Senator José Luis Gioja, Buenos Aires, September 18,1997.

86 Clarín, February 14,1991, 4.

87 La Vox del Interior, September 21,1991, 4a.

88 Clarin, December 3, 1995, 22.

89 Author interview with Gustavo Morato, Buenos Aires, June 13, 1997.

90 Clarín, March 1, 1990, 10; March 9,1990,2; June 3,1990, 6.

91 “Author interview with Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez, Buenos Aires, July 29,1997.

92 Página 12, March 23,1993,12; Clarín, May 9,1993,16, May 11,1993,11; May 13,1993, 6.

93 Author interview with former party leader Carlos Grosso, Buenos Aires, November 28,1997.

94 Carlos Gervasoni, “La sustentabilidad electoral de los programas de estabalización y reforma estructural: Los casos de Argentina y Perú (Paper presented at the twentieth international congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Guadalajara, Mexico, April 17–19,1997).

95 Ostiguy (fn. 54), 464–79.

96 Levitsky (fn. 48), 272–79.

97 Martz, John, “Party Elites and Leadership in Colombia and Venezuela,” Journal of Latin American Studies 24, no. 1 (1992), 120; Corrales, Javier, “El presidente y su gente: Cooperación y conflicto entre los ámbitos técnicos y políticos en Venezuela, 1989–1993,” Nueva Sociedad 152 (November-December 1997), 9899.

98 Coppedge, Michael, Strong Parties and Lame Duck: Presidential Partyarchy and Factionalism in Venezuela (Stanford, Calif.:Stanford University Press, 1994), 2021, 66–67.

99 Martz, John, Acción Democrática: Evolution of a Modern Political Party in Venezuela (Princeton:Princeton University Press), 157–67; Coppedge, Michael, “La política interna de acción democrática durante la crisis economica,” Cuadernos de CENDES 7 (1988), 169–70.

100 Corrales (fn. 97), 98.

101 Ellner, Steve, “Organized Labor's Political Influence and Party Ties in Venezuela: Acción Democrática and Its Labor Leadership,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 13, no. 4 (1989), 98104.

102 Corrales (fn. 49), 237, 251–58.

103 Collier, Ruth Berins, The Contradictory Alliance: State-Labor Relations and Regime Change in Mexico (Berkeley, Calif.:International and Area Studies, 1992); Katrina Burgess, “Reinventing Class Populist Parties: Party Crisis and Change in Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Peru” (Paper presented at the twenty-second International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Miami, Florida, March 16–18,2000).

104 Langston, Joy, “Why Rules Matter: The Formal Rules of Candidate Selection and Leadership Selection in the PRI, 1978–1996,” CIDE Documento de Trabajo no. 58 (Mexico City:Centre de Investigación y Docencia Económica), 79.

105 Collier (fn. 103).

106 Hernández Rodriguez, Rogelio, “La reforma interna y los conflictos en el PRI,” Foro International (October-December, 1991), 222–49; Burgess, Katrina, “Alliances under Stress: Economic Reform and Party-Union Relations in Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela” (Ph.D diss., Princeton University, 1998), 151–53.

107 Collier, Ruth Berins, “The Transformation of Labor-Based One-Partyism at the End of the Twentieth Century: The Case of Mexico,” in Giliomee, Hermann and Simkins, Charles, eds., The Awkward Embrace: One-Party Domination and Democracy (Capetown:Tafelberg, 1999), 234.

108 Roberts (fn. 12), 47.

109 Roberts, Kenneth, “Renovation in the Revolution? Dictatorship, Democracy, and Political Change in the Chilean Left,” Kellogg Institute Working Paper no. 203 (Notre Dame, Ind.:Kellogg Institute, 1994), 27.

110 Mary Alice McMarthy, “Center-Left Parties in Chile: Party-Labor Relations under a Minimalist State” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 10–12,1997); Roberts (fn. 12), 134–35,159.

111 Roberts (fn. 12), 48.

112 Roberts (fn. 109), 22.

113 McMarthy (fn. 110).

114 Graham, Carol, “Peru's APRA Party in Power: Impossible Revolution, Relinquished Reform, Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 32, no. 3 (1990), 8081.

115 Sanborn, Cynthia, “El Apra en un contexto de cambio, 1968–88,” in Bonilla, Heraclio and Drake, Paul W., eds., El APRA de lai ideohgia a la praxis (Lima:Centro Latinoamericano de Historia Economica y Social, 1989), 110–13.

116 Ibid., 118.

117 Pastor, Manuel and Wise, Carol, “Peruvian Economic Policy in the 1980s: From Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy and Back,” Latin American Research Review 27, no. 2 (1992).

118 Corrales (fn. 49); Haggard, Stephen and Kaufman, Robert K., The PoliticalEconomy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1995), 166–74.

119 Huntington (fn. 22); Mainwaring, Scott and Scully, Timothy R., “Introduction,” in Mainwaring, and Scully, , eds., Building Democratic Institutions (Stanford, Calif.:Stanford University Press, 1995); Mainwaring (fn. 15).

* The author thanks Felipe Aguero, Katrina Burgess, David Collier, Ruth Berins Collier, Jorge Domi'nguez, Sebastián Etchemendy, Kenneth Greene, Gretchen Helmke, Chappell Lawson, Scott Mainwaring, James McGuire, María Victoria Murillo, Guillermo O'Donnell, Kenneth Roberts, Richard Snyder, Susan Stokes, and two anonymous reviewers from World Politics for their comments on earlier versions of this article.


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