Interview: Doctor Gianfranco Pasquino Reflects on Democracy in Latin America

Editor’s Note: This interview was led by NDI’s Red Innovación, an online platform managed by NDI for innovators from throughout Latin America as they work to make governments and political institutions more responsive to citizens, transparent in operation and effective in delivering results that matter in people’s everyday lives. Please visit to learn more.

Professor Gianfranco Pasquino graduated with a degree in Political Science from the University of Turin, where he studied under Norberto Bobbio, and specialized in Comparative Politics with Giovanni Sartori at the University of Florence. Between 1975 and 2012, he was a professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna. He currently teaches at the Bologna Center at John Hopkins University. Pasquino met with Andrea Fernández, NDI resident program officer in Colombia, to discuss the state of democracy in Latin America.

Andrea Fernández: How are political parties representing citizens’ interests?

Gianfranco Pasquino: The paradox is that political parties are absolutely necessary. When political parties do not exist, those who have economic, cultural, religious or social power also have more political power. Political parties are therefore necessary so that those who do not have so much financial power may also acquire political power. However, it is difficult to construct strong political parties in Latin America. Few democracies have stable political parties; for example, Chile to an extent, as well as Brazil. Argentina has something that is not a political party but a large political movement with different opinions, Peronism. It is possible that political parties may reappear in Venezuela, hopefully new political parties. Colombia has political parties that to me seem to work very well. So if we want to strengthen democracies we must strengthen political parties through voters, party members and leaders.

AF: We have many personalities in the region, a phenomenon very relevant in Latin America. How do you see this situation in which parties are losing some of their strength? Are individuals better representing citizens’ interests?

GP: People count in politics, and it is not just in Latin America that there are personalities or personalist parties. There are personalist parties in Europe. In Italy, there is a party in which just a single person tries to control it entirely. What you should do is create a context in which there is competition between people within a party. I know it is difficult, but there can not be politics without people, without responsible people, and without constructing parties that are very strong in terms of organization and geographic presence. It is a challenge but politics is a challenge.

AF: How do you view the issue of reelection, which has become a large issue in the region?

GP: My position is that the one-time reelection of presidents is a good thing. That is, in the first term, presidents try to implement their programs, and then if they want to be reelected, to be responsible, voters evaluate what presidents have done, haven’t done, and have done poorly and then they vote. If it is possible to be reelected, all presidents will be more responsible. During their second term, presidents try to secure a place in their country’s history, so they produce positive, important changes and leave their successor with an important truth. If there is no reelection, the president comes to be irresponsible almost immediately, which is not a good idea. I understand the argument that the president concentrates a lot of power in his or her hands, but if they want to be reelected, they will be very cautious in how they use that power. If they can not be reelected, more problems are produced than solutions.

AF: In some of your books, you mention that “each country has the opposition that it deserves.” Can you explain how you see the “opposition” and what value it holds in a democracy?

GP: Opposition is essential for democracy because it proposes an alternative, it can criticize the government, can explain why the government is not doing what it should be doing, can recommend different solutions. The opposition should try to represent society, the various groups of society in a way that can help it win elections. A good opposition is a stimulus for government and produces a democracy of greater quality. The problem in the majority of Latin American countries is that the opposition develops positions that do not help improve governments, so it is not by habit a good opposition, and if there is not a good opposition then there is not a good government, you could say. I know that the work of the opposition is difficult, because governments try to impede the opposition from conducting their work, they dislike criticisms, and they do not accept suggestions. It is a very complicated dynamic, but absolutely necessary.

AF: Political reforms and electoral reforms have been discussed at length in Latin America. Let’s talk a little about closed and blocked lists. What recommendations would you make?

GP: If voters can only vote for one list from one party without being able to choose the candidates within the list, that does not seem like a good system to me. I believe that voters should have more power, so maybe two votes, if it can be seen that way, one vote for a list and one vote for one or two candidates. I would say two candidates because I am politically correct. So voters can cast a vote for just one candidate if they want, but if they use two votes, they should be for a man and a woman; gender parity is better. I believe that this is a good solution because politics is made by men and women and what men and women do should be evaluated. What Europe refers to as a preferential vote is a solution and could work.

AF: How can party structures be strengthened in Latin America?

GP: I don’t know how to do it because the contexts are very different, so there are different solutions. In some cases, it is not possible to strengthen them at all, as in Argentina, because there is a political movement that practically dominates national elections and the majority of provincial elections. In other cases, this should be an issue for leaders. Leaders should try to strengthen party organizations, but this depends on the context. In Colombia or Brazil, for example, a party should establish relationships with some organized groups  that could be associations of any kind. In general, if parties are strengthened, democracies are strengthened. This should be a general statement that works in all countries. Why not imitate the case of Chile, where parties are strong parties. Even the right has achieved constructing a very strong party.

AF: How is the use of the Internet and social networks changing the relationship between parties and leaders? What should political parties do?

GP: Technology is very important because it helps with political communication, but there should be a message. You can use all the new technologies in a very innovative fashion, but if you do not have a strong political message, it serves no purpose. I think that political parties should know how to use technology and should know that there are different types of voters who receive messages from different sources, so messages must be calibrated according to the voter. At this time, this [social networks] has not changed politics in Europe, for example, although it helps mobilize groups of voters. For example, the political party Podemos in Spain is a product of new technology. The Five Star Movement in Italy is a product of new technology. Parties called pirates in Germany and Sweden are a product of technology. But if the political message is not truly new, not acceptable, and does not produce trust between leaders and voters, then it does not serve any purpose.