In a year when political institutions around the world were tested and pushed to their limits, understanding institutions and institutional features has become more important than ever. The rise of populism, increasing economic inequality, and the emergence of racial and other protests in the U.S. and globally—all against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic—have prompted a reexamining of political institutions and a realization that they do not protect and serve everyone equally.
The new version of the Database of Political Institutions (DPI), which codes, or measures, institutional and electoral variables for 180 countries and is housed at the IDB, is being released precisely at this critical juncture when a vigorous government response is needed in Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as elsewhere. It arrives as the health and economic crisis puts into relief stark inequalities along racial, ethnic, and gender lines, and the need for reforms to guarantee inclusive growth in the recovery.
New Variables for Political Institutions
Like previous versions, the latest version of the DPI illuminates broad institutional trends since 1975 with more than 100 variables. But it also adds comparative data from the last three years on electoral results, legislative, cabinet and political ideology, corrects coding errors from the 2017 version, and includes new variables, such as gender quotas for women in political positions and term limits for the chief executive. All this information helps to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, their divisions of power, and their levels of inclusiveness. They tell us why some systems are more effective than others in pushing through vital policies and potentially where improvements might be made.
Recent versions of the DPI have illustrated positive trends in the strengthening and growing maturity of Latin American democracies, with greater electoral competitiveness in legislative and executive elections and a diminishing tendency for single parties, backed by repressive force or fraud, to monopolize control. They have revealed an ever greater political openness, manifested through a greater diversity of institutionalized parties with distinct ideologies and platforms. They have shown the region, with some exceptions, transforming into one of the most electorally competitive—and democratic—in the developing world.
But they also show how non-programmatic parties have proliferated since the 1990s. These parties, built around charismatic and populist leaders, rather than ideas and ideologies, are often short-lived, and their growing importance represents a threat to the implementation and sustainability of publicly-minded policies.
The Problem of Political Polarization
There is an additional wrinkle to this picture: the high levels of political polarization in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. As will be discussed in an upcoming blog, this polarization, defined as the ideological distance between the executive and legislature, has been rising since 2014 and makes it harder to achieve the consensus needed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and implement essential reforms, including those promoting greater equality. Unfortunately, these difficulties may only increase in countries facing elections, as electoral pressures tend to stiffen backs and hinder compromise.
Strengths and Limitations of the New Database
The DPI shows us these things by casting light on political and electoral systems, checks and balances, the power of provinces, ideologies, and a host of other factors relevant to government capacity. But it has natural limitations. While it measures and categorizes, its variables and coding rules have little to say about how fair or equitable political institutions are, or if systemic racism is built into political institutions. At the same time, it serves as starting point that has been used in thousands of studies. We applaud those scholars who are doing the important work of using datasets, such as the DPI, to explore these important questions.
Latin America is at a decisive moment. After two years marked by economic stagnation, massive demonstrations over inequality and other societal failures, and the exploding health and economic crisis of COVID-19, the region needs publicly-interested, stable, and flexible policymaking more than ever. It needs good government and more inclusive growth. The DPI, one of the most cited databases in comparative political economy and comparative political institutions, can help. It casts a strong and penetrating light on the nature of our different systems. We hope it will lead to deeper study and perhaps deeper reforms in a region facing some of its historically greatest challenges.