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Barry S. Levitt: Power in the Balance: Presidents, Parties, and Legislatures in Peru and Beyond.

Barry S. Levitt

Power in the Balance: Presidents, Parties, and Legislatures in Peru and Beyond

Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012, xv + 340 pp.

Power in the Balance is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on constitutionalism in Latin America, and an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary Peru. As the title implies, Levitt is primarily interested in the balance between the legislative and executive branches of government in the period between 1985 and 2006. This interest arises from the sense that politics became acutely unbalanced under the rule of President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). The power of the executive was augmented at the expense of the legislature, and not only as a result of the new constitution adopted in 1993 following the April 1992 presidential self-coup. More subtly, a gap emerged between the formal rules of the constitution and the everyday practices and behaviour of politicians--and the political system was dangerously destabilized as a result. The story has a happy ending, however, as Levitt persuades us that constitutionalism has been at least partially restored in recent years; since 2001, a more positive dynamic has emerged in relations between the branches of government.

What explains the waxing and waning of constitutionalism in Peru? Levitt emphasizes the degree of organization and influence of political parties, on the one hand, and variation in the adherence of political elites to constitutional norms, on the other. For a legislature to serve as an influential and effective check on the power of the executive it must be more than an assembly of undisciplined and bickering politicians. Reasonably coherent and organized parties are necessary to make legislatures strong enough to shape and direct national affairs through their faculties of legislation and oversight. But that is not enough. The strength of a nation's constitution also depends on whether political elites are prepared to play by the rules of the game. This, in contradistinction to the constitution itself, is what Levitt calls constitutionalism: whether constitutional rules effectively constrain the actions of politicians. In Peru, a fatal combination of economic crisis and political violence in the late 1980s led to the emergence of a regime in which organized parties were replaced by electoral movements, and the constitution was repeatedly retrofitted to serve executive power. The consequences for democracy were predictably catastrophic. The partial rebirth of parties, and a restoration of the rule of law, however, led to a revival of constitutionalism after Fujimori fled Peru in 2000.

Levitt's argument opens itself to a number of queries. In the first instance, we might ask whether events in Peru in recent decades were shaped more by changes in norms or by the balance of power among political forces with different degrees of commitment to constitutionalism. A second line of inquiry might probe the evidence for a revival of political parties since 2000. Peru's political left and right have not recovered their pre-1990s vigour. Peru Posible is little more than a vehicle for the aspirations of Alejandro Toledo (who held executive office between 2001 and 2006), and even the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) has been subordinated to the personal whims and ambitions of Alan Garcia (in office 1985-90 and again in 2006-11). Above all, and most tellingly, Ollanta Humala was elected president in 2011 on the ticket of yet another ephemeral party: the Partido Nacionalista. And still, constitutional democracy has proven surprisingly robust despite the weakness of political parties. These arguments are not fatal to Levitt's thesis, but they do suggest that there is room for further research on the ways in which the disposition of politicians to play by the constitutional rules of the game is associated with (a) the dialectic between partisanship and anti-party sentiment, and (b) whether office-holders find greater political advantage by attacking each other as sworn enemies or balance and bargain with one another through existing institutions.

Perhaps such questions take us beyond a neo-institutional framework. A major contribution of Levitt's work is to reinforce the claim that constitutionalism is not only about formal rules but also about practice. At times he seems to suggest that the new institutionalism is primarily about formal institutions, or that institutions can be defined in terms of the formal rules of the game. If that were the case, the problem could be rectified by greater attention to informal rules. I suspect, however, that Levitt wants to get at a deeper problem. His target is more "meta-institutionalist" (24): the presumption that the relationship between constitutionally prescribed rules and the actual behaviour of politicians in new democracies, like Peru, is similar to such relationships in established democracies. In this respect, Power in the Balance is a valuable corrective to a certain kind of monochromatic institutionalism that has gained currency in political science research. Indeed, his case could be pressed further. A balanced political order demands more than compliance with the rules and incentives established by constitutions. Citizens and rulers alike must have the capacity to listen patiently, to deliberate wisely, and to compromise fairly. Such resources were certainly eroded during the Fujimori regime when a servile Congress and obsequious judges took orders from thugs operating out of the basement of the intelligence service. One can only hope that capacities for citizenship are being cultivated anew, and that this book will find readers among those who aspire to make the current era of working constitutionalism more permanent--and more balanced.

Maxwell A. Cameron, University of British Columbia
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Author:Cameron, Maxwell A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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