The Heft of the Left: Explaining the Frente Amplio’s Formation and Change

October 10, 2016

Over the last decade, there has been an outbreak of research dedicated to account for the emergence and change of leftist parties in Latin America (see Levitsky and Roberts 2011; Weyland et al. 2010). This literature is an important starting point for those interested in political parties in Latin America and particularly those concerned with the rise of the left over the course of the last ten years. However, two problems remain understudied. The first is the fact that most research explaining the rise of the left in Latin America assumes the existence of leftist parties as something given, or, in more elaborated accounts, these parties are products of critical junctures. These approaches underscore the strategic action of elites in the process of electoral coordination that in many cases precedes party formation. The second problem is the fact that programmatic change has been invariably observed as a natural tendency towards the center of the ideological spectrum. According to this view, no leftwing party can win elections on a leftwing program (Przeworski and Sprague 1986). This view underscores how the substantive content of the left (and right) can change over time, such that ideas that were a part of a leftist program thirty years ago may not be part of leftwing programs whatsoever. New issues and policies may come to the fore within the left (and right), turning anachronic old programmatic preferences.


Electoral coordination and party formation: the origin of the Frente Amplio 

The Frente Amplio was formed in 1971 in Uruguay after two failed attempts to form a coalition of leftwing parties to compete against traditional Blancos and Colorados. Although Socialists, Communists as well as other minor leftist parties had deep roots in the Uruguayan party system, all used to run separately in elections since the early 1920s. Why did the Frente Amplio appear in 1971, instead of 1962 or 1966 with the emergence of the Frente de Izquierda de Liberacion (FIDEL) or the Union Popular? We argue that although there were similar conditions to create a unified leftwing front in 1962 and 1966, party leaders’ only followed a process of electoral coordination that allowed for the Frente Amplio’s formation in 1971.

Two types of conditions facilitated the strategic coordination among left-wing elites. Both domestic and international factors were crucial at setting the environment in which party formation took place. These conditions have to be seen as a structure of opportunities, upon which political agents may or may not follow a process of party formation. Yet, none of these factors are able provide the causal mechanism by which either the Cuban revolution or the ISI crisis (per se) were able to form the Frente Amplio in 1971. Consequently, these factors have to be seen as necessary but not sufficient conditions for party formation.

Thus far, the literature focused on domestic and international factors minimizes the strategic role of political agency in the Frente Amplio’s formation (Yaffe 2005; Lanzaro 2001; Buquet and De Armas 2004; Garce and Yaffe 2004). We argue that this process is neither the product of domestic nor international factors on the environment. At best, these factors contributed to bust the incentives of leftwing politicians to coordinate the formation of the Frente Amplio. In our argument, this party is a typical case of successful electoral coordination followed by political elites. That is, leftwing parties and their leaders learned from past experiences that running alone was electorally inefficient.

Theoretically, electoral coordination reduces the supply of parties in elections (Cox 1997). More specifically, for electoral coordination to be successful, the number of parties (or candidates) must be reduced by some form of transaction implying the resignation of some weak candidates in favor of others with better chances to win. Implicitly, this reduction comes with the fusion of policy preferences, as it is expected that candidates that have no chance to win by themselves will support stronger candidates with a similar ideological location in the policy space. The reduction in the supply of parties with similar policy preferences has the double advantage of enhancing the chances of winning for small and larger members of the new party and facilitates the voting decision process among citizens. Thus, the formation of a single party or coalition creates a focal point attracting voters with similar policy preferences, improving the chances of parties that otherwise would remain electorally inefficient in the electoral market.

The new party is an equilibrium solution for those who get into the agreement by resigning their individual ambitions, and, if conditions do not change over time, it must be self-enforced. Thus, the new party members will reject non-cooperative strategies, as it can redound in the opposition’s victory. Either way, if the electoral market is or becomes relatively stable, there would be no incentives to deviate from the agreement or coordination behind the new party. Thus any possible change that can break the equilibrium must be exogenous.

Empirically, the Frente Amplio was an equilibrium solution for a scattered number of small leftwing parties without any electoral chance of succeeding by themselves in the short run. Ironically, the electoral system designed by traditional parties allowed for party formation with intra-party competition, which was the best solution to create a coalition of small parties and factions. In other words, the electoral system was the umbrella to create the Frente Amplio, allowing for an intense electoral competition within the party. Thus, unlike other forms of party formation with a single organizational structure, no party or faction within the Frente Amplio had to resign their ambition to compete for the vote.


Party adaptation and the electoral success of the Frente Amplio 

The electoral success of the left has been largely attributed to its ideological moderation (not only in Uruguay). Yet, we argue that there is no evidence holding this widely recognized hypothesis in the literature.

Large-n comparative research focused on the wave of leftwing parties in the region is scarce. At this level, political economic accounts have posited that the electoral growth of the left is due to the costs of globalization. Right leaning or neoliberal governments during the nineties were highly committed to economic liberalization in combination with state retrenchment via public spending and massive privatizations. While these objectives were seen as complementary by policy makers of the nineties, the costs of these policies had to be compensated by welfare policies to alleviate increasing unemployment, poverty and other social consequences. Yet, the absence of compensating measures left a fertile ground for the electoral growth of the left (Stokes 2009). Complementing this argument, Murillo and others (2011) have pointed out that it is the structure of opportunities what has changed over the course of the last few years. While governments of the eighties and nineties had to face important economic restrictions to face their programmatic objectives, the left came along with the recent commodity boom of the 2000s. Consequently, leftwing governments have been able to fulfill their promises and voters have reacted accordingly, rewarding incumbent parties with their vote. These accounts are based on structural causes, to the extent that parties per se are not strategically involved in their own electoral fortunes.

Comparative approaches based on political factors are even scarcer. Yet, there are a few exceptions in the literature on public opinion (Arnold y Samuels 2011; Queirolo 2014). These authors provide an important ground for understanding the strength of the electoral turn to the left during the 2000s. These authors find that voters have moderate ideological preferences and therefore there is no genuine leftwing electorate. By implication, there is a gap between the ideological preferences of the public opinion and the aggregate electoral behavior of voters. While electorates are moderate, they have turned to the left at the ballot booth during the last decade. The authors do not tackle this discrepancy, but we attempt to provide an answer with a single case.

As a rule of thumb, Uruguayan scholars support the moderation thesis (see Moreira 2004 for an exception). There is a consensus that several historical issues set in 1971 were progressively abandoned over the course of the eighties and particularly the nineties (Yaffe 2005; Lanzaro 2001). In fact, by the late 1990s, the Frente Amplio discarded banking nationalization, agrarian reform, breaking relations with the IMF, among other policies. These were classical left-leaning policies shared with other leftist parties in Latin America. Yet, by the time the transition to democracy was virtually over, the structural reform and liberalization process installed a completely new agenda of issues and problems to be solved by most political systems in the region, followed by the institutional reforms of the mid 1990s (Haggard and Kauffman 1992; Graham 1998).

During the mid and late nineties, the Frente Amplio was deeply involved in a programmatic transformation where classical issues of the sixties and early seventies were seen as anachronic in light of the problems faced by the Washington Consensus. This move drove the Frente Amplio to readapt its party platform with a typical program opposing the structural reform and liberalization process set by the neoliberal course, in exchange for the old issues of the original model set in 1971. Does this mean ideological moderation? No, it means programmatic change but not necessarily moderation. The fact that the new policy preferences must be classified as left-leaning policies ensures that the Frente Amplio did not abandon its position on the ideological scale.

The electoral success of the left in Latin America and the Frente Amplio in particular has several accounts. Some of these are structural in that socioeconomic factors are behind the emergence and electoral growth of the left. The failure of the neoliberal period, the economic crisis, the commodity boom, high poverty rates and inequality, among other factors have been stressed by the literature on the electoral success of the left. Yet, other political accounts have stressed the strategic role of partisan elites at performing ideological or programmatic change in order to succeed in elections. In this view, the left came to power thanks to its ideological moderation.

However, although the Frente Amplio has been able to change its programmatic structure over the course of the last two decades, this move did not necessarily meant moderation. The fact that the Frente Amplio abandoned a series of old programmatic issues featuring the Latin American Left of the sixties and seventies, it does not imply the incorporation of new issues with moderate sign. Rather, the Frente Amplio faced programmatic adaptation trough new policies in line with the protection of social rights and the welfare state, the defense of the state apparatus and the role of the state in the economy and markets, as well as a series of new rights dealing with gay marriage, deregulating marihuana consumption and legalizing abortion and euthanasia. These as well as other issues in the leftwing agenda are far from being at the center of the ideological spectrum and kept polarization stable with traditional parties. As both attitudinal and factual data indicate, the Frente Amplio remains as a leftwing party without any substantive turn to the center.


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About Author(s)

Juan Andrés Moraes and Diego Luján
Juan Andrés Moraes (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is Professor of political science at the Universidad de la Republica in Uruguay. His research interests lie in the field of comparative politics in Latin America. With Daniel Buquet and Daniel Chasquetti, he coauthored "Fragmentación Política y Gobierno en Uruguay" (1998), and he is the author of articles in edited books and journals such as Comparative Political Studies and Party Politics. Diego Luján is a graduate student at the Universidad de San Martín (Argentina) and assistant professor of political science at the Universidad de la República.