In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Institutions and the Policymaking Process in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Political Institutions and Policy Outcomes
  • Political Institutions and Economic Reforms in Latin America
  • Legislatures
  • Presidents
  • Executive-Legislative Relations
  • Cabinets
  • The Bureaucracy
  • Subnational Governments
  • The Judiciary
  • Political Parties
  • Interest Groups

Political Science Political Institutions and the Policymaking Process in Latin America
Sebastian M. Saiegh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0302


The systematic study of how institutional rules and political practices influence the capacity of Latin American governments to adopt public policies is of relatively recent vintage. For decades, the fleeting and unstable democratic experiences in the region obfuscated the role of politics in the policymaking process. Policy analysis was more often than not motivated by the question of what governments should do rather what governments could do. With the restoration of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s, the view that a given set of “optimal policies” should or could be implemented against all political odds became untenable. In the ensuing decade, as the economic reforms inspired by the “Washington Consensus” swept the region, a growing concern with the timing, sequencing, and implementation of public policies materialized among both scholars and policymakers. This approach, however, proved insufficient to fully understand the political feasibility, but also the actual process by which public policies are discussed, approved, and implemented in the region. In the 2000s, a comprehensive, soul-searching research agenda about the politics of policies was launched by the leading development organizations, most notably, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Since then, a voluminous literature studying how different constitutional structures, legislative institutions, electoral rules, bureaucracies, partisan organizations, and Interest Groups influence public policies in Latin America has emerged. The following bibliography identifies some general topics, as well as several sources to consult within each topic, for those readers interested in how politics shape policies in Latin America

General Overviews

While there is a plethora of works on public policies as well as a large literature on Latin American politics, a distinctive set of contributions that focus on how political institutions affect the policymaking process in Latin American can be identified. These studies originate in the observation that in most countries, policies are so flagrantly at odds with technocratic prescriptions that the only way to understand this discrepancy is by delving into politics. Early studies like Grindle 1980 address how the content and the context of public policy affect its implementation. Following the theoretical framework laid out in Dixit 1996, much of the recent literature on policymaking processes and policy outcomes in Latin America focuses on the quality of public policies and the extent to which institutions facilitate or hinder intertemporal political cooperation and compromise. These works include Stein, et al. 2006; Spiller and Tommasi 2007; Stein, et al. 2008; and Díez and Franceschet 2012.

  • Díez, Jordi, and Susan Franceschet, eds. Comparative Public Policy in Latin America. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

    This book offers a comprehensive examination into how to study public policy in Latin America. Specifically, the contributors refine current theories to suit Latin America’s contemporary institutional and socioeconomic realities. Special emphasis is placed on the features of the region that shape public policy, including informal norms and practices, social inequality, and weak institutions.

  • Dixit, Avinash. The Making of Economic Policy: A Transaction-Cost Politics Perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/4391.001.0001

    In this monograph, Avinash Dixit advocates the use of transaction cost perspective to improve understanding of politics of economic policymaking. While its focus is not placed in Latin American countries (Dixit uses US fiscal policy and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as examples to illustrate his proposed framework), this book provides the theoretical foundation for most contemporary studies of how political institutions affect policymaking in the region.

  • Grindle, Merilee S., ed. Politics and Policy Implementation in The Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

    This volume examines the disparity between goals and outcomes in the implementation of public policy in developing countries. It focuses on two questions: (1) what effect does the content of public policy have on its implementation and (2) how does the political context of administrative action affect policy implementation? Various scholars address these questions through a series of case studies from Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Zambia, Kenya, and India.

  • Payne, J. Mark, Daniel Zovatto, Mercedes Mateo Díaz, et al., eds. Democracies in Development: Politics and Reform in Latin America. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 2007.

    This volume examines how institutional features of democratic systems affect their functioning as well as the prospects for their consolidation. Specifically, the different contributions analyze the effects of institutions on the democratic process, identify regional trends in political reform, assess the value of reforms for enhancing democratic governance, and offer tentative conclusions on the types of reforms that may hold promise for strengthening democracy.

  • Scartascini, Carlos, Ernesto Stein, and Mariano Tommasi, eds. How Democracy Works: Political Institutions, Actors and Arenas in Latin American Policymaking. Washington, DC: IADB, 2010.

    A companion volume to Stein, et al. 2008, this study brought together a team of economists and political scientists and country specialists. They focus on the main actors involved in Latin American policymaking. Following the framework developed in Spiller and Tommasi 2007, the analysis explores the roles of these players, their incentives and capabilities, and the way in which they actually engage in the policymaking game.

  • Spiller, Pablo T., and Mariano Tommasi. The Institutional Foundations of Public Policy in Argentina: A Transactions Cost Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511818219

    This book develops a general model of public policymaking in the vein of Dixit 1996. It focuses on the difficulties of securing intertemporal exchanges among politicians. The authors develop and test a series of hypotheses about the conditions under which policies are likely to be volatile, rigid, or of high quality, using Argentina as their case study.

  • Stein, Ernesto, Mariano Tommasi, Koldo Echebarria, Eduardo Lora, and Mark Payne, coords. The Politics of Policies. Washington, DC: IADB, 2006.

    This volume studies the quality of public policies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Numerous examples are presented in an analytical framework drawn from the pioneering work Dixit 1996 to help explain why policies that work in certain institutional environments may not work in others. The focus is not the content of policies, but rather the process by which these policies are discussed, approved, and implemented.

  • Stein, Ernesto, Mariano Tommasi, Pablo T. Spiller, and Carlos Scartascini, eds. Policymaking in Latin America. How Politics Shapes Policies. Washington, DC: IADB, 2008.

    The chapters in this volume examine the politics of policies in Latin America. They focus on one broad question: what determines the capacity of countries to design, approve, and implement effective public policies? The book builds on the results of case studies that benefit from both micro detail on the intricacies of policymaking in individual countries and a broad cross-country interdisciplinary analysis of policymaking processes in the region.

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