A good deal of ink has been spilled recently over the issue of presidentialism versus parliamentarism in Latin America. The debate was begun by Juan Linz, an expert on Spain, and carried forward by Arturo Valenzuela, a specialist on Chile, where the debate over this issue was, in fact, quite vigorous for a time. Now, Scott Mainwaring and Matthew Soberg Shugart have weighed in with a heavy volume that, one would hope, would put this issue to rest. Unfortunately, the authors conclude with a call for “more studies” and the promise of another book.

For most Latin Americanists, the institutional issue of presidentialism versus parliamentarism is not of the highest priority. Most scholars in the field tend to focus on Latin America’s economic problems, social issues, cultural changes, and foreign relations. When we add political issues to the list, the focus is likely to be on political party weaknesses, interest group imbalances, and governmental inadequacies, not presidentialism or parliamentarism. This debate harks back to the constitutional engineering, actually the constitutional gimmicks, that constitution-writers and American political scientists wrote about in an earlier pre-1950s epoch. Then, the field focused on formal- legal (including constitutional) aspects of politics to the exclusion of more dynamic factors and, with respect to Latin America, specifically sought to limit continuismo and such strong executive power that verged on dictatorship by introducing semiparliamentary features in the constitutions of Latin America. Of course, institutions are important and one needs to get them right, but no one nowadays thinks that such constitutional tinkering will solve Latin America’s problems or even that a formal-legal approach is the best way to deal with the issues involved. As the editors themselves eventually recognize, the nature of social cleavages, the level of economic development, the quality of leadership, and political culture are also of critical importance in affecting how democracy works.

The early literature was strongly critical of presidentialism and fervently in favor of parliamentarism. Linz and his collaborators have argued the following points: 1) that presidentialism is less flexible than parliamentarism and, therefore, is less supportive of democracy; 2) that presidentialism is more prone to immobility and gridlock; and 3) that presidentialism has a “winner-takes-all logic” that is unfavorable to democracy. To their credit, Mainwaring and Shugart present a more balanced and realistic argument, suggesting that presidentialism often offers greater choice to voters, provides electoral accountability, assures greater congressional independence, provides for fixed terms, and may inhibit “winner-takes-all” politics.

In addition, parliamentarism and semiparliamentarism in Latin America have usually meant government-by-committee, the absence of clear leadership or responsibility, and the lack of a strong center to hold the polity together. Historically, many Latin American countries have been plagued by a lack of associability, weak institutions, economic underdevelopment, and sometimes chaotic sociopolitical conditions. In these conditions, a strong executive is seen as needed to help provide unity and keep the country from falling apart. To be fair to the Valenzuela school, the associational and organizational void is now beginning to be filled and democracy sufficiently consolidated, so perhaps countries like Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay can afford to have a debate over parliamentarism and maybe even move in that direction. But for the other countries, the fear of disorder and possible disintegration is such that they prefer presidentialism, and it is significant that in every Latin American country where parliamentarism- presidentialism has been debated, presidentialism won out.

Fortunately, Mainwaring and Shugart are careful, serious scholars, and they have produced an excellent book on the subject that broadens the sterile presidentialism- parliamentarism argument to one that also focuses on political parties, elections, and democratic consolidation. They also emphasize the vast differences—constitutionally, politically, and sociologically—among the Latin American countries. Their contributors, for the most part, also offer strong chapters: Mainwaring, himself, on Brazil; Ronald Archer and Shugart on Colombia; Brian Crisp on Venezuela; John Carey on Costa Rica; Jeffrey Weldon on Mexico; Mark Jones on Argentina; Julio Faúndez and Peter Siavelis on Chile; and Eduardo Gamarra on Bolivia. Unfortunately, there is no chapter on Uruguay, where the debate as well as the experience with the presidentialism versus parliamentarism debate has been among the most important, and none on the Caribbean or other Central American countries. An introduction and conclusion by the editors help tie the book together, and there is an especially useful appendix that presents a summary of constitutional provisions in all the Latin American countries.

We need to put this debate to sleep and one wishes to be able to report that the authors have delivered the definitive book on the subject. The Mainwaring-Shugart volume does, in fact, do that. But, unfortunately, they have promised us still more.