One of the most interesting aspects of the much-debated turn to the Left in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century was the remarkable rise of experimentation with participatory institutions, first locally and later nationally. Prior to the turn to the Left in the 1980s and 1990s, governments of varying political stripes had passed laws allowing for public consultations and use of referendums, but citizens had not utilized them to a significant degree. With the rise of the Left, however, millions of citizens became involved in planning councils, policy conferences, participatory budgeting processes, oversight commissions, and other such deliberative mechanisms that allowed for ongoing, regular participation in public policymaking, the kinds of mechanisms that go beyond occasional voting for representatives and that are the hallmark of participatory democracy. While leftist governments spoke of aims to widen and deepen democracy through these new mechanisms, in practice there was substantial variation in their efforts to experiment, the institutions they created or restored, and the outcomes in terms of enhancing democratic institutions. Whereas some participatory efforts focused on supplementing representative democracy with participatory democracy, others sought to supplant representative democracy in favor of participatory democracy. Although Latin America has experimented with participatory institutions to a greater degree than other world regions, it is increasingly apparent, as the political tides shift, that the Left missed a historic opportunity to fundamentally transform democracy. The Left's legacy for participatory democracy is limited throughout the region, even in the celebrated case of Brazil. Most of the new institutions for citizen participation either remain weak or have been disfigured or reversed. What explains the variation in the Left's efforts and abilities to implement novel participatory institutions and deepen democracy?
After summarizing the debates over the Left and democracy in the next section, this essay argues that while the Left made some advances in several facets of democracy at the local, provincial, and national levels by experimenting with a variety of institutional reforms, it ultimately failed to establish mechanisms that were simultaneously open, transparent, inclusive, and powerful. In some countries, democracy strengthened by increasing formal opportunities for citizens to express their preferences and influence public policies and budgets, often leading to improvements in public services and prioritization of the needs of disadvantaged social groups. Yet these advances proved limited, as the following sections demonstrate. To explain the Left's varied but limited legacy for participatory democracy, the penultimate section focuses on differences in the governing parties' social bases and ideological preferences regarding participatory democracy, contrasting institutional opportunities and constraints stemming from constitutions and party systems, and a shared neo-extractivist development model.
In short, the Left experimented with participatory institutions without a clear, shared framework for establishing participatory democracy, often encountered resistance from defenders of representative institutions, and was generally reluctant to respect participation initiatives that might slow down or avoid the natural resource extraction that was funding social programs and creating jobs. The essay concludes with a pessimistic consideration of the region's current prospects for participatory democracy.
Debating the Left Turn's Experiments with Participatory Democracy
Both critics and supporters of the Latin American Left often associate the rise of participatory institutions with the election of leftist governments at the national level, often ignoring the subnational origins of both the Left turn and the participatory turn. (1) In the multi-sided debate regarding the Left and participatory democracy, interpretations range from the ideas that participatory democracy is not an appropriate national-level strategy or that the Left's experiments have failed, to the notion that the Latin American Left's participatory experiments are, or were until recently, leading the way to deepening democracy Scholars also dispute which country serves as the best model, with their answers depending on whether they regard the role of participatory democracy as supplementing or supplanting representative democracy.
Until quite recently, one prominent position held up the Latin American Left as the vanguard of participatory innovations that can serve as models for the rest of the world to emulate. For instance, Sandbrook and Pogrebinschi argue that Latin America is forging the path for enhancing democracy through participatory institutions. (2) The Left's rise and expansion of participation have helped to improve democracies as they have "expanded the delivery of public services, increased the distribution of public goods and ensured the enactment of social policies and rights, in addition to strengthening the voice of disadvantaged groups in the political process." (3) For these scholars, the participatory turn is neither a substitute for nor an obstruction to representative institutions, but rather an "attempt to correct some of the alleged failures of representative institutions with participatory and deliberative innovations." (4)
Scholars subscribing to this perspective often view Brazil as an exemplar. Archon Fung calls Brazil an "epicenter of democratic revitalization and institutional innovations," and praises its ability to "fuse participatory and representative democracy." (5) Cameron and Sharpe agree: Brazil, with its combination of local and national-level participatory institutions, is a "model for the region's democracies." (6) Pogrebinschi and Samuels argue that even at the national level, "participatory practices can deepen actually existing democratic regimes by opening the doors for extensive civil society influence over national governance." (7)
Alternatively, scholars claiming that the most effective way to enhance democracy is to supplant representative institutions with participatory institutions disparage the Workers' Party in Brazil and point to Chavismo in Venezuela as a model. For Webber and Carr, the radical Left views "liberal capitalist democracy as a limited expression of popular sovereignty and seeks to expand democratic rule through all political, social, economic, and private spheres of life." (8) Venezuela, with its referenda, communal councils, and worker cooperatives, comes closest to this radical leftist ideal by "gradually and partially transforming... into a socialist economy and a participatory democratic polity." (9)
Both of these perspectives conflict with traditional political science arguments about participatory democracy. In the traditional view, participatory democracy at the national level is unfeasible or incompatible with representative democracy, though it may be compatible with representative democracy at the local level. Mainwaring explains the Left's limitations with participatory democracy by pointing to the "severe, largely insurmountable" constraints of both polity and citizenry that are encountered when scaling up and institutionalizing participation at the national level. (10) Mainwaring thus represents a third and widely held perspective that accounts for differences between countries with moderate leftist radical leftist parties. Local-level participatory institutions may strengthen liberal, representative democracy in countries governed by moderate leftist parties, such as Brazil and Uruguay. However, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, representative democracy and civil society are undermined and diminished as participatory institutions are used to mobilize followers in ways that lead to "participatory competitive authoritarianism." (11)
A fourth perspective underlines the "fading of participatory democracy" across the region's leftist governments, whether considered moderate or radical. (12) For Dagnino, an early champion of participatory democracy, the creation of participatory institutions in the 1990s created "new models" for relations between the state and civil society These involve channels of interaction and representation that went beyond "representative electoral democracy" and provided a...