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Ambitious Reform Via Constituent Assemblies: Determinants of Success in Contemporary Latin America


Since 1998, several Latin American presidents have attempted to create constituent assemblies, rewrite constitutions, and fundamentally shift power relations with varying levels of success. I argue that two variables have determined executive success. These are mobilizational leverage, or the ability to rally popular support behind the reform agenda, and institutional leverage, or the ability to convince the Judiciary or Electoral Council to allow a referendum to form a Constituent Assembly and sanction its supreme power. I examine this argument through process tracing cases of success (Chávez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Correa in Ecuador) and a case of failure (Zelaya in Honduras), drawing on data from 118 elite interviews in Bolivia and Ecuador. This article contributes to the literature on executive-legislative relations and presidential power, explaining a process that allows presidents to navigate the institutions of democracy and enact ambitious reform.

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  1. 1.

    This implies the CA is above all other state institutions, including the executive, with the authority to dictate fundamental norms organizing the power of the state; see: Negri (1999).

  2. 2.

    Ambitious agendas empowering popular sectors include: land reform, nationalization, progressive tax reform, and redistributive social policy. Elite-empowering agendas include: privatization, liberalization, balancing budgets primarily through cutting expenditures, regressive tax reform, and structural adjustment policies.

  3. 3.

    Members of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian governing parties repeatedly mentioned this in interviews.

  4. 4.

    Theoretically, presidents with ambitious elite-empowering agendas could use the CA. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori may have been able to use a CA rather than the self-coup in 1992.

  5. 5.

    The Honduran opposition believed Zelaya would repeat the strategy employed elsewhere; see Freitas (2010: 157) and Kuehne and Trinkunas (2017: 871).

  6. 6.

    Traditional parties hoped this would stifle Chávez’s party, eliminate the coat-tails effect, and fragment the legislative vote; see Molina (2002: 225–27).

  7. 7.

    Interview: Alberto Acosta (6/2012); interviews in Spanish were translated by the author.

  8. 8.

    Interviews: Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé (3/2012) and Carlos Mesa (3/2012). See also Breuer (2008) and Mesa (2008).

  9. 9.

    In January 2005, 15 days before leaving office, Palacio drew on Article 171 of the 1998 Constitution to convoke a special session of Congress to initiate a CA. He knew that Congress would delay a decision by passing the proposal on to a commission. He also knew that, if Congress did not approve or reject the proposal within 180 days, then the President could act on it. Thus, he laid the groundwork for Correa to initiate a CA in May. Correa initiated it in April (Interview with Alfredo Palacio, 6/2012).

  10. 10.

    Interview: Gustavo Larrea (6/2012)

  11. 11.

    Interview: Former Justice Jorge Alvear Macías (6/2012)

  12. 12.

    The alternates were called ‘diputados de los manteles’ (tablecloth congressmen). They met with the executive’s representatives to negotiate support for the CA. When leaving, they hid under tablecloths to escape the press.

  13. 13.

    Interviews: Gamal Serhan Jaldín (3/2012) and Javier Limpias (4/2012)

  14. 14.

    Interview: Javier Limpias (4/2012)

  15. 15.

    Zelaya claimed the referendum would be merely a poll of public opinion. However, the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court worried that it was the first step toward reform.

  16. 16.

    Voting is compulsory and enforced in Ecuador, compulsory but not enforced in Bolivia, and voluntary in Venezuela.

  17. 17.

    Interview: Fanny Zamudio and Alfredo Espinoza (5/2012).

  18. 18.

    Gustavo Larrea emphasized that this technicality was crucial for legitimacy: “when [the congressmen] went to complain to the OAS or the United Nations, they could say ‘Gentlemen, you are on legislative recess. Go home and do not cause trouble’” (interview, 6/2012).

  19. 19.

    Interview: Rocio Rosero Garces (7/2012)

  20. 20.

    Interview: Rosa Elena de la Torre (5/2012)

  21. 21.

    Interviews: Franco Gamboa Rocabado (1/2012), Fernando Mayorga (3/2012), Gamal Serhán Jaldín (3/2012).

  22. 22.

    Interview: Javier Limpias (4/2012).

  23. 23.

    The Bolivian process began before Ecuador’s but finished after. Correa was adamant about sticking to the pre-established timeline. The Ecuadorian CA President asserted the need for additional time and resigned over the conflict (Interview: Alberto Acosta, 6/11/12).

  24. 24.

    Interviews: Rosana Alvarado (7/2012), Monica Chuji (7/2012), Pablo Lucio Paredes (7/2012), Rosa Elena de la Torre (5/2012).

  25. 25.

    Interview: Fernando Garces (3/2012).

  26. 26.

    Morales reversed himself given ardent opposition and the likely failure of the consultation. Regrettably, subsequent legislation undermined the binding nature of the consultation.

  27. 27.

    Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador were considered electoral democracies at the time of reform. Chávez’s 1998 election was “free and fair” and Polity IV begins coding Venezuela as “open anocracy” in 2006.

  28. 28.

    Interviews: Pablo Lucio Paredes (7/2012), Monica Chuji (7/2012), Rocio Rosero Garces (7/2012), Diego Cano (7/2012).


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Correspondence to Alissandra T. Stoyan.

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Stoyan, A.T. Ambitious Reform Via Constituent Assemblies: Determinants of Success in Contemporary Latin America. St Comp Int Dev 55, 99–121 (2020).

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  • Constituent assemblies
  • Institutional change
  • Democracy
  • Executive-legislative relations
  • Latin America