The research behind Latin America´s Leaders (ZED Books, London, 2015) was motivated by questions related to the democratic quality of leaders. Why do democratically elected leaders undermine democracy as soon as they are in power? Why has the return to democracy not done away with Latin America’s tendency to generate authoritarian leaders?
We looked at Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay. We conducted 285 interviews with former Presidents, Vice-Presidents, MPs, mayors and party leaders. The aim of the interviews was to learn how leaders interpret democratic quality and how far they perceive themselves as the architects of democracy.
The qualitative analysis of the interviews showed two different groups: in Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela the analysis of Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez dominated the interviews while in Uruguay and Colombia our respondents examined political leadership together with the role of political parties, state institutions and historical processes.
Our research helps us to argue that the emergence of different type of leaders is intrinsically related to the political context, and especially to the degree of institutionalization of the political party system. We observe that it is also related to the degree of electoral competition and the autonomy that a leader can establish from other political actors.
The most important contribution of the book is a typology based on three elements: the political context, the ability of the leader to lead and the impact of the leader on the quality of democracy. Cutting across these elements are three dimensions of leadership: the relationship between the leader and the rule of law; the leader’s efforts to achieve consensus or in contrast to provoke polarization; and the leader’s methods to increase power. Our typology highlights leaders’ democratic quality by looking at their attitude to rules (obey, challenge or manipulate) to opposition (polarize, tolerate or build consensus) and to power (share, concentrate or usurp).
The book aims to promote a debate about the democratic quality of political leaders; to advance a comparative approach on leadership and to encourage more studies about the reasons for the emergence of different type of leaders and their impact on democracy.