The Origins of Institutional Crises in Latin America


  • For comments on earlier versions of this article, I am extremely grateful to Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Alexandre Debs, Jorge Domínguez, Barbara Geddes, Steven Levitsky, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Julio Rios-Figueroa, Frances Rosenbluth, Jeffrey Staton, Matthew Stephenson, and Susan Stokes. I especially want to thank Curt Signorino for his methodological advice. I would also like to thank participants at the 2008 “Rule of Law Workshop” at Yale University, participants at the 2009 “Conference on Comparative Constitutional Design” at the University of Chicago Law School, and 2009 participants at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. Thanks to Kerim Can Kavakli, David Carter, Laurin Frisina, Blake Graham, and Subhasish Ray for outstanding research assistance. All errors are my sole responsibility.

Gretchen Helmke is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Rochester, Harkness Hall 333, Rochester, NY 14627-0146 (


Institutional instability and interbranch crises pose a fundamental challenge to democracies in Latin America and the developing world more generally. Combining a standard game theoretic model of crisis bargaining with a unique dataset on courts, executives, and legislatures for 18 Latin American countries between 1985 and 2008, the article develops a strategic account of how interbranch crises emerge and evolve. In addition to providing the first systematic picture of the frequency, type, and location of interbranch crises for the region, the article demonstrates that the decision to initiate an interbranch crisis is influenced by the allocation of institutional powers, public support for the targeted branch, and the expectations of success based on recent experiences. Building on these results, the article identifies several novel directions for future research on institutional instability.