March 26, 2021
Written by

Political Cleavages in Latin America

Social Inequalities, Identity, and the Structure of Political Cleavages in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, 1952-2019

In this paper, Oscar Barrera, Ana Leiva, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Álvaro Zúñiga-Cordero combine electoral surveys to analyze the transformation of the structure of political cleavages in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Peru over the last decades. The authors document that Latin American countries are characterized by personalist leaderships (e.g., Fujimori in Peru, Uribe in Colombia) and important historical cleavages (e.g., anti vs. pro-PLN in Costa Rica) that blur class-based voting patterns and have led in some cases to the emergence of competing pro-poor and ethnic-based competing coalitions (e.g., PRN-PLN in Costa Rica, Fujimori-Humala in Peru) over the last decades. The party systems of Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru have thus generated volatile political socio-economic cleavages, while in the more institutionalized party systems of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico they have been less volatile.

Key Findings

  • Colombia’s political landscape has experienced with the beginning of the 21st century a profound transformation. The two traditional parties (Liberal and Conservative) lost part of its hegemony in benefit of left-leaning political groups and the independent Álvaro Uribe consolidated a new right-wing political ideology. The position towards the FARC conflict represented class cleavages since the beginning of Uribism, which have persisted until today.
  • The hegemony of Peronism in Argentina, which has governed the country for almost four decades since the 1940s, has created a sharp division of the electorate between Peronists and anti-Peronists. Although Peronism is well-represented across all classes and sectors of Argentinian society, the low-income and low-educated are persistently more prone to vote for Peronist candidates.
  • The last decade in Chile has been a period of social unrest, due mainly to rising income concentration, market-oriented education, and dissatisfaction with the governing coalitions’ responses to social demands.  Political polarization has consequently increased, exacerbating class cleavages.
  • In the last three decades, Costa Rica and Mexico have transitioned from two-party and one-party dominant systems to more fractionalized multi-party systems, respectively.
  • In Costa Rica, dissatisfaction with corruption scandals, the deterioration of the welfare state during the economic recession of the 1980s and the neoliberal turn of the PLN from social-democratic to neoliberal policies, led to an increase in political dissatisfaction with traditional parties, the rise of abstention, a large shift of voters towards new parties and the emergence of competing pro-poor (i.e., PLN and PRN) and pro-rich parties (i.e., PUSC and PAC) since the 2000s.
  • In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has decayed in benefit of new left-leaning parties and the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Nonetheless, as low-income low-educated PRI voters have moved both towards PAN and towards the left, the country has maintained during this process a reasonably stable “multi-elite party system”, according to which higher education attainment is associated with higher vote for the left whereas, higher income is associated with higher vote for the PAN.
  • In Peru, the strength of class divisions eroded by the end of the 1980s, in a context of deep economic crisis and political violence. This process gave room to a new type of personalist leadership, initiated by Alberto Fujimori, which has continued until the present. Indigenous issues have been gradually incorporated into the political blurring class cleavages.

Figure: Vote and Education in Mexico, 1952-2018





  • Oscar Barrera (Paris School of Economics, World Inequality Lab):
  • Ana Leiva (University of Oslo):
  • Clara Martínez-Toledano (Imperial College London, World Inequality Lab):
  • Álvaro Zúñiga-Cordero (Paris School of Economics, World Inequality Lab):

Media inquiries

  • Olivia Ronsain:; +33 7 63 91 81 68



The authors are grateful to Lavih Abraham, Ronald Alfaro-Redondo, María Julia Blanco, Francesco Bogliacino, Nicolás Dvoskin, Ignacio Flores, Gustavo García, Amory Gethin, Kyong Mazaro and Thomas Piketty for their useful advices.