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K-State Today

October 12, 2016

Political science assistant professor Alissandra Stoyan studies political reform in Latin America

Submitted by Sarah Hancock

A K-State political science faculty member is exploring a recent trend in Latin American politics and how it affects democracy. 

Presidents from the region with ambitious reform agendas sometimes use a Constituent Assembly, a group granted supreme power to reorganize the institutions of the state, to implement agendas democratically.

Alissandra Stoyan, assistant professor, is exploring the consequences of that mechanism for democracy, as measured by contestation and participation. Contestation is the ability of both existing institutions and the citizenry to hold the executive accountable, and participation is the inclusion of minority or previously excluded voices in the political process.

Stoyan's research has indicated increased participation and decreased contestation as a result of Constituent Assembly-based reform. This trade-off enhances understanding of tensions in modern Latin American democracies such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and illuminates policymaking conflicts between presidents and legislatures as they try to create, change or even manipulate institutions.

"This work resonates beyond Latin America by highlighting the interplay of leadership, popular mobilization, and institutions in flux. It's important to understand how reform may enhance one pillar of democracy while undermining another — citizen participation may increase, but the elected Congress may be weakened," Stoyan said.

"Ultimately, the nature of the reform process, not just the content of reform, may affect democratic outcomes," she said.

To support her project, Stoyan traveled to Bolivia and Ecuador this summer and spent two months conducting interviews with 33 well-connected individuals, including members of governing and opposition parties, lawyers, journalists, and Supreme Court and Electoral Council staff. She also attended a workshop at FLACSO Ecuador and formed a connection with a professor of law and political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Ecuador.

Stoyan has submitted a journal manuscript based upon this research, and a book manuscript is in progress. Her summer research also is informing her teaching this semester as she helps upper-level undergraduates and graduate students learn about the international relations of Latin American in a 600-level course.

"Now that these Constituent Assembly reforms are nearly a decade removed, elite interviews allowed me to update my results and more accurately assess the impact of reform on democracy. While I was in Bolivia and Ecuador, both countries' presidents were talking about seeking re-election despite term-limit restrictions," Stoyan said. "Likewise, those dissatisfied with the outcome of previous reforms are discussing the possibility of holding another Constituent Assembly and revising their constitution yet again. It will be interesting to see how both of these issues play out over the next several years."

Jeff Pickering, head of the department of political science, said Stoyan's work asks and answers important questions about democracy and democratic reform.

"Stoyan's research is sure to have a substantial impact on our understanding of such phenomena, and the knowledge gained from her fieldwork informs and enlivens her teaching in important ways," Pickering said. "Her work is an outstanding example of the highly visible, relevant research that is so critical for faculty and student success at a student-centered public research university such as K-State."

Stoyan's travel was supported by the political science department and a University Small Research Grant from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs in fall 2015