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  • Latin America's Emerging Local Politics
  • Jonathan Fox (bio)

Does local democratization really matter for national politics? For those who value accountable government and civic participation, democracy at the local level is obviously important in and of itself. This essay makes a different point, however—that the degree of democratization of local government affects the prospects for national democratic governance.

Most Latin American nations made the delicate transition from authoritarian to elected civilian regimes in the 1980s, but in the 1990s many still have not firmly consolidated their democratic gains. The wave of regime transitions in the 1980s created opportunities for experimentation with more honest and effective styles of governance, but so far most of the new regimes have failed to produce successful results at the national level.

Traditional centralized, top-down approaches dominated national governance thoughout the region during the 1980s. Key characteristics included centralized and militarized police powers, appointed rather than elected mayors and governors, and extreme fiscal and bureaucratic centralization. These problems of top-down governance were compounded by systemic defects such as the lack of independent judicial authority and highly opaque, discretionary policy processes. Remarkably, most of these practices could be found across the entire political spectrum, from the moderate civilian governments of Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia to revolutionary Nicaragua and Cuba on the left and military-dominated El Salvador, Guatemala, and pre-1989 Chile on the right.

The view that policy solutions should necessarily be national is now [End Page 105] widely questioned throughout Latin America. The role of national governments is changing in two ways: international economic integration is limiting the scope for market regulation, while on the domestic front national authorities have begun to devolve major responsibilities to local governments. For example, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia all began decentralization programs in the 1980s. Many of these decentralization plans were enshrined in new or recently reformed constitutions, though the actual resources and autonomy ceded to local authorities varied greatly.1 Decentralization does not necessarily involve the democratization of local government, however. In Chile, for example, General Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship gave huge policy responsibilities to appointed mayors.

Local democratization has two dimensions. First, it involves opening up territorially based subnational governments to electoral competition (mayors and governors had traditionally been chosen by the president in many Latin American countries). Second, it entails the elimination of exclusionary political practices, including fraud, unfair limits on voter registration, the lack of ballot secrecy, voter intimidation, and vote buying. These are issues of electoral freedoms, as distinct from issues of electoral fairness (e.g., media access, campaign financing, etc.). This essay focuses on exclusionary political practices in "local" politics because that is where most citizens either gain access to or find themselves excluded from the state more generally. But authoritarian local politicians—especially those challenged from below—usually need national allies to survive.

Local democratization affects the prospects for national democratic governance in four interrelated respects. First, elected civilian regimes cannot be considered democratic until authoritarian enclaves are eliminated and the entire citizenry is effectively enfranchised. Second, pluralist politics must be learned, and subnational governments make a good school. Third, rising democratic leaders can most credibly challenge the corrupt old ways if they are forearmed with successful records in local government. Fourth, the widespread transition from traditionally paternalistic social policies to more efficient and targeted programs depends on balanced partnerships among national governments, local governments, and new social and civic actors.

Eliminating Authoritarian Enclaves

National political conditions certainly shape the possibilities for local democratization, but the reverse is true as well. If enough authoritarian enclaves persist, democracy's consolidation at the national level may be jeopardized. Longstanding exclusionary practices will not disappear because of the signing of decrees or the transfer of the presidential sash in national capitals. [End Page 106]

The persistence of authoritarian enclaves under civilian rule prevents the effective extension of basic political rights to the entire population. The proliferation of seemingly small free spaces within civil society greatly helped to weaken centralized authoritarian rule in many a Latin American dictatorship. Now one encounters a mirror image of that situation—elected civilian regimes rule nationally, but the societies...


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pp. 105-116
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