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  • Poverty of Democracy: The Institutional Roots of Political Participation in Mexico
  • Tina Hilgers
Poverty of Democracy: The Institutional Roots of Political Participation in Mexico. By Claudio A. Holzner (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. xvii plus 281 pp. $26.95).

In this important new book on Mexican political behavior, Holzner asks why Mexico's poor participate less in politics than the rich. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Oaxaca and statistical analysis of a major national survey, he locates the cause of uneven participation levels in institutional opportunities and constraints. His analysis leads to a powerful conclusion: an activist state is much better placed to mobilize and include the poor than civil society. Holzner thus contests a central position in the literature, which has identified civil society organizations as principal actors capable of creating inclusion and justice in young democracies.1

Poverty of Democracy begins with a comprehensive introduction, before moving into an excellent theoretical chapter. Here, Holzner constructs an institutionalist framework that better explains political behavior than socioeconomic status or psycho-cultural orientations, which cannot account for geographic and temporal variations. Participation, he argues, is shaped by the characteristics of the state and the system of representation, including state strength, policy activity, and opportunities for access, as well as the electoral and party systems, competitiveness, and the tempo of the political process (40-43).

In the remainder of the book, Holzner attempts to show which institutions affect the political participation of the poor. He argues that neoliberal reforms have been unequivocally negative for participation and that democratic reforms have had only mixed results in countering the trend. Chapter three generates hypotheses about the effect of neoliberal reforms through historical and interview-based data and chapter four tests these through regression analysis of data from the 2003 Comparative Studies of Electoral Systems survey. Chapter five provides an overview of democratic institutional reforms, including the context of Oaxacan politics, and chapter six covers the related interview data and statistical analysis.

Holzner makes the case that, under the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) developmental state, contacting and petitioning politicians was rational for the poor because the state actively redistributed resources and politicians enjoyed discretion in channeling them. Through neoliberal reform, however, the state became less policy activist and more technocratic. Holzner's data show that state withdrawal from myriad programs and expert influenced policymaking caused the poor to turn to nonpolitical activities to meet their resource needs (52-53, 64). Programs such as PROGRESA, Oportunidades, and PROCAMPO have not only spent less than their predecessors and been less present in the lives of the poor, but are targeted according to recipient characteristics and cannot be influenced through organization or patronage (92-94). A smaller, technocratic state provides fewer points of access and chances to affect policy for citizens, making it more difficult and less worthwhile for the poor to contact representatives and decreasing their political participation in favor of self-help activities (78). For wealthier citizens, the expense and difficulty of contacting a distant representative has less impact. [End Page 268] Government transfers, then, increase political participation among the poor (193).

Holzner writes that democratic institutional reforms resulting in three-party competition both in free and fair elections and in the different levels and branches of government have been uneven and have, therefore, had irregular results. First, ideological electoral competition intermeshes with "competitive clientelism" (144). Democratization has de-linked local politics from the PRI, but the poor remain open to clientelism because they lack economic opportunities, and all three political parties tap into this in order to win elections. Second, local and state elections function according to a "parallel two-party system" (166), where the PRI competes against either the conservative National Action Party (PAN) or the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Which parties are competitive and how clean local and state-level elections are affects both the degree of democracy and how efficacious the poor feel (162-67). Third, some PRI governors distribute the resources of decentralization to favor PRI municipalities, weakening competition (171). Since political reforms are uneven, so are their results: where competition is free and fair at local and state levels, the poor participate more, but...


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pp. 268-270
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