Where Politics Is All Too Local

Where Politics Is All Too Local

Latin American political power has been shifting to the local level, but undermining the national political parties.

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“Decentralization and Political Parties” by Christopher Sabatini, in Journal of
(Apr. 2003), 1101 15th St.,
N.W., Ste. 800, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Political power has shifted massively to the local
level in Latin America in recent decades. New local political parties and
leaders have sprung up, neglected wants and needs are being addressed, and
many more citizens now feel part of the political process. There’s
just one problem: Decentralization has been undermining the established
class="text57">national political parties
that are critical to the long-term pros­pects of these countries.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, says Sabatini,
senior program officer for Latin America at the National Endowment for
Democracy in Washington. Take the Andean countries—Colombia,
Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru. When they adopted decentralization in the
1980s and 1990s, providing for the transfer of money and responsibilities
from the national governments and for the direct election of mayors and
governors, “most decision makers and foreign donors [such as the
World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development] expected to see a
reinvigoration of party systems as national parties sought to respond to
local constituents, issues, and leaders. In practice, however, national
parties have often floundered.”

Latin America’s national political parties have
never been particularly strong. Eco­nomic woes and austerity measures
after 1986 cost many parties public confidence and many of the patronage
jobs they had used to sustain their power. Venezuela’s two
major parties, Acción Democrática and COPEI, embraced
decentralization after riots shook Caracas in 1989. In Colombia,
leaders hoped that direct election of mayors and governors “would
relegitimize a political system battered by years of civil war.”

But “decentralization struck squarely at
long-favored means of maintaining party discipline and cohesion,” Sabatini notes. Local leaders no longer need the help of party higher-ups
in the capital to satisfy their constituents or run for higher office. And
the creation of thousands of locally elected positions has brought many new
politicians, movements, and parties to the fore.

But “the lack of coherent links to
national-level issues, institutions, and candidates,” says Sabatini,
has made it harder for the national governments to govern and to be held
accountable. His remedy: decentralize the national parties themselves,
making them better able to meet local demands and establish the missing

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