by Agustina Giraudy
Most Latin American countries have transitioned away from autocracy and authoritarianism over the past three decades, but much of their democratic advancement has been territorially uneven and mostly limited to the national level. In Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico and other countries, democracy has not trickled down to subnational levels of government. Many provinces, states, and municipalities in these (and other) countries continue to be governed in ways that resemble the period of undemocratic rule. In these subnational undemocratic regimes (SURs), the political and civic rights of regular citizens and the political opposition are severely curtailed.
In SURs such as Formosa, San Luis or La Rioja in Argentina; Oaxaca (pre 2010), Puebla (pre 2010), or Tabasco in Mexico; and Goiás in Brazil, provincial autocrats use a variety of undemocratic, illegal, and informal actions – such as electoral fraud, electoral violence, and changes in electoral rules and political institutions – to prevent the opposition from gaining access to state positions. My research and others’ indicates that, to further protect their own power, these subnational rulers frequently and arbitrarily reshuffle provincial- and state-level supreme courts, capriciously remove opposition mayors from office, deny funding to municipalities controlled by the opposition, and arbitrarily commission provincial- and state-level audits to investigate contrived financial misdeeds of opposition mayors. They also co-opt or divide local organized groups, such as small unions, social movements, and street vendors, to undermine potential opposition.
The existence of SURs within national democracies underscores the difficulty of assessing the quality of a democracy from a purely national perspective. As recent research has shown, the continuation of SURs in national democracies requires that we take a different approach and, importantly, grasp how seemingly democratic national-level leaders benefit from and, in some circumstances, encourage the SURs as a reliable base outside the capital. Subnational undemocratic rulers, who typically control voters and legislators in the national congress, are seen by national officials as key partners for crafting winning electoral and legislative coalitions. To the extent that national democratic incumbents succeed at inducing and securing autocrats’ cooperation, the former have strong incentives to help the latter stay in power. Ironically, the accepted practice of democratic coalition-building contributes to the obstruction of democratization at the subnational level. In the second decade of the 21st century, the quality of Latin American democracies depends at least as much on subnational democracy – and reducing the influence of SURs – as on the quality of national-level institutions.