Thursday, August 14, 2014

Parties and Disruption in Bolivia

Jennifer Cyr, "Making or Breaking Politics: Social Conflicts and Party-System Change in Bolivia," Studies in Comparative International Development June 2014 (early online). Gated.


Why do only some social conflicts lead to party-system change? In Bolivia, the recent politicization of the regional autonomy movement represented a stark difference with how conflicts had affected party-system dynamics in the past. This study argues that social conflicts led to party-system change in Bolivia thanks largely to the strategies of ruling party elites. Motivated to preserve their position in power, elites had a menu of strategic options at their disposal to integrate, defer, or disregard demands from below. The study situates the recent regional conflict in Bolivia within the country’s longer history of mobilizational politics. It finds that ruling elites utilized different strategies of exclusion and inclusion to neutralize social conflict and preserve the status quo party system. They appropriated the regional autonomy demands as a last-ditch effort to remain electorally relevant in the face of successful party competition. In so doing, they helped transform the party system. Even from a position of electoral weakness and in the face of overwhelming demands from below, Bolivia’s elites shaped the transformative impact of those demands. This study relies upon a least-likely case design to highlight the impact elite agency can have in making or breaking politics under democracy.

This is an interesting analysis of Bolivian politics, examining in detail how parties dealt with periods of disruption.

This study finds that societal demands in Bolivia became politically transformative thanks in large part to the strategies of ruling party elites. Their responses to mobilizing pressures from below varied according to their coalitional interests and the nature of the electoral competition they faced. The decisions taken by status quo elites shaped the political impact of each disruptive mobilization. After 1952, 1985, and 1994, the ruling party elite undertook strategies of adoption, exclusion, and cooptation and effectively neutralized the mobilization in question. In 2005, they found themselves at an electoral disadvantage. To remain relevant, these politicians chose a strategy of appropriation, taking as their own the regionalist issues that the MAS, through its nationalist project, opposed. In so doing, they helped forge party system realignment. 
The implications of this study are multiple. First, it provides conclusive evidence regarding the theoretical importance of elite agency for party-system change. The case of the Bolivian status quo elite represents a least-likely case of the effect of agency vis-à-vis demands from below. The political system has historically faced mass mobilizations of different kinds. However, ruling party elites consistently enacted strategies that shaped whether those conflicts impacted party-system dynamics. This was true even after they suffered a major electoral loss. Elite actions are vital for explaining how mobilizations from below impact the party system.

Cyr argues that this is a least likely case of agency since it appears that parties get swept away. Instead, she says that agency is apparent as parties adapt and survive. It's crying out for comparative analysis, as I immediately thought of the Venezuelan case, where the opposition famously failed to adapt to disruption in the 1990s. At any rate, there's a lot of food for thought here about how party leaders respond to crisis in a way that keeps them politically relevant.


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