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Opposition Parties and the Distribution of Public Goods in Authoritarian Mexico

Thu, August 30, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton, Back Bay D


Numerous scholars assume that, in competitive authoritarian settings, opposition politicians are usually co-opted or easily repressed and that, therefore, they have little leeway to make policies that could benefit their supporters. Contrary to this idea, in this paper I demonstrate that these politicians strategically participate in elections to force autocrats to proffer palatable policies to their constituencies. In particular, I argue that challenger politicians realize, before entering the electoral fray, that authoritarian elites care deeply about obtaining electoral supermajorities. These supermajorities provide strong incentives to ruling politicians to remain loyal to the regime: all of them can be rewarded with office and they can easily control the legislature. Losing a substantial amount of votes, therefore, may limit the autocrats' ability to control the agenda or obtain spoils. By participating in elections, opposition politicians constraint the authoritarians' ability of deviating too far away from the policy preferences of the pivotal voter that gives them electoral supermajorities. Given this logic, I argue that autocrats will tend to proffer a substantial amount of public goods in localities where they have to compete in elections against an opposition party. By delivering public goods, autocrats appease the population living in these regions and also build state capacity (which, in a short period of time, allows them to better face challenges to their rule in these places). I examine the case of Mexico's dominant party autocracy to test this argument. In particular, I show that the current uneven spatial distribution of public goods in Mexico (in particular, street lightning) is a function of the presence of an opposition party (PAN) that used to challenge the country's former dominant party (PRI) in non-competitive local elections in the mid-20th Century. The PAN challenged autocrats in the electoral arena to force them to provide public goods in the localities in which it competed. I demonstrate that the presence of the PAN in these localities signaled to authoritarians that those regions could become hot spots of instability -places where they could lose the electoral supermajorities that they highly valued. Mexico's autocrats usually reacted by becoming more sympathetic to the needs of the population in these regions and by building state capacity to better monitor these localities. I provide novel quantitative evidence to show that there is a strong link between the local presence of the PAN in the 1960s and 1970s and public good provision by the PRI governments in the late 1990s -as captured by satellite images of light density at night. I complement these data with archival evidence from different municipalities in the state of Oaxaca. Using process tracing, I demonstrate that, in the 1960s PAN members participated in elections in these municipalities to gain concessions from national and local PRI governments. In particular, I show how the presence of the PAN in these localities forced Oaxaca's autocrats to develop the electrical grid in the region.