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Political relations - Introduction: Guiding questions for this chapter

Political relations

  1. United States.

The most significant aspect of the realignment of political forces begins, which began with the election of 1980, was not the increased partisanship between the two parties, but the fact that for the first time in the development of the US dominant two-party system the country entered two decades of competitive two-party politics in which neither party was hegemonic. Hitherto, the historic pattern had been the emerge of one or the other party as hegemonic as a consequence of critical elections, which marked major shifts in voting patterns and party affiliation. The intense partisanship was so much a cause as an effect of the intense competition which increasingly characterized party competition at the national level. By the end of these two decades the division in the electorate between supporters of the two dominant parties was reflected in the presidential election of November 2000 which was the closest in the nation’s history. Another way of stating the matter is that in no other election was the electorate more divided over two conflicting views and images of America, not even the last presidential election preceding the Civil War

In 1950 the prevailing image of two-party politics in the United States was the absence of significant party differences between the two parties. Fifty years later the opposite was true: the partisan differences were so great as to make compromise very difficult on nearly all the major issues which faced the country. The old conventional wisdom that the pull to the center was sufficient to isolate the extremes and the consequence was legislation by bargaining and compromise cutting across party lines no longer held. Instead, each side, especially when one party controlled the White House and the other one or both of the houses of Congress, found the stakes enormous in terms of what was and wasn’t accomplished in the way of legislative programs. The complaint was no longer the absence of significant party differences, but rather so great were the divisions that little could be accomplished.

      1. Mexico.


Political changes in the Mexican system were equally great during the last two decades of the 20thth century. The shift there was from one-party hegemony under the PRI to a competitive multiparty system in which three alignments were dominant: the PRD and other political forces to the left of the PRI, the PRI in the center, and the PAN and other political forces on the right. The 1980s witnessed the first attempts to transform the old political system through relaxing controls at the municipal level. The alternative that was adopted included both political and administrative decentralization, to be implemented with amendments to Article 115 of the Constitution in 1983. These amendments made provisions for the establishment of stronger and more autonomous municipality relative to both state and federal levels of government. While immediate change was not forthcoming, the potential of these reforms lay in the fact that if they were truly implemented they would imply a substantial territorial reorganization of Mexico’s public and political administration. Looking back, what is now clear is that these legal reforms created a framework within which preferences for alternatives to PRI hegemony could be articulated in localities and eventually in states and that when the opposition could finally displace the PRI from the Presidency of the Republic, then the division and separation of powers in that federal presidential system could then be made functional and converted into major supports for sustaining democratic politics.

Nevertheless, until well into the 1990s the decentralization of the Mexican system was severely limited by the absence of constraints on presidential power, by the historic weakness and incapacity of the municipalities to govern themselves, and by bureaucratic practices and traditional politics fostered by a hegemonic party system. Promoting decentralization of the political and economic system in Mexico became official public discourse in the administrations of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88) and Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), but it was not until 1995 that substantive measures supporting decentralization politically and fiscally were introduced as one of the main policies of a national administration (Ward, Rodríguez and Cabrero 1999). In more ways than one, Ernesto Zedillo moved the country from liberalization of the prevailing regime to its democratization during his administration.
      1. Brazil.

Politics in Brazil during this same time period is marked by a resurgence of gubernatorial politics, economic crisis, and economic stabilization under Cardoso, first as finance minister, then as president. The combination of decentralization and the revitalization of political federalism, in the creation of distinct political arenas at the federal, state, and local levels played an important role in opening the political space necessary for competitive politics to emerge. While the prevailing literature bemoans the dominance of traditional clientelistic politics in the Brazilian political system during this period, what was also occurring was the open of political space in which reformist politics could begin to restructure political relationships. This latter development was very weak at the outset. Of the major cities in Brazil, Porto Alegre stood alone many years as a municipality in which reformist politics could be sustained. But, as reformist politicians began to organize and compete in other venues, by the end of the 1990s reformist political alliances were more and more likely to appear at the state and local level.


The fact that Brazil democratized first before engaging economic restructuring produced a very different set of economic and political outcomes. Above all else, it strengthened federalism as a political structure within which competitive politics could function. Whereas US federalism has always been two-tiered, with municipalities being the creatures of its state governments, the Brazilian system from its inception in the Constitution of 1891 has been three-tiered. In terms of economic reform, this political framework made economic restructuring more difficult to achieve and required political participants to engage in bargaining and compromise. No single individual or group could dominate politics at all levels. But at the same time, political space could be opened at multiple levels permitting multiple outcomes in politics, be it in terms of traditional, clientelistic alliances or programmatic, reformist alliances. If on the one hand, Cardoso had to confront a conservative clientelistic alliance in Congress in his second term, reformist candidates and political organizations could find ample space in which to gain governmental experience at the state and local level.
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