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Creating Partisans: The Organizational Roots of New Parties in Latin America


The frequent emergence of new parties is a feature of democracies almost everywhere. While most of these new parties remain ephemeral, some manage to establish stable ties with voters and win substantial electoral support over repeated elections. This divergence raises the question why some new parties are able to take root in society, establish stable ties with voters, and successfully compete in elections over time, while others fail to do so.

Despite a vibrant literature on both the stability of party identification and de-alignment away from traditional parties, we do not have a good understanding yet of why some new parties succeed in taking root in society, while others fail to do so. This dissertation attempts to fill this gap. It explores different paths that new parties take to build mass support, i.e. to secure electoral support and build partisan attachments in the electorate, in the context of the recent wave of party formation in Latin America. It seeks to explain how new parties come to choose different mobilization strategies and how voters in turn respond to these different party strategies.

With the decline of unions, which played a central role in the historic founding of mass parties, much of the recent literature has concentrated on parties’ direct appeals to voters and explained variation in success to secure support in terms of the type of direct appeals, e.g. based on class vs. ethnic interests or identities or charismatic appeals. In this study, I consider different types of direct appeals and also explore organizationally mediated strategies, i.e. appeals that engage voters through societal organizations. I find that organizationally mediated strategies can secure electoral support very effectively and yield durable voter ties by socializing organization members into identifying with the party. Even though the mediating role that civil society organizations can play has been largely overlooked with the decline of labor unions, new types of organizations—particularly indigenous organizations, peasant unions, and informal sector unions—play similarly important roles in democratic societies today. While the existing scholarship has examined the formation of these organizations and their role in politicizing ethnic or class cleavages, little attention has been paid to the various ways in which different forms of party-organization linkages might influence vote choice and the emergence of partisanship.

The argument proceeds in two steps. First, I explain the adoption of different party mobilization strategies by focusing on the intra-elite dynamics during parties’ founding moments, the period before the party contests its first major election. Two features of the founding moments—one internal to the new party, the other one external to it—are key: (1) the cohesion of the coalition of party leaders and organizational allies and (2) the credibility of other attractive parties in the party system. These factors shape early-on whether a party-organization tie becomes institutionalized by adopting routinized rules and mechanisms that govern how candidates will be selected and factional disagreements will be settled. Whether party-organization ties become institutionalized, in turn, establishes whether a new party can rely on organizationally mediated strategies or is restricted to employing direct appeals only. Furthermore, I argue that the institutionalization of a linkage can provide the basis for different types of organizationally mediated strategies and resulting party structures, depending on the structure and resources of the organizational allies.

In order to explain new parties’ ability to create mass support, I then focus on voters’ responses to the different party strategies, in a second step. I show that organizationally mediated appeals can help parties obtain electoral support more effectively than most types of direct appeals. Furthermore, if the underlying party-organization linkages are institutionalized, mediated appeals also yield durable voter-party ties by socializing organization members into identifying with the party itself. Drawing on social identity and self-categorization theory, I contend that societal organizations, which serve as highly relevant and immediate reference groups to their members, provide social spaces in which socialization into new parties can occur, if the organization is organically linked to a party.

This argument is tested in the context of the recent wave of party formation in Latin America. My dissertation compares three major new parties, Bolivia’s MAS, Ecuador’s Alianza PAIS, and Mexico’s MORENA, with each other and with other new parties. Using a multi-method research strategy based on 24 months of fieldwork in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico, this research combines insights from over 230 in-depth interviews with representatives of parties and societal organizations with analyses of original and existing surveys, census data, and election returns, archival research, ethnographic work, and a series of novel experiments conducted in the field.

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