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Conservative Popular Appeals: The Electoral Strategies of Latin America’s Right Parties

  • Author(s): Giraudy, Maria Eugenia
  • Advisor(s): Berins Collier, Ruth
  • et al.

How do elite conservative parties win mass support? Over time, political scientists have been puzzled by this question. In my dissertation, I analyze this question by investigating the strategies conservative parties use to attract these voters. In particular, my research shows that parties can choose from four possible strategies to build mass support: economic moderation, orthogonal appeals, grassroots activities, and neoliberalism.

I use machine learning to analyze four right-wing parties in Argentina and Chile and demonstrate that parties have varied in the strategies they chose to attract new voters. To this end, I classify the text of 4800 press releases using topic models with Latent Dirichlet Allocation. This method classifies the topics parties choose to focus on. For instance, it can show if a party has focused on moral values (e.g., abortion, gay marriage) or on economic issues (role of the market, exports promotion). By understanding the topics parties focus on in their press releases, I can analyze which strategies they use to attract poor voters.

The results of the classification show that for example, in Chile, one conservative party, Union Democratica Independiente (UDI), chose to create grassroots activities in poor areas in order to attract the urban poor, while the other conservative party, Renovacion Nacional (RN), chose to use orthogonal appeals on the value of democracy and human rights, as well as presenting a moderate economic platform. In Argentina, UCeDe opted to focus on neoliberal appeals to attract both rich and poor voters, while Propuesta Republicana (PRO) decided to moderate its economic appeals.

To explain this variation I argue that the ties of conservative parties to conservative institutions constrain the strategies of conservative parties to expand their electoral coalitions. In particular, I analyze how the ties to the three most relevant conservative institutions of Latin America’s recent history, the Catholic Church, the Military, and business groups, affect the possible strategies of conservative party leaders. This analysis is based on qualitative evidence collected during 18 months of fieldwork in Argentina and Chile. I use an original database of the careers of party officials, as well as in-depth interviews with top conservative party leaders, to trace the ties of conservative institutions to the parties.

I show that these institutions can influence party strategies through two different paths. First, conservative institutions may have external influence to the party and threaten to cut valuable resources in case the party chooses not to defend their policy interests. Second, conservative institutions might choose to affect party strategies through the path of internal influence. In this path, representatives of the conservative institution occupy key party positions and block policies that may affect the interests of the institution.

My dissertation demonstrates that each party’s strategic choices depend on the ties that party leaders have to these three conservative institutions. In the case of RN, the decision of party leaders to use orthogonal appeals as well as limited economic moderation is a consequence of the fact that RN leaders have moderate ties to export-oriented business groups, moderate ties to the Catholic Church, and weak ties to the military. In the case of UDI, its party leaders were able to build strong grassroots activities due to their strong ties to the military and business groups. These ties made it difficult for the party to use strategies of economic moderation or orthogonal appeals. Additionally, the strong ties of UDI to the Catholic Church made it difficult for the party to introduce progressive moral topics to attract new voters.

In Argentina, UCeDe leaders in the 1980s chose a neoliberal strategy due to the strong ties of UCeDe to liberal economic groups. In addition, party leaders had medium ties to the military which made it difficult to use a strategy of orthogonal appeals on Human Rights issues, and the party did not use moral progressive topics in order to avoid an adverse reaction from the Catholic Church. Last, PRO leaders chose a strategy of economic moderation to attract new voters. Different to other parties, PRO was able to implement such a strategy because it had moderate ties to ISI business groups. In addition, the party’s moderate ties to the Catholic Church was translated in mixed positions on moral values. PROs weak ties to the military makes it possible for them to utilize pro-democratic appeals. However, as the party was formed more than 30 years after the transition to democracy, its appeals are less about the role of the military, and more about the defense of republican institutions.

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