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With close look at Mexico, government professor explains why powerful parties lose reins of power

The bottom-line message of Kenneth Greene’s book, “Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective,” is laid out right there on the cover.

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The bottom-line message of Kenneth Greene’s book, “Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective,” is laid out right there on the cover.

It shows a poster that looks like a ballot with a box for Mexico’s long dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) marked with an “X.” Next to it is a man pulling a chicken off a grill.

As long as the PRI had enough chickens-for example, money from state-owned enterprises that it used to dole out patronage jobs, cash, scholarships and other goodies–it was the dominant party.

But, as the Mexican economy shifted to a free-market model, the PRI lost the public money it used to pay for its largesse and the electoral playing field leveled.

“So the answer to why dominant parties lose is they run out of chicken,” said Greene, an assistant professor in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin.

While the cover art shows that Greene is a political scientist with a sense of humor, the words inside build a serious case for the process by which powerful political parties are eclipsed.

Greene counts 16 countries where dominant parties have run out of chicken. In the book, he focuses on Mexico, his area of expertise, but includes in-depth case studies of Taiwan, Italy, Malaysia and Japan.

His idea is that dominant political parties stay in power using the revenue of the state to pay for their patronage. Because they control public coffers, they don’t need to rely on fraud or military power to maintain dominance.

“Dominant parties persist when they can politicize public resources,” Greene said. “Essentially, they steal money from the public budget and reroute it for political use.”

Greene’s research included 1,500 in-person interviews conducted by a team of 30-40 college students, his own in-depth interviews with party leaders and high-level activists, and his on-the-ground observations of party building in several Mexico City neighborhoods.

To maintain power, the dominant party has to do two things.

One is to control the federal agencies and offices that maintain access to the public budget.

“If hiring and firing were merit based these guys (bureaucrats) would probably say, ‘Now you can’t have that,'” Greene said. “So they had to make sure hiring and firing was completely patronage based so that they could control the public bureaucracy.”

The second is to increase the size of the publicly controlled economy. One way to do that is to federalize industries.

“That expanded the pie from which they could take liberal slices,” Greene said.

An example in Mexico is Pemex, the state-owned oil company. Now, it’s the largest remaining state-controlled business, but there used to be many more.

The beginning of the end of PRI’s grip on power in Mexico was the financial crisis of 1982. It led to reforms, including the privatization of much of the country’s economy.

Before the crisis, state-owned enterprises accounted for nearly 23 percent of gross domestic product. By the time of the presidential election in 2000, it was down to 5.5 percent.

“So we go from a fifth of the economy being publicly owned to a 20th and that has a huge impact on the PRI’s ability to generate these illicit patronage resources,” Greene said.

Over its decades of dominance, the PRI won elections with such commanding majorities that the other parties were left gasping for air.

“The effect is to put opposition parties, if they form, at a tremendous disadvantage,” he said. “They’re outspent at every turn. They’re out-campaigned.”

So who would form or join a party that is doomed to playing the coyote to the PRI’s roadrunner?

“Only people who are so anti-status quo that the voters probably aren’t going to like them anyway,” Greene said. “So you tended to get in these dominant party systems fairly radical opposition parties that were polarized to the left and the right, parties that were pushing ideological platforms that the average voter just wasn’t interested in.”

As the dominant party’s influence wanes, the opposition parties pick up more support and members.

What happens to their ideologies as they attract more members?

In surveys of national-level leaders and high-level activists, Greene found there was a strong relationship between their level of radicalism-on the left and the right-and when they joined the opposition.

“People who joined the opposition in the ’60s and ’70s, they were still the most radical in their parties,” he said. “And the people who joined more recently, in the 1990s, were more moderate.”

But the later-joining moderates don’t necessarily translate into a more moderate party platform, Greene said.

The long-time members had more power in the party and could hew the platform planks to their liking.

“It takes a while and a lot of debates for those more moderate voices to take effect,” he said.

The National Action Party (PAN), the right-wing party, was able to incorporate those moderate voices much better than the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). That’s one of the reasons the PAN ended up doing a lot better than the PRD.

“PAN has always allowed for individuals to float up to the top of the party organization based on their talent,” Greene said. “The PRD is organized in a way that privileges groups. They are based on organized social movements inside communities so you really have to become a leader of one of those groups in order to have the force of the community behind you to propel you upward in the party and that takes an incredibly long time. You just can’t grow into that position quickly and organically emerge from the community to get that support. It’s been hard for those moderate voices to angle in for the PRD.”

Greene’s interest in politics and Latin America began when he was a teenager in California. In high school and college he became involved in protesting the United States’ policy toward Central America.

“It was fascinating and it was a great concern,” Greene said. “I grew up in California where there was a lot of information about what was going on in these places. It really bothered me and I wanted to do something about it so I became politically active.”

In college he studied in Mexico and specifically a neighborhood reform group.

“Some of my closest contacts in Mexico are from that group,” he said. “They’ve become high-ranking members of the PRD in time, including the current president of the chamber of deputies.”

Over the years, Greene has worked in various political landscapes in Mexico, including in Chiapas researching the Zapatista movement.

“I couldn’t have done this research without having a prior understanding of Mexican politics from the bottom-up. It was incredibly valuable,” he said.