Competing without parties: Voter mobilization in Bolivia and Peru

My research is focused on the dynamics of electoral competition in democracies with weak political parties, with a regional focus on Latin America. I argue that social organizations and political parties face a coordination problem: the establishment of an alliance would benefit them both, by providing voters to the party and resources to the organization; however, parties are tempted to renege from the alliance once in office as incentives while governing are different than electoral incentives. If parties cannot credibly commit to abide by their agreement with social organizations once they reach office, social organizations are hesitant to enter into alliances with any particular political party.

Strong party systems are marked by an enduring solution to this coordination problem either through long-term alliances between organizations and parties such as the Partido Socialista de Chile (PS) in Chile with labour unions, or by social organizations building their own political parties such as Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia. However, in Peru, where parties are weak, short-sighted and have shifting political goals from election to election, social organizations are unsure about the alignment of their own ideological and programmatic goals with those of political parties, but lack the strength to form their own political parties.

In this context, individual candidates serve as brokers between social and political organizations. Individuals who are motivated to achieve political office compete for the endorsement of parties, using different strategies that signal their capacity to mobilize voters and establish alliances with social organizations. In turn, a party’s choice of candidate signals to the social organization their level of commitment. Candidates’ strategies to mobilize voters, then, become crucial to solving the coordination problem because they provide information to both parties and social organizations.

I focus on the use of misinformation campaigns and participation in protest as politicians’ strategies to compete for party and organization endorsement. Misinformation is a low-cost strategy that politicians can use to gather support from fringe voters, while also signalling their ideological and programmatic agenda to social organizations and parties. The problem with the misinformation strategy, however, is that it is also a low-gains strategy. Using mixed-methods that include a survey experiment, discourse analysis and data on voting patterns, I show that while misinformation campaigns go unpunished, they do not significantly affect vote intention.

In contrast, participation in protest events is a high-cost strategy, with some candidates being arrested and banned from competing in elections. However, it is also a clear signal about the candidate’s agenda to both social organizations and parties. I provide evidence to my argument through a matching design with original data about protest leaders in the province of Ancash, Peru from 2009-2019, as well as through in-depth interviews with actors engaged in protests and candidate selection processes.