Chile’s presidential election is still 14 months away. But it is striking that the early front-runners in the opinion polls are the mayors of three districts of Santiago, the capital: Joaquín Lavín, a mildly populist conservative; Evelyn Matthei, a more orthodox one; and Daniel Jadue, a communist. Their prominence is a sign that in Chile, where disillusion with the political class was behind a huge wave of protests a year ago, mayors are less discredited than parliamentarians or ministers.
With the exception of Brazil, long a genuinely federal country, Latin American government has been highly centralised. According to a database prepared by the oecd, an intergovernmental research group, spending by subnational governments in Latin America is equal to only 6% of gdp, compared with almost 10% in the Asia-Pacific region and 12% in Europe and North America. Mayors and governors are responsible for 18% of total government spending in Latin America, compared with more than 35% in the Asia-Pacific. Local governments in Latin America raise little of their own revenue, which means mayors are not fully accountable for the money they spend.
This centralisation is rooted in history, in Spanish colonialism and in the struggle of fledgling republics to impose the authority of the state. But it is a poor fit for the present. Latin America is now highly urbanised. Its megacities are violent, unequal and have lousy infrastructure. The pandemic has highlighted many of these problems. In many places, local as well as national governments were overwhelmed. But not everywhere.
In Chile, mayors pushed for the schools to close, for lockdowns of their districts and for the government to consult them. In Colombia the mayor of Medellín, Daniel Quintero, used data and an app to distribute aid during lockdown and trace the contacts of infected people. Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the mayor of Buenos Aires, has steered a course between collaborating with Argentina’s Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, a political foe, and cautiously reopening the city. Mayors in Huancavelica, a department in Peru’s high Andes, have worked with health officials and schools to set up community-based contact tracing. In Brazil’s municipal elections, due in November, many big-city mayors are likely to be re-elected because of their visibility during the pandemic, according to several political consultants.
The rise of mayors is a global trend. In Latin America, as elsewhere, it owes much to their closeness to the populace. “People empathise with mayors,” says Carolina Tohá, a political scientist who was a centre-left mayor of central Santiago from 2012 to 2016. “They see them demanding things [from central government] every day, and trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.” She thinks that many of the flaws exposed by the pandemic—such as inequality in access to services, reliance on overcrowded public transport and lack of good housing—can be alleviated by decentralisation. Carlos Moreno, a Colombian urbanist at the Sorbonne, a university in Paris, has promoted the idea of the “15-minute city”, in which everyone is within a quarter of an hour’s walk of services and leisure facilities. Even if only partly applied, this could transform Latin American cities. And Latin Americans, like people elsewhere, want more influence over the natural environment in their area.
Greater decentralisation is no panacea. It can increase regional inequality unless accompanied by redistribution of revenue. As the poor relation, the municipality tends to lack good managers and is often corrupt. In Peru more than 2,000 mayors have been charged with graft since 2002. While Chile is generally cleaner than its neighbours, municipalities there are more corrupt than other levels of government. Yet these problems are themselves consequences of centralism. Watchdogs are remote, and local governments are unable to offer good career prospects for the ambitious.
At a time when many Latin Americans are fed up with their democracies, more decentralisation could be a way to refresh them. Chile is the country to watch. This month it is set to vote to draw up a new constitution. This is likely to devolve more power and money to mayors. Both Mr Lavín and the left pay lip-service to that. Across the political spectrum the centralist instinct is strong. But “there is a citizen demand for more decentralisation”, says Ms Tohá. The trick will be to achieve it while making Latin America more, rather than even less, governable.