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The growing importance of Latin America’s mayors

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...

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