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Decentralization: An Institutional Strategy of Appeasement
Unformatted Document Text:  2 Why do existing governments choose to give away some of their powers to subnational authorities? Given that the maximization of power is assumed to be a central goal of political actors, it may seem puzzling that parties controlling the vast political and fiscal competencies of a central government would be willing to transfer them to other levels of government. And yet, over the past forty years, waves of political and fiscal decentralization have swept across countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Since 1970 in Western Europe alone, subnational assemblies with directly elected officeholders have been created in sixty-seven regions across five countries. 1 Explanations for why national governments voluntarily weaken their own power can be grouped into two major categories. Scholars have argued that governments decentralize either because it benefits the country, economically (Alesina et al. 1999) or politically (Stepan 1999; 2001), or because it benefits the governing party, specifically by increasing the party’s power at the subnational level (Garman et al. 2001; O’Neill 2003; 2005). While these theories are innovative and have proven useful for elucidating specific cases, a casual review of decentralizing reforms around the world indicates that these theories cannot fully account for the pattern - variety and timing - of decentralization. Whereas the first set of theories suggests that the advantages of decentralization should be recognized and supported by all governments and political actors in countries with heterogeneous preferences or ethnically- divided multinational societies, support for decentralization schemes has varied across political parties and governments within these countries, as cases from Spain and Belgium to Canada demonstrate. We cannot conclude that decentralization is motivated primarily by a party’s subnational interests either. Political parties have transferred significant political and even fiscal 1 These countries are Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Data from World Bank (2000: 116) and US State Department, Background Notes, various countries. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn (accessed December 29, 2007).

Authors: Meguid, Bonnie.
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2
Why do existing governments choose to give away some of their powers to subnational
authorities? Given that the maximization of power is assumed to be a central goal of political
actors, it may seem puzzling that parties controlling the vast political and fiscal competencies of
a central government would be willing to transfer them to other levels of government. And yet,
over the past forty years, waves of political and fiscal decentralization have swept across
countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Since 1970 in Western Europe alone,
subnational assemblies with directly elected officeholders have been created in sixty-seven
regions across five countries.
1
Explanations for why national governments voluntarily weaken their own power can be
grouped into two major categories. Scholars have argued that governments decentralize either
because it benefits the country, economically (Alesina et al. 1999) or politically (Stepan 1999;
2001), or because it benefits the governing party, specifically by increasing the party’s power at
the subnational level (Garman et al. 2001; O’Neill 2003; 2005).
While these theories are innovative and have proven useful for elucidating specific cases,
a casual review of decentralizing reforms around the world indicates that these theories cannot
fully account for the pattern - variety and timing - of decentralization. Whereas the first set of
theories suggests that the advantages of decentralization should be recognized and supported by
all governments and political actors in countries with heterogeneous preferences or ethnically-
divided multinational societies, support for decentralization schemes has varied across political
parties and governments within these countries, as cases from Spain and Belgium to Canada
demonstrate. We cannot conclude that decentralization is motivated primarily by a party’s
subnational interests either. Political parties have transferred significant political and even fiscal
1
These countries are Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Data from World Bank (2000: 116)
and US State Department, Background Notes, various countries. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn (accessed
December 29, 2007).


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