The Struggle for Subnational Democracy

Issue Date April 2016
Volume 27
Issue 2
Page Numbers 155-169
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In recent decades, many countries have transitioned toward democracy, yet democracy’s spread within nation-states remains uneven. While democratic at the national level, at subnational levels the degree to which citizens’ rights are respected can vary markedly. This can be so not only in federal polities with legally autonomous subnational units, but also in countries that are unitary on paper but in which variances in the extension of democratic rights persist anyway.

Building on Guillermo O’Donnell’s discussion of “brown areas,” recent scholarship has described the problem of “subnational authoritarianism.” Yet that label is too narrow, for even when fully authoritarian subnational regimes are absent, what we call “illiberal structures and practices” can hang on at the subnational level widely and stubbornly enough to challenge national-level democracy. By studying the unevenness of democracy in Latin America (the region with which we are most familiar), the Philippines, Russia, and such longstanding and well-institutionalized democracies as India and the United States, we hope to provide comparative insights that can shed light on the paths that countries can take in order to make democracy’s writ run throughout the full extent of the national territory.