11 May 2010

Article: The Mechanics of Regime Instability in Latin America

Adam Przeworski, "The Mechanics of Regime Instability in Latin America" ("Journal of Politics in Latin America", 1 [1], 2009: pp. 5-36).

The full text of the article can be read free of charge here:


Abstract: "The paper is narrowly addressed to a single puzzle: How did it happen that countries that attempted to install democracy earlier enjoyed it less frequently? Regime dynamics are driven by two mechanisms: (1) Democracies become more durable as per capita income increases, and (2) Past experiences with democracy destabilize both democracies and autocracies. As a result, countries that experiment with democracy at lower income levels experience more regime instability. Moreover, until they reach some income threshold, at any time such countries are less likely to be democratic than countries that first enter democracy when they have higher incomes. Hence, paradoxically, the resistance of European monarchies against democracy resulted in democracies that were more stable than those following post-independence attempts in Latin America."

Excerpts: "Now, the claim that Latin American countries tried democracy earlier and, most importantly, at lower levels of economic development than Europe and North America is not original, even if it often evokes surprise among ethnocentric North American and Europeans. [...] To some extent, this timing is due to the fact that several parts of Latin America participated in the 1809 election to the Cortes of Cádiz, thus launching the idea of representative institutions at the time when many European countries were involved in the Napoleonic wars and elections were still rare. But a more general reason was that Latin American wars of independence were at the same time directed against monarchical rule, while most European countries experienced a gradual devolution of power from monarchs to parliaments. [...]

"Latin Americans had to constitute their institutions anew. And they were traversing a terra incognita. Monarchies, republics with predominantly hereditary collective governing bodies, and one republic with an elected legislature and an indirectly elected president were the choices known when first Haiti in 1804 and then Venezuela in 1811 proclaimed independence. In several new countries the first form of the government was a collective body that exercised both the legislative and the executive function. Triumvirates governed Argentina from 1811 to 1814 and Venezuela in 1811-12. [...] In the end institutions based on the United States pattern prevailed – in time all Latin American political systems would have elected legislatures while placing executive function in the hands of presidents – but this alternative became complicated from the onset by Bolívar's itch to keep the position for life. [...]

"The most creative was Dr. José Gaspár Rodriguez de Francia who, having become one of two consuls who were to alternate every four months in 1813, then a dictator appointed for three years, in 1816 proclaimed himself El Dictador Perpetuo of Paraguay and ruled it until 1840 as El Supremo. While this story may sound anecdotal, Francia's innovation was both radical and durable, deserving to be placed on par with Lenin's invention of the one-party state. It was radical since the only model of dictatorship known at the time was the Roman one, and in this model dictatorship was a power that was delegated, exceptional, and limited in duration. 'Perpetual Dictator' was an oxymoron. Moreover, the last attempt to make dictatorship permanent, almost twenty centuries earlier, did not bode well for Dr. Francia's fate. Yet this invention turned out to be durable: Francia set the precedent for such illustrious gentlemen as Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Kim Il-sung, al-Gaddafi, or Castro. [...]

"Now, how is it possible that Latin American countries attempted to institute democracies at lower income levels but ended up with fewer of them at all levels? [...] [A]t a low income [...] level, the probability of democracy falling is quite high. Suppose this democracy falls. The probability that the subsequent autocracy survives is then lower, so that the probability that this country will try democracy again is higher, but the probability that the second democracy survives is also lower. This sequence can be repeated several times, so that if per capita income were constant, both regimes would become increasingly unstable. But income matters: if the economy grows in the meantime, the probability that a democracy dies declines in spite of the past regime instability. And at one time, income passes a threshold above which democracy is impregnable [...].

"Note that the reasons autocratic spells become shorter and democratic spells longer at higher incomes are different. Autocratic spells are shorter almost exclusively because countries that have higher incomes have accumulated more visits to democracy, and such visits destabilize the subsequent autocracies. Democratic spells are longer, however, only because democracy lasts longer at higher income levels. Although past visits to democracy do destabilize subsequent democratic regimes, this effect is small, while the effect of income is powerful."

Polish-born Adam Przeworski is Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Politics and (by courtesy) of Economics at New York University.

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