When is Democracy an Equilibrium? Theory and Evidence from Colombia’s La Violencia

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Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (3), 2011, pages 366-396


The conventional wisdom is that for a democracy to be consolidated, all groups must have a chance to attain power. If they do not, then they will subvert democracy and choose to fight for power. In this article, the authors show that this wisdom is seriously incomplete because it considers absolute, not relative payoffs. Although the probability of winning an election increases with the size of a group, so does the probability of winning an armed conflict. Thus, in a situation in which all groups have a high chance of winning an election, they may also have a high chance of winning a fight. Indeed, in a natural model, the authors show that democracy may never be consolidated in such a situation. Rather, democracy may only be stable when one group is dominant. The authors explore this key aspect of the theory using data from La Violencia, a political conflict in Colombia during the years 1946—1950 between the Liberal and Conservative parties. Consistent with their results, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the authors show that fighting between the parties was more intense in municipalities where the support of the parties was more evenly balanced.


By Mario Chacón, James A. Robinson and Ragnar Torvik
Published June 21, 2011 10:22 AM - Last modified June 21, 2011 10:25 AM