Elections Gone Wrong: Political Polarization and Post-Election Conflicts in Presidential Elections in Latin America
Bravo-Escobar, Enrique Bravo
Howard, Marc M
Despite international observers’ endorsement and relatively functional electoral institutions, sometimes losers still reject election results. Under what circumstances does this occur? And when post-election conflicts arise, why are some more intense than others? Analyzing the presidential elections in Mexico 2012, Honduras 2013, and El Salvador 2009, I argue that political polarization is an important factor, often overlooked in electoral integrity literature, that helps explain the likelihood of post-election conflicts, and their intensity.Building on theoretical developments on polarization in other fields of inquiry, this research investigates how pre-election political polarization helps explain post-election conflicts. I analyze three factors (group distribution and relative size, intra-group cohesion, and inter-group alienation) that characterize the level of political polarization prior to an election. I also examine how polarization interacts with two phenomena, leadership and political learning processes, to produce a nonlinear relationship between polarization and the likelihood of post-election conflicts.I test this causal relationship through a focused, structured comparison of my three cases. I rely on public opinion data, archival research, and my own in-depth interviews with political leaders to investigate the overall level of polarization among both voters and political elites. My results suggest that more than high levels of polarization, medium levels can actually increase the likelihood of a post-election conflict, when combined with strong and ambitious leadership on the losing side. This setting, dominant in the Mexico and Honduras cases, creates enough incentives to protest results, and yet to tame the conflict’s intensity to avoid major costs, given their political learning processes. By contrast, in highly polarized settings, savvy political leaders can anticipate, often due to political learning processes from prior events, that the rejection of results can be too costly. The risk of losing too much therefore reduces the likelihood of conflicts in the first place. The presidential elections in El Salvador in 2009 and 2014 proved to be critical cases of this situation.
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