Raúl Madrid is professor of Government at University of Texas at Austin. He spent the fall of 2019 as a visiting fellow with the Kellogg Institute working on his project The Partisan Origins of Democracy in Latin America.
The democratic protests and struggles that have enveloped much of Latin America in the last couple of years are a reminder of the significant challenges that democracies still face in the region. Although a few countries in the region have developed strong and vibrant democracies, most democracies in the region remain weak and relatively fragile. Interestingly, the Latin American countries that have the strongest democracies today were typically the first countries in the region to take significant steps toward democracy, establishing relatively free and fair elections at the outset of the 20th century. By contrast, the countries that have experienced recent democratic breakdowns typically did not establish democracy until the second half of the 20th century. Thus, it appears that the creation of strong and stable democratic institutions is a long-term and path dependent process. It is therefore important to understand what led democracy to emerge in some Latin American countries, but not others, at the beginning of the 20th century.
I spent the fall 2019 semester as a Visiting Fellow at the Kellogg Institute working on a book on the origins of democracy in the region. The book seeks to explain what led to the emergence of relatively free and fair elections in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay before 1930, when most of South America remained mired in authoritarian rule. I use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data and methods to explore this question, drawing on both archival and secondary research.
The book argues that the crucial democratic reforms stemmed not from pressure from below, but rather from the maneuvers of elite opposition parties which sought to enact the reforms in order to level the electoral playing field. Opposition parties, however, only focused on the electoral path to power and pushed aggressively for democratic reforms once the state expanded its coercive capacity by professionalizing the military. Moreover, opposition parties only successfully enacted democratic reforms where the ruling party split and a sector of the ruling party allied with the opposition. For a preview of some of these arguments, see my recent articles in Comparative Politics (January 2019) and Comparative Political Studies (March 2019).