How and why do armed actors intervene in democratic politics? In a CDDRL seminar series talk, postdoctoral fellow Andres Uribe presented a multifaceted theory explaining the strategies violent groups adopt to influence democratic processes. The talk drew on Uribe’s research on Colombia and Peru.
Uribe shows that armed groups face a choice between co-opting or undermining democracy. More specifically, groups pursuing co-optation try to influence the existing political process through either “corruption” or “capture.” Corruption entails the use of positive inducement to shape the behavior of elected officials or voters, whereas capture entails the use of the threat of force to achieve similar goals.
Those groups seeking to attack democracy do so through two different strategies. The first is “delegitimization,” which could involve attacks on elections and voting sites. The second is “displacement” or the violent removal of the democratic system and its replacement with an entirely different political order.
What determines a given armed group’s choice of strategies (i.e., corruption, capture, delegitimization, or displacement)? The answer, according to Uribe, is determined by the group’s ideological compatibility with democracy and its coercive capacity. Among groups professing ideologies compatible with democracy, they are likely to engage in corruption under low levels of coercive capacity, and capture under higher levels. As for groups whose aims are incompatible with the democratic process, they tend to pursue delegitimization when their coercive capacity is low, and displacement at higher levels of coercive capacity.
Uribe tested his theory based on a paired comparison of Peru’s Sendero Luminioso (SL) and Colombia’s FARC. To characterize each group’s relative ideological compatibility with democratic politics, he drew on a corpus of 7500 documents spanning 21 Latin American countries. He found FARC to be more compatible with democracy than the average armed actor, while SL was less compatible.
To measure coercive capacity, Uribe used data on coca production and cocaine retail pricing in the US as reflective of SL’s and FARC’s military finances. Using casualties in attacks against democracy as an indicator, he found that when FARC possessed a high coercive capacity, there was a slight increase in the number of victims, whereas a similar increase in Sendero’s capacity yielded a 15-fold increase in the number of deaths.
Uribe’s analysis shows that during electoral contests, FARC attempted to reduce the conservative vote share, whereas SL attempted to reduce overall turnout. These outcomes are consistent with Uribe’s theory — FARC’s compatibility with democracy pushes them to work within the system, focusing their attacks on the other party. Sendero, conversely, attempts to prevent all participation in the democratic process.
Uribe’s findings suggest the importance of ideology in understanding how armed actors behave and emphasizes that they do not all share the same motivations. His work also highlights the way some groups play the democratic game using violence, a choice previously seen as mutually exclusive.