Political Systems and Civil War

Over the last half century, the world has learned a great deal about how costly civil wars can be — they devastate economies, take millions of lives, and cause mass displacement. A scholar at NYU Abu Dhabi is studying the politics of civil war and the way in which political institutions mediate social conflict more generally. His findings could hold lessons for many countries around the world struggling with violence and social unrest.

Mario Chacón, an assistant professor of Political Science, is examining several issues, starting with the way democratic reforms can prevent — or, surprisingly, trigger — armed conflict. He is also studying the specific features of democratic politics that are conducive to peace and the political legacies of war. His work also extends beyond civil wars, into the nature and dynamics of democratic institutions.

Chacón's native Colombia, a country of 48 million people, is a case study for some of his research. For half a century its government has been challenged by left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and more recently, drug cartels. During the 1990s, the Colombian state launched a series of political and economic reforms, intended to reduce popular grievances and improve social conditions. One key change was fiscal decentralization: vast resources were transferred from the central government in Bogotá to regional administrations. The sum of these fiscal transfers rose during the 1990s — from 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 6 percent of GDP — so that by the end of the decade the central government was sending more than half its revenue to regional governments.
Educational outcomes, in particular, did improve. But the decentralization of resources and power coincided with a sharp increase in the activity of armed groups in the countryside. Chacón finds a robust relationship between the influx of money and the level of political murders and kidnappings, as armed groups encroached on the suddenly well-funded, subnational governments. Local media, too, were subverted and cowed.

Fueled by drug money, insurgent groups in Colombia hardly needed popular support. In fact, Chacón scoffed at a view still widely held outside Latin America: "The image of Latin American peasant fighters, inspired in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, with poor people supporting left-wing insurgencies — it may have been true then, but for Colombia and other developing countries more recently today — is not realistic."

There is some new empirical evidence suggesting that in some contexts US aid is causally related to conflict.

Mario Chacón, NYUAD assistant professor of Political Science

His research on local politics in times of armed conflict complements other fields in political science, including the subject of "political capture" — a case in which a special-interest group obtains political power for its own narrow purpose.

"In the United States and other advanced democracies, when we think of 'political capture,' we think of lobbying and other peaceful forms of political influence," Chacón said. "But what happened in Colombia is a very different form of capture." The reforms were intended to improve public confidence in the government, he noted — to win hearts and minds, to borrow a phrase — but as the regional governments came to be dominated by armed groups, the effect was the opposite.

Chacón draws a lesson from all this: "Social-welfare programs and local democracy are valuable, but if you're going to empower subnational governments, make sure this process is accompanied by a defense component…it doesn't make sense to give money and resources to areas you don't control." Moreover, the failure of decentralization to improve the security of some regions should be seen as "a red flag for US aid recipients facing insurgencies like Afghanistan and Iraq," Chacón believes. "In fact, there is some new empirical evidence suggesting that in some contexts US aid is causally related to conflict."

In Colombia, meanwhile, the legacy of conflict endures. Chacón is also studying, with Ana Arjona of Northwestern University, the quality of Colombia's subnational governments today. Where political violence was greatest 15 to 20 years ago, they find that corruption is highest today. Their hypothesis is that the pool of capable candidates for local office was depleted during the bloody years, as honest, capable people were killed or simply quit politics.

He also notes that today, among Colombia's neighbors, elections and other instruments of democracy serve to legitimize "increasingly authoritarian and personalistic" governments, not only in Venezuela but also in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. Charismatic populist leaders nurture cults of personality, presenting themselves as saviors, but often seek short-term electoral gains at the expense of medium- and long-term national well-being.

Chacón also sees, however, a trend toward more genuine democracy in some countries, notably Brazil and Chile. There, local elections are becoming more competitive and democratic norms seem to be consolidating. This, as Chacón argued in his Yale dissertation, can be a precursor of more robust democracy nationally. Mexico's elite, he said, "must have known they couldn't keep one-party rule forever." Even in Cuba, he went on, "I think the political elite there know that in the near future they will have to tolerate a minimum of electoral competition; they've started some minor reforms already." It appears, he said, that seemingly minor institutions such as genuine, contested local elections can propel a state toward a full transition to democracy.

This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).