The Institutionalization of Elections in Central America
Mitchell A. Seligson
"The process of establishing a democracy is a process of institutionalizing uncertainty...." -- Adam Przeworski, "Some Problems in the Study of the Transition to Democracy"
F or at least the past five centuries, Central Americans have lived in a highly uncertain world. The basic necessities of life, food, clothing, and shelter, so long taken for granted by the great majority of their North American neighbors, have never been assured to Central Americans. While journalistic accounts stress the poverty of the region as it stands today, and blame it for some, if not all, of the current civil strife, impoverishment has been an almost constant feature of life in Central America throughout its recorded history.
Indeed, although most agree that the Spanish conquest and colonization exploited the region unmercifully and, more important, produced a series of pandemics that decimated the native population, poverty and starvation were prominent in the isthmus long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Hence, although the debates among archaeologists have yet to be definitively resolved, the disappearance of the Mayan civilization in Guatemalaprior to the arrival of the Spanish colonizers is generally linked to the failure of the fragile ecology of the land to support its growing population. In short, the uncertainty of survival is not a novel condition in Central America.
But if survival has been characterized by extreme uncertainty in Central America, politics has been highly predictable, indeed, almost totally certain in one regard. For centuries, there was never much doubt as to who would rule these mini-states: soldiers, strongmen, and foreign armies. Rarely did popular sentiment play an important role. While it is true that since Independence in