Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Executive Constraints and Repression in Democratic Contexts: The Case of Land Protests in Brazil

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Executive Constraints and Repression in Democratic Contexts: The Case of Land Protests in Brazil

Article excerpt


Taking part in a political protest is a far less risky activity in a democratic context than in an autocratic one. Numerous studies have found that democracies are less likely to repress their citizens than nondemocratic or semidemocratic states (Carey 2006; Davenport 1999; Gupta, Singh, and Sprague 1993; Henderson 1991; Poe and Tate 1994; Poe, Tate, and Keith 1999; Zanger 2000). Despite their lower proclivity for repression overall, democracies are still far from a homogeneous group in terms of how often they use arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and physical-even deadly-force against political protesters. However, explaining why democratic governments differ in their respect for the civil liberties of protesters, despite ostensibly being subject to the same electoral constraints, remains an underexplored area of repression research.

The main innovations of this paper are (1) to focus on subnational variation in repression of protest by state governments under a federal system and (2) to go beyond the focus on regime type and address the issue of why some democratic governments are more willing to use unnecessary force against protesters, despite the fact that all democratic governments, by definition, are subject to the constraint of free and fair elections (which is the most likely explanation for democracies' lower levels of repression in the first place). To do this, the paper considers the effects of horizontal and vertical constraints on executive power that occur under democratic systems and vary over time, such as electoral support and partisan support.

The empirical analysis draws on subnational data from Brazil. This provides an ideal context in which to examine the role that cyclical constraints on executive power play in determining the ability of elected executives to respond to protest with repression for a number of reasons. First, Brazil has often been described as a clear case of "strong federalism," on account of the fact that its governors possess substantially more power than their counterparts in other federal systems (Cheibub, Figueiredo, and Limongi 2009; Samuels and Abrucio 2000). This means that many of the assumptions about the behavior of national executives should also apply to the subnational level in Brazil, allowing us to draw some wider inferences from this study.

Second, the constitutions of the states do not vary significantly. Consequently, the formal powers of governors are largely fixed across cases, allowing the analysis to focus solely on the dimensions of horizontal and vertical accountability that vary sufficiently over time (such as the degree of legislative support that the governor enjoys or how comfortable his or her margin of victory was at the previous election).

Third, the issue of agrarian reform in Brazil has prompted similar forms of protest across all regions in Brazil. Previous research has found that differences in the tactics of protesters, in terms of the level of violence used, can affect the likelihood of the government responding with repression (Carey 2010; Franklin 2009). Hence, focusing on a single type of protest (concerning a single issue) that tends to be predominantly nonviolent will reduce the likelihood that the behavior of protesters will itself incite repression (rather than a desire by government to prevent a policy concession).

Finally-and most important-the case of land reform protests in Brazil provides an opportunity to use a superior measure of both protest and repression than is normally the case. Previous studies have relied on data derived from newspapers to obtain quantitative measures of both protest and repression (de la Luz Inclán 2009; Francisco 1995, 1996; Gupta, Singh, and Sprague 1993; Moore 2000). However, there is an inherent selection bias that exists in this type of events-based data on protest and/or repression. As Earl et al. (2004) note, the decision by a news agency to report an event at all differs systematically according to factors that affect the intrinsic newsworthiness of the event, such as the type of protest event or the issue involved. …

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