Contentious Challenges and Government Responses in Latin America

By Franklin, James C. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Contentious Challenges and Government Responses in Latin America


Franklin, James C., Political Research Quarterly


This article examines how seven Latin American governments responded to 827 contentious political challenges. The research goes beyond most previous research by considering four governmental responses: concession, repression, toleration, and the combination of concession and repression. The results show that challengers can increase their chances of winning concessions by making limited demands and utilizing nonviolent occupations and hunger strikes. Violent challenges are ineffective and tend to result in repression. Governments also tend to offer concessions under democratic regimes or when they have recently been criticized for human rights abuses while also receiving substantial foreign aid and investment.

Keywords: protest; political repression; political violence; contentious challenges; concessions

Following a fraudulent mayoral election engineered by Mexico's dominant party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), in the northern town of Monclova, over 100 members of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) occupied the town's city hall in December 1984 and refused to leave. In February 1985, officials from the PRI relented, agreeing to form a bipartisan city council with the PAN and select a mayor who would be agreeable to both parties. A few months later in Chile, parties opposed to Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian regime banded together to issue the National Accord for the Transition to Full Democracy and backed up their demands with a massive nationwide protest involving thousands. Pinochet curtly rejected the accord, and police responded to the protests repressively, resulting in around 800 arrests and the deaths of six protesters.

Governments confronted by contentious challenges face the choice of responding with repression, concessions, or the absence of either, which is labeled toleration. In addition, a fourth option, a combination of repression and concessions, must be considered as well. This article analyzes the factors that lead governments to choose among these four types of responses to contentious political challenges. There have been many prior theoretical and empirical works examining governmental responses to contentious challenges, but, as detailed below, none of them consider the full range of responses considered here. Thus, one innovation of this research is the consideration of all four responses and the development of a theoretical framework to explain why governmental leaders choose a particular response. A second innovation of this study is a detailed analysis of the effectiveness of different contentious tactics on these various government outcomes. Most previous studies fail to fully consider the importance of tactics by aggregating together large numbers of challenges with varying forms or by only considering the violent versus nonviolent distinction. These innovations are made possible by utilizing an original data set of 832 contentious challenges in seven Latin American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Thus, the tactics of each particular challenge (along with its context) can be compared to the specific government response to that challenge. Examining a large number of challenges in seven countries allows the comparison of a great variety of challenges and contexts, and Latin America offers a varied environment that has been neglected in previous individual-level studies of contentious challenges. The results show that there is a complex array of factors that affect government responses, but a clear finding is that challengers' demands and the forms of contention they use have a major impact on government responses.

Explaining Governmental Responses to Contentious Challenges

Challenger Strategy

The starting point for this research is a group that organizes a contentious challenge in support of a political goal. Contentious political challenges are defined as collective, unconventional acts taken by inhabitants of a country directed against or expressing opposition to their government, its policies or personnel, or the political regime itself. …

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