Endogenous State Weakness in Violent Democracies
Can paramilitary groups use armed electioneering to weaken the state from within?
As low-capacity democracies and strong autocracies proliferate, some scholars have argued that “precocious electoralism” can lock in or exacerbate state weakness, particularly in contexts of criminal and civil conflict. To explore this mechanism, Lessing and Hidalgo studied Rio de Janeiro’s police-linked milícias, paramilitary groups whose domination of hundreds of slums bore political fruit in 2006 when paramilitary leaders and allies were elected state legislators. Using difference-in-differences analysis of polling-station returns, they demonstrate that territorial domination by paramilitary forces positively impacted vote shares of the candidates they supported. Over time, they argue, this penetration of the state via elections further weakened the state from within to the point that the state was unable to eliminate these paramilitaries later. Qualitative and quantitative evidence showed that winning allied legislators consistently weakened the state’s ability to repress paramilitaries and possibly contributed to their resilience in the years that followed. Electioneering by armed groups thus presents a threat to democratic state consolidation. This study yields provocative insight into the double-edged relationships between states and paramilitary groups. These groups persist not just because states or local residents “demand” them, but because states may lack or lose the capacity to eliminate them. Paramilitary groups have “agency,” and they can use the political power they gain from electing allies to erode the state from within and thereby improve their own chance of survival.