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The Political Violence Cycle

  • S. P. HARISH (a1) and ANDREW T. LITTLE (a2)

Elections are often violent affairs, casting doubt on the canonical claim that democracy makes societies more peaceful by creating nonviolent means to contest for power. We develop a formal argument to demonstrate that this conclusion is incorrect. Holding elections has a direct effect of increasing levels of violence close to the voting, as this is when electoral violence can influence political outcomes. Precisely for this reason, elections also have an indirect effect of decreasing levels of violence at all other times, as parties can wait for the election when their efforts are more likely to succeed. The direct and indirect effects generate a “political violence cycle” that peaks at the election. However, when the indirect effect is larger, politics would be more violent without elections. When elections also provide an effective nonviolent means to contest for power, they unambiguously make society more peaceful while still generating a political violence cycle.

Corresponding author
S. P. Harish is Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Politics, New York University (
Andrew T. Little is Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University (
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Previous versions of article were presented at the European Political Science Association 2014 Annual Meeting, the International Studies Association 2015 Annual Meeting, the Midwest Political Science Association 2015 Annual Meeting, and the Berkeley Center for Political Economy. Many thanks to audience members at these seminars, Deniz Aksoy, Tiberiu Dragu, Patrick Kuhn, Tom Pepinsky, Mike Miller, Arturas Rozenas, Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca, Inken von Borzyskowski, four anonymous referees, and the editors of the APSR for helpful comments and discussion. All remaining errors are ours.

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American Political Science Review
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