Skip to main content Accessibility help

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 (
Hide All

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.

Hide All
Acemoglu, Daron, and Robinson, James A.. 2000. “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise? Democracy, Inequality, and Growth in Historical Perspective.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (4): 1167–99.
Aksoy, Deniz. 2014. “Elections and the Timing of Terrorist Attacks.” The Journal of Politics 76 (4): 899913.
Aksoy, Deniz. 2015. “Terrorist Attacks are Linked to the Timing of Elections, but Only in States Where it is Difficult to Influence the Political Process.” Accessed 24 Sep 2015.
Arriola, Leonardo R. 2014. “Suppressing Protests During Electoral Crises: The Geographic Logic of Mass Arrests in Ethiopia.” Manuscript.
Bates, Robert H. 2008. When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-century Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bates, Robert, Greif, Avner, and Singh, Smita. 2002. “Organizing Violence.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 46 (5): 599628.
Bekoe, Dorina, ed. 2012. Voting in Fear: Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. United States Institute of Peace.
Boston, CBS. 2013. “Boston Bombing Suspects Originally Planned 4th Of July Attack.” Accessed 28 Sep 2015.
Brancati, Dawn, and Snyder, Jack L.. 2012. “Time to Kill: The Impact of Election Timing on Postconflict Stability.” Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Brass, Paul R. 2003. The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. University of Washington Press.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Hug, Simon, and Krebs, Lutz F.. 2010. “Democratization and Civil War: Empirical Evidence.” Journal of Peace Research 47 (4): 377–94.
Chaturvedi, Ashish. 2005. “Rigging Elections with Violence.” Public Choice 125 (1/2): 189202.
Cheibub, José A., and Hays, Jude C.. 2017. “Elections and Civil War in Africa.” Political Science Research and Methods 5 (1): 81102.
Chenoweth, Erica. 2010. “Democratic Competition and Terrorist Activity.” Journal of Politics 72 (1): 1630.
Chua, Amy. 2004. World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. Anchor.
Collier, Paul. 2009. Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. Harper Perennial.
Collier, Paul, and Hoeffler, Anke. 2004. “Greed and Grievance in Civil War.” Oxford Economic Papers 56 (4): 563–95.
Collier, Paul, and Vicente, Pedro C.. 2012. “Violence, Bribery, and Fraud: The Political Economy of Elections in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Public Choice 153 (1): 117–47.
Cox, Gary W. 2009. “Authoritarian Elections and Leadership Succession, 1975–2004.” Manuscript.
Davenport, Christian. 1997. “From Ballots to Bullets: An Empirical Assessment of how National Elections Influence State Uses of Political Repression.” Electoral Studies 16 (4): 517–40.
Davenport, Christian, and Armstrong II, David A.. 2004. “Democracy and the Violation of Human Rights: A Statistical Analysis from 1976 to 1996.” American Journal of Political Science 48 (3): 538–54.
Daxecker, Ursula E. 2012. “The Cost of Exposing Cheating International Election Monitoring, Fraud, and Post-election Violence in Africa.” Journal of Peace Research 49 (4): 503–16.
Dunning, Thad. 2011. “Fighting and Voting: Violent Conflict and Electoral Politics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (3): 327–39.
Durant, Clark, and Weintraub, Michael. 2014. “How to Make Democracy Self-enforcing after Civil War: Enabling Credible yet Adaptable Elite Pacts.” Conflict Management and Peace Science 31 (5): 521–40.
Ellman, Matthew, and Wantchekon, Leonard. 2000. “Electoral Competition under the Threat of Political Unrest.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (2): 499531.
Fearon, James D. 2011. “Self-Enforcing Democracy.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 126 (4).
Fearon, James D., and Laitin, David D.. 2003. “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War.” The American Political Science Review 97 (1): 7590.
Flores, Thomas Edward, and Nooruddin, Irfan. 2012. “The Effect of Elections on Postconflict Peace and Reconstruction.” The Journal of Politics 74 (2): 558–70.
Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, and Ruggeri, Andrea. 2010. “Political Opportunity Structures, Democracy, and Civil War.” Journal of Peace Research 47 (3): 299310.
Goldsmith, Arthur A. 2015. “Electoral Violence in Africa Revisited.” Terrorism and Political Violence 27 (5): 818–37.
Guardado, Jenny, and Pennings, Steven. 2015. “The Seasonality of Conflict.” Working paper.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., Hyde, Susan D., and Ryan, Jablonski, S.. 2014. “When Governments use Election Violence to Stay in Power.” British Journal of Political Science 44 (1): 149–79.
Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., Hyde, Susan D., and Jablonski, Ryan S.. 2015. “Surviving Elections: Election Violence, Incumbent Victory, and Post-Election Repercussions.” Working paper.
Hegre, Håvard, Ellingsen, Tanja, Gates, Scott, and Gleditsch, Nils P.. 2001. “Toward a Democratic Civil Peace? Democracy, Political Change, and Civil War, 1816–1992.” The American Political Science Review 95 (1): 3348.
Hegre, Håvard, and Sambanis, Nicholas. 2006. “Sensitivity Analysis of Empirical Results on Civil War Onset.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 508–35.
Hudson, John. 2013. “How Jihadists Schedule Terrorist Attacks.” Accessed 28 Sep 2015.
Hyde, Susan D., and Marinov, Nikolay. 2012. “Which Elections can be Lost?” Political Analysis 20 (2): 191210.
Hyde, Susan D., and Marinov, Nikolay. 2014. “Information and Self-Enforcing Democracy: The Role of International Election Observation.” International Organization 68 (2): 329–59.
Kasara, Kimuli. 2015. “Electoral Geography and Conflict: Examining the Redistricting through Violence in Kenya.” Working paper.
Khemani, Stuti. 2004. “Political Cycles in a Developing Economy: Effect of Elections in the Indian States.” Journal of Development Economics 73 (1): 125–54.
Lavery, Brian, and Cowell, Alan. 2005. “I.R.A. Renounces Use of Violence, Vows to Disarm.” Accessed 24 Sep 2015.
Little, Andrew T. 2012. “Elections, Fraud, and Election Monitoring in the Shadow of Revolution.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 7 (3): 249–83.
Little, Andrew T., and Pepinsky, Thomas B.. 2016. “Simple and Formal Models in Comparative Politics.” Chinese Political Science Review 1 (3): 425–47.
Matanock, Aila. N.d. “Bullets for Ballots: Electoral Participation Provisions in Peace Agreements and Conflict Recurrence.” Forthcoming, International Security.
Newman, Lindsay Shorr. 2013. “Do Terrorist Attacks Increase Closer to Elections?” Terrorism and Political Violence 25 (1): 828.
Norris, Pippa, Frank, Richard W., and Martinez i Coma, Ferran, eds. 2015. Contentious Elections: From Ballots to Barricades. Routledge.
Poe, Steven C., and Tate, C. Neal. 1994. “Repression of Human Rights to Personal Integrity in the 1980s: A Global Analysis.” American Political Science Review 88 (4): 853–72.
Przeworski, Adam. 1991. Democracy and the Market. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Przeworski, Adam. 2005. “Democracy as an Equilibrium.” Public Choice 123 (3): 253–73.
Przeworski, Adam, Rivero, Gonzalo, and Xi, Tianyang. 2012. “Force and Elections: A General Framework for the Analysis of Political Regimes and their Dynamics.” Manuscript.
Przeworski, Adam, Stokes, Susan C., and Manin, Bernard, eds. 1999. Democracy, Accountability, and Representation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rapoport, David C., and Weinberg, Leonard. 2000. “Elections and Violence.” Terrorism and Political Violence 12 (3-4): 1550.
Reilly, Benjamin. 2002. “Post-Conflict Elections: Constraints and Dangers.” International Peacekeeping 9 (2): 118–39.
Richburg, Keith B. 2004. “Madrid Attacks May Have Targeted Election.” Accessed 24 Sep 2015.
Rozenas, Arturas. 2012. “The Calculus of Dissent: Rigged Elections, Information, and Post-Election Stability.” Manuscript.
Salehyan, Idean, Hendrix, Cullen S., Hamner, Jesse, Case, Christina, Linebarger, Christopher, Stull, Emily, and Williams, Jennifer. 2012. “Social Conflict in Africa: A New Database” International Interactions 38 (4): 503511.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.
Shukla, Saurabh. 2014. “Lok Sabha Polls: Pakistan Terrorist Planning Suicide Attacks at Election Rallies.” Accessed 24 Sep 2015.
Simanjuntak, Hotli. 2008. “Finally, Aceh Local Parties to Take Part in General Election.” Accessed 24 Sep 2015.
Staniland, Paul. 2015. “Armed Groups and Militarized Elections.” International Studies Quarterly 59 (4): 694705.
Straus, Scott, and Taylor, Charlie. 2012. Democratization and Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1990-2008. In Voting in Fear: Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, ed. Dorina Bekoe. United States Institute of Peace, 1538.
Wilkinson, Steven I. 2004. Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Harish and Little supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (298 KB)
298 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed