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The Ballot and the Street: An Electoral Theory of Social Protest in Autocracies

  • Guillermo Trejo


This article presents a new explanation of the widespread occurrence of cycles of protest in electoral autocracies – the most common type of authoritarian regime in the world today. Because multiparty elections in autocracies are partially free but unfair, opposition parties are compelled to compete for office while contesting the rules of competition. To fulfill this dual goal, opposition parties actively seek to recruit a wide variety of independent social movements who can provide votes and lead major mobilizations during election campaigns and in post-election rallies to denounce fraud. Because electoral participation can cause divisions within social movements, social activists join socio-electoral coalitions when opposition parties offer them financial and logistic resources and institutional protection to mobilize for their causes during non-election times. This quid pro quo explains how isolated protest events become aggregated into powerful cycles of mobilization and why protest is more intense during elections but persists beyond election cycles. When political liberalization leads to increasingly free and fair elections, the prospect of victory motivates opposition parties to discourage radical mobilization, bringing cycles of protest to an end. Drawing on an original database of indigenous protest in Mexico and on case studies, I provide quantitative and qualitative evidence of the causal impact of electoral incentives on the rise, development and decline of a powerful cycle of indigenous protest as Mexico transitioned from one-party to multi-party autocracy and into democracy. Beyond Mexico, I show that the introduction of multiparty elections in a wide variety of autocracies around the world gave rise to major cycles of protest and discuss why the relationship between the ballot and the street is a crucial factor for understanding the dynamics of stability and change of authoritarian regimes.



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The Ballot and the Street: An Electoral Theory of Social Protest in Autocracies

  • Guillermo Trejo


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