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Street-Fighting Stability: Do political protests produce more accountable governments.

Riot police on horseback pass burning debris in Santiago.

Free Speech Riot police in Santiago during protests marking the 37th anniversary of Chile’s 1973 military coup.

Since the end of the Second World War, few regions on Earth have suffered more political instability than Latin America. A recent tally by scholars at the University of Oklahoma, for example, counted 20 coups d’états, 451 political assassinations, 217 riots and 113 crises that threatened to bring down a sitting government. And this was just in the 30-year period spanning 1971 to 2000.

Thankfully, things have been calmer over the past 10 years. Nations such as Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay—countries that in the past have struggled through long periods of violent political upheaval—are today much more stable, prosperous and democratically inclined.

What changed? According to MU’s Moises Arce, a significant portion of this progress can be attributed to the rise of ruling parties that are more accountable to, and tolerant of, the voices of constituents who disagree with them. Never mind that some of these constituents tend to disagree in exceedingly disagreeable ways; i.e., violent street protests.

“Many of these recent protests in Latin America have led to changes in policies and the direction of the government,” said Arce, an associate professor of political science. “It appears that, in some cases, protests may ultimately be helpful for democracy. Some of the established parties may be taking some things for granted. Political protests become forms of street accountability.”

And there remains plenty for which Latin leaders can be held accountable. Economic progress has provided a boost on the macro level, but has not necessarily improved the lives of poor and lower-middle-class citizens—at least not fast enough for them. Unemployment rates are high. Political corruption remains a problem. Still, Arce argues, thanks in part to protests, there are signs the region’s formerly disenfranchised are finally being heard.

“Currently, almost all Latin American countries have left or left-leaning presidents,” he says. “Left or left-leaning presidents tend to be more responsive to popular demands and will create a new political equilibrium between those popular demands and the business sector.”

This is not to suggest that this “new political equilibrium” has come without costs, Arce emphasizes.

“In some of the major protests, people have died. So it’s extremely unfortunate that some positive government reforms happened that way,” he says.

Arce’s study will be published in the journal Party Politics later this year.

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