Residents of Hamburg, Germany may have been shocked by the violent protests that erupted July 6 and July 7 during the meeting of the G-20, as protesters armed with rocks and incendiary devices blockaded streets, set cars ablaze and battled with police officers. But for the inhabitants of many Latin American cities, such scenes are commonplace. They are common because ordinary citizens feel frustrated with their ability to affect political decisions through institutional channels like voting, writing to their representatives, or forming groups to bargain with Congress.
Frequent street protests often signal weak institutions. In a study and a follow-up paper, Fabiana Machado, Mariano Tommasi and I found that people are far more willing to participate in protests when their country’s political institutions—including Congress, courts, and the bureaucracy—are feeble than when those institutions are robust and responsive to citizens’ demands. People, in other words, take to the streets when their governments are too incapable to help them achieve their political objectives. Well-functioning democracies like those in Germany and France may feature occasional demonstrations, and those demonstrations may at times be marred by violent extremists. But frequent protests by ordinary citizens reveal that something is seriously amiss in the functioning of the state.
Consider a basic relationship: that of people to their elected representatives. In effective legislatures, representatives are well-educated, serve multiple terms, and work for years in policy committees that allow them to acquire expertise in specific areas. They have the qualifications and experience, in short, to discharge their responsibilities with professionalism. That is not the case in many Latin American congresses. In fact, many Latin American citizens doubt their representatives can effectively champion their interests. The data show that this can have consequences. In responses to questions about government in the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University, we found that in countries where people tend to contact a member of congress —and consequently have faith in their lawmakers—- they were less likely to participate in protests. Where they lacked that faith, they were likely to find protest more appealing.
Other measures of discontent with government (as reflected in LAPOP) similarly affect citizens likelihood of protesting, including personal experiences with corruption and the preference for an opposition candidate over the government one. Moreover, the inclination to take to the streets will be stronger when judicial independence is compromised and bureaucratic quality is poor. Indeed, among people who believe that political parties effectively represent their constituencies in Latin America, the likelihood of participating in protests is 35% where institutional strength is extremely weak and only 8% where it is very strong.
Of course, personal characteristics also make a difference in the inclination to protest. Protesting is more probable among younger, better educated and more resourceful individuals. It is more probable among people who already participate in group activities, like churches, unions and community groups and thus have networks that can help them organize, and it is more common among the highly ideological. People with moderate political views and more extreme ones may be equally intent on demonstrating when institutions are weak: the radical young anarchist and the middle-of-the-road pensioner seeing eye to eye when their government seems hopeless. But when institutions are strong, the person with extreme ideological views will be around 40% more likely to do so.
If some people will almost always be willing to rally and march, institutional strength can make the difference for the majority. And recent events in Latin America don’t bode well. Much of the region has erupted in protests, with Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and French Guiana, inflamed over issues ranging from economic stagnation and perceived corruption to the erosion of checks and balances and efforts to modify presidential term limits. That is not necessarily wrong. Protests, when peaceful, are legitimate forms of political participation and have a long history in Latin America of winning concessions. But if people trusted in the machinery of government to advance their interests, we might see them investing more of their time in strengthening institutions. We might see them designing platforms, forming political parties, and bargaining in Congress, rather than blocking roads, crippling transportation or, in the worst of cases, burning buses and buildings. The challenge of institution building is enormous, one where multilateral organizations like the IDB can play an important role, and where nations will define their future.