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  • Undoing Democracy: The Politics of Electoral Caudillismo
  • Alberto Nickerson
David Close and Kalowatie Deonandan, eds. Undoing Democracy: The Politics of Electoral Caudillismo. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004. Figures, tables, notes, bibliography, index, 228 pp.; hardcover $70.

Recent events in Iraq may—and perhaps should—spark a renewed interest among scholars in democratic transitions and consolidation. This is not to say that these important issues have been neglected, but rather that the forging of democracy in Iraq gives policymakers and academics an opportunity to reexamine the theory and practice of democracy. Although Nicaragua has been relegated to the margins of the mainstream media and of most academic circles, a nuanced assessment of Nicaragua's track record since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, such as Close and Deonandan provide in their fine collection, is an example of what can be done when practical and theoretical approaches are applied to examining the success rate of the "third wave" of democratization.

Even though the empirical examples in Undoing Democracy deal with Nicaragua in the late 1990s, the theoretical insights in this book can be applied and tested in other parts of the world, from fledgling and aspiring democracies (such as Iraq) to older experiments in democratic transition (of which there are many examples). The authors maintain that frequent and competitive elections, though important, are poor indicators of the health of a democracy. Indeed, threats to democratic governance can emanate from the very democratic structures and institutions that elections put in place. The authors therefore problematize various aspects of what Thomas Carothers (2002) has called the transition paradigm. Instead of viewing the path to democracy as a linear progression of transition and consolidation, the authors show that deviations from this model occur to the detriment of the electorate. Democratic decomposition, then, is the result of a concerted effort by politicians to erode the democratic process.

The collection begins with a discussion of two important concepts that are explored by the other authors, each of whom is a specialist on Nicaragua: the notion of undoing democracy, and electoral caudillismo. Close argues that the process of undoing democracy "is undertaken by a government to remove some of the impediments that democracy places in the way of easy administration" (p. 2). That is, governments undo democracy when they systematically remove any constraints (such as a system of checks and balances) in order to make it easier to rule. [End Page 181] Another important aspect is that undoing democracy does not, by itself, destroy democracy. Democratic decomposition can be either a temporary impediment or a more permanent fixture in society.

Electoral caudillismo (or boss politics) is simply the current adaptation of traditional caudillismo to electoral politics. Whereas traditional caudillos used force in order to govern, electoral caudillos operate within the confines of an electoral democracy and opt to employ other methods of influence and control, such as "withholding government jobs and contracts" (p. 5). Additional tools of intimidation include tax audits, court cases, inspections, and license reviews.

In Nicaragua, electoral caudillismo was a means to undo democracy by virtue of a strange agreement, the now famous pact struck between Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) and Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas in late 1999. Students of Nicaragua should be very familiar with the use and abuse of political pacts. Enrique Alvarado Martínez identifies three relevant features: pacts in Nicaragua are not meant to be in effect for a long time; they are designed to address some immediate goal, which, once met, vitiates the pact. Pacts are always made between two actors with the express purpose of excluding other segments of society. Political pacts in Nicaragua are created to resolve some political conflict, but the pact usually makes matters worse (Alvarado Martínez 2003, 180). All these features can be identified in the 1999 pact between the PLC and the Sandinistas.

Given the polarized nature of Nicaraguan politics, it is surprising that two political forces, which emerged in direct opposition to each other, conspired to hijack Nicaragua's political system and endanger democracy. Alemán is believed to have joined forces with Ortega in order to protect himself from criminal prosecution on corruption charges...


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pp. 181-184
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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