Incomplete democracy in Central America: polarization and voter turnout in Nicaragua and El Salvador

  • Barnes W
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The current problematic state of Central American democratization is often attributed to weakness of the political center. Despite peace processes and the end of the Cold War, in Nicaragua and El Salvador in particular, party systems, electoral politics, and political cultures continue to be characterized by left-right polarization, weakness and fragmentation at the center, and failure effectively to institutionalize a 'civic culture.' In this view, these countries need to add to their party systems and political cultures a strong, organized centrism, so as to marginalize left and right once and for all, and mature beyond polarization. In effect, this proposition is often treated, at least implicitly, as something of a panacea and a guarantor of democratic consolidation. The advanced capitalist countries supposedly are models of democracy consolidated under hegemonic centrism. This paper, takes the view that the transition from authoritarianism to procedurally correct elections produces only hybrid regimes. These regimes are not democracies, or they are only radically incomplete democracies. Their further democratization requires a very substantial 'second transition' whose realization remains highly problematic and promises to be protracted and discontinuous, if it occurs at all. This article has something of a theoretical agenda. Its primary purpose, is to describe and analyze recent Nicaraguan and Salvadoran political realities. In particular, it seeks to correct the vague and sloppy way 'polarization' is invoked as a definitive characterization of and explanation for the state of Nicaraguan politics, and to call attention to the contrast between high Nicaraguan voter turnout and low Salvadoran turnout. The main body of the paper will consist of an analysis of the puzzle of comparative voter turnout in Nicaragua and El Salvador; a discussion of the 1996 Nicaraguan election campaign, with emphasis on putting left-right polarization in proper perspective; and a historical addendum on the contrasting fates of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran center-lefts during the 1980s and the relevance of that factor to comparative voter turnout in the 1990s.

Author-supplied keywords

  • conflict
  • consolidation
  • illusions
  • transition

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  • William A. Barnes

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