In the past decade democracies across the world have eroded. Democratically elected presidents have used their popularity to introduce constitutional amendments that over time destroy the system of checks and balances and hinder free and fair elections. Some of these presidents have eroded democracy. Despite similarities, others, however, have not been able to do the same. Why some presidents are able to erode democracy while others are not?
In order to answer that question, I conceptualize the erosion of democracy in two stages. The first focuses on the likelihood of electing presidents with hegemonic aspirations. The second focuses on the circumstances that allow or prevent these presidents from eroding democracy. Using a dataset with information on constitutional amendments introduced by democratically elected Latin American presidents, I show that economic crises, inchoate party systems, and weak states increase the likelihood of electing hegemonic leaders, but cannot predict whether they succeed or fail in their attempts to erode democracy.
In order to assess that, the outcome of the second stage, I focus on the opposition. Because democratic erosion happens gradually, the opposition has many opportunities to respond. Its strategies and goals, I argue, are critical to understand why some presidents successfully undermine democracy, while others fail. Using comparative historical analysis focusing on the cases of Alvaro Uribe (Colombia) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), I show that when the opposition uses extra-institutional strategies with radical goals, it provides the president with “legitimate” reasons to remove opposition leaders from office, prosecute, and jail them, allowing him to push for more aggressive reforms that –without presence congress or the courts—the opposition cannot stop. Conversely, when the opposition uses institutional strategies or extra-institutional strategies with moderate goals, it keeps a presence in the legislature and slows down the government’s cooptation of courts and oversight agencies, thus reducing the likelihood that the president will have the institutional control needed to pass more aggressive reforms.