Careful crackdowns : human rights and campaigning on public security in Latin America

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Uang, Randy Sunwin

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Crime and violence are regularly seen as being ripe for politicians to turn into campaign issues and win votes. This study argues, in contrast, that success on public security is not so automatic: human rights values constrain the use of security and the winning of votes on it. Even in Latin American countries, where voters' concerns about rampant crime and violence are among the highest in the world, considerations of human rights combine with low trust in security forces to restrict the viability of the issue in key ways. Examination of presidential campaigns in Colombia in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2010 supports this claim. Success on security is a two-step process: invoking the issue and then gaining voter support on the topic. Usability depends on the absence of recent repression and the degree of organization of security threats. Then, winning votes on it depends on having a civilian background, a campaign that balances security with other issues, and messages of careful enforcement. These messages of careful enforcement promise targeted, deliberate use of security forces' enforcement activities in a way that pays attention to human rights, rather than promising unbridled enforcement, increased punishment, or programs of long-term prevention. This study therefore shows how candidates are forced to walk a fine line between promising to establish order and promising to protect basic rights and liberties. These findings are powerful, providing an understanding of public security in electoral campaigns that maintains a much closer fit with empirical reality than existing research. The results also provide a critique of the sociological school of vote choice and points to ways in which ownership of the issue of security may be leased away. Furthermore, because the results are driven by the spread of human rights values, the results demonstrate the importance of quick shifts in political culture as a factor that explains changes in political patterns.




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