Throughout Latin American history, agrarian elites have undermined democracy, coercing peasants on their lands to vote according to landowners’ preferences or supporting military coups each time a government threatened agrarian interests. Agriculture’s economic weight has dramatically increased in Latin America due to the commodity boom of the 2000s. At the same time, urbanization and social policy expansion have diminished landowners’ control over the votes of the rural poor. In other words, agrarian elites’ wealth has increased significantly but their capacity to gain electoral representation and protect this wealth from redistributive demands has been severely diminished. According to the existing literature, this new scenario should represent a formidable threat to democratic stability in the region. However, democracy is stronger than ever before in Latin America while land inequality remains the highest in the world indicating that landowners have found other channels for protecting their interests under democracy.
My dissertation and book project, On the Ballots, in the Streets or Under the Table, explores how agrarian elites organize to block redistributive politics in democracies. Through a comparative historical analysis of landowners’ political participation strategies in three countries —Argentina, Brazil and Chile— since re-democratization, I tackle two related questions: (1) under which circumstances will landowners organize in the electoral arena to influence policy-making (as opposed to lobbying), and (2) what determines the type of electoral strategy they will choose to advance their interest. I argue that the level of policy threat, measured as the likelihood governments will implement policies that jeopardize landowners’ survival (i.e., agrarian reform), determines whether agrarian elites will enter the electoral arena. The degree to which landowners are politically fragmented, measured as the extent to which agrarian elites are political allies or rivals at the local level, conditions the electoral strategy they will pursue.
In Argentina the absence of policy threats at the democratic transition explains why agrarian elites remained aloof from electoral politics which, in turn, left them defenseless to fight off the tax policies of the leftist Kirchner administrations in the 2000s. In both Brazil and Chile, in contrast, landowners believed the new democratic regimes could jeopardize their interests and consequently invested in an electoral strategy. In Chile, agrarian elites were politically cohesive, which helped them (re)build a party to protect their interests in the new democracy. In Brazil, agrarian elites’ political rivalry at the state level hampered the building of a national party to represent agrarian interests. Instead, Brazilian landowners built their own multi-party congressional caucus, the Bancada Ruralista.
My research draws on a range of qualitative and quantitative data gathered during a year of fieldwork in nine locations in the three countries. The main data source are 158 in-depth interviews conducted with key actors, such as leaders from producers’ associations, high-ranking public officials, and federal and state level legislators. I supplement this evidence with data from newspaper archives, business associations’ publications, legislative debates, election and campaign contribution records, and an original survey of members of a non-profit organization in charge of monitoring Congress funded by agricultural producers in Argentina.
The book project makes two main theoretical contributions. First, it demonstrates, contra redistributivist theories of democratization, that landowners can protect their interests under democracy by organizing in the electoral arena. In doing so, it helps us understand how democracies may perpetuate inequality. Second, by analyzing the different electoral strategies available to agrarian elites in democracies, my research shows that economic elites can gain electoral representation in the absence of strong conservative parties. This is important because previous literature has deemed conservative parties crucial for democratic consolidation, but party-building has become increasingly harder in the contemporary context where political fragmentation, electoral volatility and the dilution of partisan identities are on the rise across the developing world.