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Two sword lengths apart: Credible commitment problems and physical violence in democratic national legislatures

Gandrud, C. (2015). Two sword lengths apart: Credible commitment problems and physical violence in democratic national legislatures. Journal of Peace Research: an interdisciplinary and international quarterly of scholarly work in peace research, 53(1), pp. 130-145. doi: 10.1177/0022343315604707


Ideally, national legislatures in democracies should be venues for peacefully resolving conflicts between opposing groups. However, they can become places of physical violence. Such violence can be an indication that countries’ legislative institutions are functioning far from the democratic ideal of being venues for peaceful conflict reconciliation. In some cases, such as Ukraine prior to the 2014 outbreak of armed conflict in the country’s east and south, violence can indicate and possibly fuel deeper political divisions. In this first global study of legislative violence, I show that brawls are more likely when legislators find it difficult to credibly commit to follow peaceful bargains. Credible commitment problems are more acute in countries with new democracies and disproportionate electoral outcomes – that is, when electoral votes for parties do not closely correspond to the legislative seats they are given. I find robust support for this argument by first examining a case study of legislative violence in the antebellum United States Senate. Pro- and anti-slavery senators became increasingly unable to maintain credible commitments in the lead-up to the 1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner as the allocation of seats in the legislative body became more disproportional. Second, I find further support for my argument in a new global dataset of contemporary instances of violence in national legislatures. In addition, I find strong evidence that violence is more likely in legislatures with small minority governments. Despite reasonable expectations, civil wars are not associated with more legislative violence.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright Sage 2015
Publisher Keywords: democratization, legislative studies, political violence, proportionality
Subjects: J Political Science
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > International Politics
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