One uncomfortable fact of recent global history is that fresh political openness in a formerly non-democratic nation appears to be just the catalyst to propel that newly democratic country down the path of a protracted civil war.
In Turkey, the Kurdish insurgency emerged not long after a civilian government came to power in 1981. In Europe, no sooner had the states of the former Yugoslavia held elections, wars broke out along ethnic lines. In Rwanda, four years after the government accepted the principle of multiparty democracy, the Hutus carried out genocide against long-time enemy, the Tutsi minority.
Insurgencies have been rampant in the newly minted electoral democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan. And in Peru, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) asserted its murderous viciousness right around the time the country's military rule of 12 years gave away to a freely elected civilian government in 1980.
To interpret this juxtaposition that some new democracies share with internal wars, conflict scholars are increasingly using the kind of economic reasoning that is familiar to business theorists. In a paper on Peru (Journal of Peace Research, vol 38, no 5, 2001), sociologist James Ron of Canada's McGill University attempts to answer two questions: How did political openness in Peru add to the rise of the Senderistas? And why did Sendero kill 300-odd union leaders, community organisers, politicians and municipal authorities instead of pursuing a broader intra-left alliance?
The military rule in Peru provided various leftist groups with a common cause to fight against. But after its end, most of these groups sought to advance concerns related to social justice as legal participants in multi-party democracy. As such, during times of openness, they had fewer things to protest against. As legitimate leftists moved to the public stage to fulfil electoral promises, their marginal cousin Sendero ended up being pushed further into a corner, where it had to either find a niche to survive or perish altogether.
But loyalty to its inherently violent radicalism made Senderistas fight back. Protesting the actions of its leftist brethrens as a sell-out to bourgeois democracy, Comrade Abimael Guzman (see pic) used the open political context to announce an armed struggle against the state. In doing so, he aimed to differentiate the purity of his ideological 'product' from that of other strains of reform-oriented leftists. Instead of acting as deterrence against violence, an open political environment ironically created conditions for the Senderistas to play up its violence-prone radicalism to show how different it was from others.
But sticking to violent radicalism came at a cost. Sendero Luminoso had to continuously attract recruits to replenish its depleting ranks. And that led to direct competition with other left parties who drew resources 'from the same pool'. Because it did not violate what it stood for, Sendero found it strategically palatable to deal with the competition by unleashing violence against its ideological cousins, even if that meant killing their leaders and activists. In the long run though, the brutal tactics meant that the Senderos never generated any international sympathy, much less support.
Still, Ron's conclusion is that the Peruvian example is not meant to be an argument against democracy. It is to suggest that at times despite political openness, 'democratisation can have adverse outcomes'. But as subsequent events in Peru show, those adverse outcomes do not necessarily get corrected when the country resorts to military rule to defang the radicals.
Eight years after the suspension of political openness, Peru's military rulers fled the country in 2000, thereby allowing the Senderos, this time in tandem with another radical group, the MRTA, to become active and notch up a death toll of 25,000.