Political Conflict and Power-sharing in the Origins of Modern Colombia

Sebastián Mazzuca, James A. Robinson

NBER Working Paper No. 12099
Issued in March 2006
NBER Program(s):Program on the Development of the American Economy, Political Economy Program

In this paper we present historical evidence and a theoretical analysis of the origins of political stability and instability in Colombia for the period 1850-1950, and their relationship to political, particularly electoral, institutions. We show that the driving force behind institutional change over this period, specifically the move to proportional representation (PR), was the desire of the Conservative and Liberal parties to come up with a way of credibly dividing power to avoid civil war and conflict, a force intensified by the brutal conflict of the War of a Thousand days between 1899 and 1902. The problem with majoritarian electoral institutions was that they did not allocate power in a way which matched the support of the parties in the population, thus encouraging conflict. The strategic advantage of PR was that it avoided such under-representation. The parties however could not initially move to PR because it was not `fraud proof' so instead, in 1905, adopted the "incomplete vote" which simply allocated 2/3 of the legislative seats to the winning party and 1/3 to the loser. This formula brought peace. The switch to PR arose when the Liberals became confident that they could solve problems of fraud. But it only happened because they were able to exploit a division within the Conservatives. The switch also possibly reflected a concern with the rising support for socialism and the desire to divide power more broadly. Our findings shed new light on the origins of electoral systems and the nature of political conflict and its resolution.

download in pdf format
   (279 K)

email paper

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w12099

Published: Mazzuca, Sebastián and James A. Robinson. “Political Conflict and Power-sharing in the Origins of Modern Colombia." Hispanic American Historical Review 89 (2009): 285-321.

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Acemoglu, Bautista, Querubín, and Robinson w13208 Economic and Political Inequality in Development: The Case of Cundinamarca, Colombia
Acemoglu, Robinson, and Santos-Villagran w15578 The Monopoly of Violence: Evidence from Colombia
Chaves, Fergusson, and Robinson w15127 He Who Counts Elects: Determinants of Fraud in the 1922 Colombian Presidential Election
Chacon, Robinson, and Torvik w12789 When is Democracy an Equilibrium?: Theory and Evidence from Colombia's "La Violencia"
Acemoglu and Robinson w12108 Persistence of Power, Elites and Institutions
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us