Laura Gamboa on Opposition Strategies to Resist Democratic Erosion

Laura Gamboa

Laura Gamboa is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. She is the author of the forthcoming book Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy.

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There’s always another set of elections. So, let’s set up for elections. Let’s figure out how to mobilize people. Let’s figure out how to engage them and answer the question, ‘Why they elected this person? What did we miss? What do we need to build? Which kind of program.’ I think using the streets is great, but definitely you need training… A lot of training.This is a long-term effort. It’s not about calling you on Facebook for a demonstration and that’s it.

Laura Gamboa

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:47
  • Uribe was a Threat to Democracy – 3:11
  • Opposition Strategies in Colombia – 14:20
  • Opposition Strategies in Venezuela – 17:53
  • How Often do Aspiring Autocrats Get Elected – 27:03
  • Final Advice for Democratic Oppositions – 34:02

Podcast Transcript

Over the past few years the literature on democracy has focused on pessimistic outcomes. We read books like How Democracies Die and How Democracy Ends. We’ve developed a new vocabulary for this pessimistic era with terms like “democratic recession” and “competitive authoritarianism.” It leaves little hope for those who want to withstand the autocratic wave. 

Let me introduce Laura Gamboa. Her new book Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy is a breath of fresh air. She offers a theoretical framework that offers hope for any opposition who faces an elected leader with autocratic ambitions. Laura is an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah and among the most exciting new scholars I have come across. 

Our conversation touches on the different approaches the oppositions took in Colombia and Venezuela. In Colombia they preserved their democracy, while Venezuela has become one of the most infamous autocracies in the world. But what I really like most about Laura’s approach is it considers politics as dynamic where the strategies of the opposition have as much relevance as those in power. It’s a novel approach to politics with profound implications. 

Before we start, I want to thank the last few reviewers on Apple Podcasts. I’ve also noticed a few new ratings on Spotify. If you haven’t already, take a moment and give this podcast a 5 star rating. It makes a big difference for independent podcasts like this one. Like always there is a full transcript at This is my conversation with Laura Gamboa…


Laura Gamboa, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Laura Gamboa

Thank you very much, Justin.


So, Laura, your book is really about a big picture idea about democratic backsliding and the opposition strategies towards it. But you do some really in-depth analysis into two countries. One is your home country of Columbia and the other is Venezuela. Why don’t we start by just talking about Columbia, because I think it’s one that gets overlooked by a lot of people. Can you just tell us a little bit about Álvaro Uribe? Who was he? What kind of politician was he? And here’s the real key question… Was he really a genuine threat to democracy when he was president?

Laura Gamboa

So, Álvaro Uribe is a politician from Antioquia in the Northwest of Colombia. That is an area that has suffered a lot of violence. So, his political career was kind of marked by this iron fist approach. So, on the one hand, he has an iron fist approach to violence, but also, on the other hand, it is a willingness to bend certain limits to protect a certain group of people. So, throughout his career in Antioquia and his early years in politics, he was uncomfortably close with paramilitary groups which were these self-defense armies. The narrative in Colombia is that they were created to protect citizens from the FARC, but that is not really what was going on. It’s a combination of things.

They were born out in the middle of an openness with left-wing candidates were winning local offices and landowners and regional elites not wanting that, plus the growth of drug dealers and so a lot of money and a lot of violence just inherently, plus the armed forces in a situation which they had to back down from previous years in which they had a lot of power, and they really didn’t want to back down. So, they found in the paramilitaries the ability to be able to keep persecuting left-wing leaders and guerrilla members and conducting this kind of very muddy war. And he was very close to this.

He runs for office with a political party where literally the only member was him. Primero Columbia was his political party. So, he runs as an independent, as a Maverick at a very crucial juncture in Colombia in which political parties were being distrusted. So, violence was growing and traditional political parties have lost their ability or their credibility to deal with the armed conflict. So, he comes to power with this iron fist approach. His first act in office on August 7th, 2002, he introduces a referendum that calls to reduce the size of Congress. Impeaches Congress and he adds a bunch of other sort of minor tweaks to the constitution appealing to this anti-corruption, anti-politician stand.

And I think that’s exactly the same that Chávez does. It’s just exactly the same. Uribe didn’t change the constitution, but he tried to make Congress smaller and elect a new one on his coattails. And as we move forward through his government, you find a lot of pieces here and there. So, I provide a lot of evidence in the book, but I talk about two other major reforms. One is called the Anti-Terrorist Statute which was trying to arrogate powers for himself by decree that would allow the armed forces to be judge and jury especially in certain areas of the country. Which in a country like Columbia is just incredibly dangerous.

He literally accused victims of violence such as journalists and members of the opposition to be terrorists, to be FARC members. Like a year ago, the transitional justice tribunal, created after the peace agreement in 2016, recognized a number of people who were assassinated by the armed forces during his time in office. It’s more than 6,000 civilians that were kidnapped, killed, dressed as guerrilla members and presented as casualties. At the time, there were several NGOs and mothers of some of these kids claiming that this was happening and Uribe’s answer was, ‘You’re all members of the FARC.’ So, up until today, he refuses to acknowledge that number and we’re talking about 6,000 innocent civilians.

He also used the security police to persecute the opposition. He even tried to buy witnesses, so that he could create false testimonies in order to get rid of certain members in the courts. He tried to reform the courts, both the Constitutional and the Supreme Court several times. And he tried to reelect himself twice. So, I don’t think that it’s not that he didn’t try. I really think it’s that he couldn’t.


So, let’s peel this back just a little bit. Now first off, you mentioned that he tried to get himself reelected twice. Some people won’t think that that’s a big deal, because in the United States, presidents typically serve two terms. It’s not really a big deal. Now the third term hasn’t happened other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it’s still a common practice that most presidents serve two terms. It’s a surprise when a president loses reelection. Tell me a little bit about the history of Columbia in terms of term limits. What is the expectation and why was it a big deal that Uribe looked to be able to serve a second term and definitely when he tried to serve a third term?

Laura Gamboa

So, in general, the story of reelections for most of the 20th Century is presidents could reelect themselves, but not for an immediate term. You had to wait one term. Then the 1999 constitution ended reelection altogether.


And that’s pretty typical in Latin America, especially with Mexico having the longstanding tradition of no reelection. It seems like that’s been a common practice throughout Latin America. Right?

Laura Gamboa

Yes. So, no reelection is actually a very common trait in Latin America and this is probably the outcome of previous dictatorships. So, Columbia was not transitioning out of dictatorship, but the 1991 constitution has the markings of the time in which it was written. After 1991, presidents were only able to govern for one period of four years and the entire constitution was structured around it. So, who gets to appoint who in the courts, especially the Constitutional Court was designed around it. The Attorney General’s office and the several oversight agencies were designed around the idea that the president only served one term.

So, my first take on changing the constitution to reelect oneself is you should never change the rules of the game so that you can win. That is in and of itself authoritarian. One thing is to change the constitution so that others can reelect themselves in the future. But reforming the constitution to allow the sitting present to reelect himself under the argument, and this was the argument given, that he’s so awesome that we cannot do this without him is pretty much putting the person above the institutions. He’s saying he’s perfect, so we just need to adjust the institutions around him. And I think that’s very dangerous, because with that same logic then he can do anything he wants.


So, what you’re saying is that Uribe governed illiberally. I mean, that’s just without dispute. He was governing effectively as an illiberal president through the way that he was dealing with the violence and the conflict within Columbia. He approached it as somebody who had little respect for liberal rights, liberal ideas, but then when it comes to actual democracy itself, when he looked to pursue that second term, he wasn’t just looking to give himself an opportunity to be president it. It wasn’t just an opportunity for the voters to vote for him. It was more than that, because the constitution was literally designed in a way to be able to make it so that no one leader would have so much power through appointing so many people to positions that they would be able to essentially capture the government.

So, when Uribe looked took a second term that empowered him dramatically and then when he pursued that third term, it would’ve made it so that he had appointed everybody that was in government. There’d be very few checks left on his power, very few checks left on his governance. So, he gets a constitutional amendment passed through the legislature. They’re going to send it to a referendum to the people. The Constitutional Court intervenes. They intervene, because they say that the amendment itself is unconstitutional. Can you just kind of briefly explain why that’s true?

Laura Gamboa

So, constitutional amendments can or cannot go to the constitutional court. If somebody makes a lawsuit against a constitutional assembly, then it goes into the Constitutional Court. Otherwise, it just goes through. In this case, of course, there were lawsuits against the first amendment, but as I mentioned, there weren’t enough procedural arguments to strike it down. Now, the second reelection was actually a referendum bill which is a different process. A referendum bill has a different transit through Congress and it is automatically sent to the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court made two arguments.

The first argument is the referendum bill had procedural irregularities in the way they had paid to get the signatures. The way they pushed this through Congress was illegal. They had violated the amount of money that they could raise and they had done it through a scheme, so that it wouldn’t appear so, but it was illegal. Now, usually the court only reviews a bill or constitutional amendment from the moment it starts in Congress up until the moment it leaves Congress. It very rarely goes before.

The only reason they went and reviewed what had happened before they introduced the bill with this funding situation was because members of Congress of the opposition made it part of the debate and they brought it to attention, they created statements that were then put in the gazettes, and they were very active in making sure that this was on the radar of the court. So, that the court could then say, ‘Okay, fine. We’re not only going to review that the legislative process was fine. We’re going to review that the money that paid to collect the signatures to introduce this bill to Congress was good.’

Now there is another argument. The second argument is that allowing for a third reelection fundamentally changes the constitution and by fundamentally changing the constitution, it substitutes the constitution. In Colombia, the only way to substitute the constitution is via constitutional assembly. So, technically Congress is violating procedure by substituting the constitution. It’s a very complicated argument and one that justices did not buy entirely. Many justices and clerks I talked to felt it was just a very fuzzy argument to make. So, ruling on the procedural irregularities is significantly easier. Both arguments are in the ruling, but the main argument was the one on procedure.


But what’s interesting is that you say that the opposition had a role in giving the Constitutional Court substance to be able to make the ruling that they did. It wasn’t just in this one moment that was the final stand with Uribe that led to him actually backing off and not trying to pursue that next term. It’s more than that. The opposition had been following what you think of as strategies that are designed to be able to succeed in instances of democratic backsliding. Can you explain a little bit about what the Columbian opposition did throughout Uribe’s term that you think was a successful strategy to be able to resist backsliding?

Laura Gamboa

So, the main argument of the book is presidents like Álvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez are presidents that have legitimacy concerns. In other words, they’re presidents that want to keep a democratic façade, because that gives them certain advantages both internationally and domestically. And because they do that, they really need a cover to be able to repress or to undermine the opposition or even remove them from office. So, the nutshell of the argument is if the opposition does not give them an excuse to repress, then these presidents are going to at least think twice before they do it. If they do, they might lose some of the democratic facade.

I think what the opposition did very well in Colombia was that they really reframed from using any kind of strategy that I call radical extra institutional strategies. That is strategies that aim to overthrow the president outside the institutions. They really avoided those, because they knew that these would backfire on them. They knew that that arena was not one in which they were going to win. So, they were really careful not only from themselves doing it, but also rejecting other groups who did. So, I think that gave them a couple of resources. It allowed them to remain viable allies for Uribistas that later on turned against Uribe. They remained viable allies. They did not become toxic for these people, so they could build a larger coalition.

Second, it opened up international spaces for them. So, throughout Uribe’s government, the opposition lobbied members of the Democratic Party in the US, for example, to try to get them to obstruct, curtail, or limit certain kinds of aid based on human rights issues. So, I think that’s just incredibly important. I also think that population wise, it also helped a lot. So, people were willing to vote for these people. That’s one thing they did now, but that is not enough. The second step of this is actually using other strategies to contain the autocrat. So, in the case of Columbia, they use institutional moderate strategies. That is using Congress, courts, or elections to stop antidemocratic reforms and they combined those with what I call moderate extra-institutional strategies which is using street protests and strikes in order to stop the reforms.

These are not aiming to oust the president. This is not aiming to stop his term early. This is just to stop the reforms and curtail the advancement of erosion. And the opposition in Columbia used both. They leveraged Congress to build a case using procedural irregularities, using their microphone inside the legislative in order to provide the Constitutional Court with legal resources that the Constitutional Court then could use to strike down these bills.


Why don’t we contrast that against Venezuela, because a lot of the things that you’re talking about are things that on the surface sound very just blasé. They just sound very natural. The strategies are to use the courts, use the legislature, and use protests. But the argument from a lot of people who’d be in an opposition would be, ‘Yeah, but what about if they’re not working?’ So, in Venezuela, they took that approach. They said, ‘Hey, this is taking too long. Nothing seems to be working. The president is very popular. At least he looks like he’s going to be continually reelected. We’re going to have to do something more dramatic.’ So, Venezuela tried that. What are those strategies if you’re going to go the opposite way and try to approach it more radically?

Laura Gamboa

So, first of all, if you look at the oppositions in Venezuela and you look at the position in Colombia, actually, Venezuela’s position was very strong. This is true for Turkey too. It’s very evident in Turkey that the opposition started off incredibly strong. The opposition in Venezuela had influence over the armed forces. They had influence over PDVSA, the oil company. The media outlet started off as friendlier to Chávez, but very quickly they turn around. They had the ability to mobilize millions of Venezuelans to the streets. It was a formidable enemy. But Chávez started off polarizing, pretty much like what Uribe did, and the opposition of Venezuela took the bait. They figured out that what they really wanted was to get rid of Chávez at any cost.

So, this is a longer process, but Chávez starts off by doing a constitutional assembly in which he manipulates the way in which the constitutional assembly goes so that he can have a majority. He definitely gets a majority in the constitutional assembly, but the new constitution is not necessarily undemocratic. It actually keeps a lot of what the older constitution had in terms of checks and balances. It had some concerning items, but in general, it wasn’t that undemocratic. Then Chávez rules by decree on certain matters and he does it in a way that is clearly aimed to spark anger and fear and all of these negative emotions and the opposition bites. They take the bait and they answer in that same manner.

They threw a coup. They organized in April, 2002. They launched a coup against Chávez. How they got to a coup is debated. Some people say it was a protest that kind of transformed. Other people say, no, it was planned beforehand. Regardless of what it was. They went to the presidential palace and the military with the support of the armed forces removed the president from office. What people don’t know is that afterwards there was a space in which, for example, they could have negotiated with other Chávistas in Congress and allowed one of them to replace Chávez, but they refused. Instead, they canceled the constitution. They closed Congress. They closed the courts. They lost support of the military halfway through and Chávez was back three days afterwards not only with the opposition being the coup plotters now, but also with the ability to purge the armed forces.

Then they organize a strike originally set up to pressure negotiations with the government. But eventually they figured out that they’re very strong in the streets. They controlled PDVSA. They controlled the main income source of the country and if they stop producing oil, the president’s going to have to resign. This is unsustainable. Right? I actually interview this Chávista supporter that told me that he would look at the newspapers every morning just expecting to see the headline Chávez is out of office. But they didn’t realize that Chávez was also quite a political mind and he was able to overcome the strike. Moreover. when he was able to overcome the strike, he was then able to use information he had and that excuse to purge PDVSA. Sixty percent of PDVSA employees were fired. He replaced him with loyalists.

The sad thing about this is in a normal situation, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. This would have been unconceivable and it would have sparked a lot of anger and outrage amongst regular Venezuelans, but also the international community. But these guys had just stopped producing oil. I mean, I don’t think we can expect the president that has an entire group striking, so that they can oust him to just not do anything. Like it was somehow justified. I don’t know. I use this word very carefully, because a lot of Venezuelans are going to be very mad about me saying this, but he was quote unquote justified.


Well, he came across as the defender of democracy. So did Erdoğan, which is another case in the book that you discuss though not as at length as Venezuela. But Erdoğan does that too where they both have a coup that happens during their tenure that they survive. So, they’re able to claim, ‘Hey, I’m the democratically elected leader. You’re the ones who are trying to oust somebody who is democratically elected. You’re the ones who are attacking democracy. I’m the one who’s defending it.’ And even under the general strike, it sounds odd, because it’s a strike. But they weren’t striking in order to fight for better wages or better labor conditions, they were fighting for political reasons. So, again, it came across as we want to leverage power that we have that’s not through the normal democratic means to be able to replace political leaders.

Again, it comes across as undemocratic. So, Chávez, like you said, is able to then build up the administrative state with loyalists and consolidate his power the same way Erdoğan did, to be honest, in a more recent instance, because the opposition decided to approach it through undemocratic means. It also begs another question on my mind, which you write in the book, “By retaliating outside institutions hoping to oust the executive before the end of her constitutional term, oppositions jeopardize their legitimacy domestically and abroad.” I mean, it’s difficult to imagine that anybody within the country or outside the country is going to take them seriously if they claim that this leader is undemocratic going forward.

Laura Gamboa

Yeah, and it’s so pervasive. So, one of the main pleas of the opposition up until three or four years ago was, ‘Please believe us that these guys are undemocratic. Please believe us.’ Those first years of Chávez’s government just hurt them so much. Not participating in the legislative elections is the third strategy they use. They try to boycott the legislative elections of 2005. The goal is, ‘Well, if we don’t participate, we show the world that Chávez is illegitimate’ and they just show plain that they’re not there. That that is not what is happening. That this guy was democratically elected and he has a right to govern, because he was democratically elected. So, they boycott Congress and what happens is that Chávez gets a hundred percent Chávista national assembly and that’s game over.

So, I get a lot of pushback, because some people say, ‘Well, it was game over from day one.’ But I think one of the things that I show very carefully in the book is that it was not. The opposition had a hold on the media, literally a hold on the media outlets up until 2007. The opposition control PDVSA up until 2003. The opposition controlled the armed forces or had influence over the armed forces up until 2002. It was a very strong opposition.


A line from your book that I think really brings out the real conundrum for the opposition is “Even if the country had a quick return to democracy,” and this is referring to Venezuela and the coup. “The consequences of the radical extra institutional strategy would have forced the opposition to choose between allowing Chávez to compete and win elections again or ban him from running for office hindering Venezuela’s transition to democracy.”

And I think that this reminds us of the fact that if you take undemocratic means to try to get rid of an undemocratic leader, you’re in a difficult position, because the road to autocracy is going to be a lot easier from there than the road back towards democracy. Once again, it’s going to be a lot easier to replace the dictator you just undid with somebody who’s a new dictator than it is going to be to replace them with something democratic. And I think you make a great case that by using democratic means it’s going to be easier to preserve and reinvigorate the democracy that you still have.

Laura Gamboa

Yeah. So, this is what happened in Honduras. So, in Honduras you had Manuel Zelaya who tried to reform the constitution pretty much going against judicial orders and the constitutional itself. He tried to use the armed forces to have a referendum to change the constitution. He was deposed by force. Literally taken out of his house and just driven to Costa Rica pretty much. There was a coup and Honduras is still recovering from that. I think the last elections in Honduras is kind of the first step to recover and they still undermine democracy. I mean, the coup created lasting effects, but then you have Hernandez who literally committed fraud in an electoral process to stay in power. In the long term, this is just really bad.


So, one of the other points that you make in the book very early on is that aspiring autocrats get elected much more often than we typically think they do. So, you’ve already kind of hinted at the fact that a leader like Chávez who we see actually take a democracy and erodes it, leaves it as something that’s just widely accepted as being autocratic today under Maduro. We all know that that leader was an aspiring autocrat in hindsight. However, you make the point that there’s a lot more aspiring autocrats who do get elected that actually don’t succeed. How often do aspiring autocrats actually get elected?

Laura Gamboa

That’s a very interesting question. Between 1978 and 2018, I calculate 25 in Latin America.


That sounds like a lot.

Laura Gamboa

It is a lot, especially taking into account that some countries did not go into the data until they democratized. So, some of these countries have been democratic for 20 years. So, it’s not even since 1970. So, I think Latin America’s kind of an odd example, because I think coming as an aspiring autocrat in 1978 is significantly different than coming as an aspiring autocrat in 2020. I also think that coming as an aspiring autocrat like Chávez in 2000 or Uribe in 2002 vis-à-vis coming today is also significantly different, because I think there has been some learning.

The international community and domestic audiences have done some kind of learning. We see this with the European Union. They have updated their standards and procedures and they are at least trying to make sure that they have the tools they need to fight this new form of democratic breakdown, backsliding.

That’s a very good question. I don’t think they succeed that often, but I think it also depends a lot on the country in which they’re coming up. You see Ecuador in which you have a ton of aspiring autocrats. I think most of them, except Correa, of course, never really had a good shot of pushing their legislation through because Ecuador is such, or was, less nowadays, but was such an unstable country that they barely had two days before Congress was impeaching them. So, I think in some countries it’s just that the executive does not have the power. We see this in Peru. If you ask me about other countries, I would argue in Bolivia nowadays you have a little bit more control. Central America is ripe with them. Bukele has moved like in lightning bolt. Bukele is succeeding.

I think a lot of these also has to do with the international community. So, I spell this out in the book very clearly. I say there are certain conditions for my argument to work. One of these is the assumption that there are both domestic and international audiences with a normative preference for democracy. So, I think between 2017 and 2021 that was very much not true at least in Latin America.

So, I think a lot of the autocrats that we see in central America, Bukele, Hernandez, were able to succeed, because they made deals with the US government on immigration issues. So, the government, the US, was like, ‘Okay, we’re just going to back down. We’re not going to pressure. We’re not going to come out and say anything. We’re just going to let you be as long as you keep your immigrants inside your country.’ I think that has changed. But, of course, the damage is done. So, out of 25, I say that only five succeeded.


That’s both positive and negative. I mean, on the one hand, I’m disheartened by the fact that so many aspiring autocrats have gotten elected. On the other hand, it sounds like really good odds that the opposition can overcome an aspiring autocrat or at least contain them enough to be able to preserve democracy. But it kind of raises the question why it is that those five aspiring autocrats out of 25 still succeeded.

In Venezuela, I’m really puzzled by the fact that they had so many more resources. You point out that Chávez’s popularity was closer to Trump’s whereas Uribe was at 69%. You point out that they had control over lots of different institutions. Is it possible that the opposition in Venezuela had too many resources and maybe that’s the reason why they pushed the envelope a little bit too far?

Laura Gamboa

So, I think that’s part of it. So, a lot of the conversations I had in Colombia were that, ‘Well, for us, keeping Congress was so essential because we didn’t have it before.’ I think in Venezuela, in particular, the party system was actually quite solid. Party labels to a certain extent were very strong and politicians, individual politicians were attached very strongly attached to the political parties. So, when the party system collapsed, the parties lost all their credibility, the politicians did too.

So, you have a coalition with a lot of people that are not politicians. They don’t know how to work the institutions. They don’t know how to play the game to put it that way. But they are very strong. Alongside are a lot of politicians and I talked to many of them who said, ‘Yeah, we told them. We begged them. We told them not to do it this way.’ But they are completely discredited and back benched. So, you have the wrong crowd running the show to put it that way.

Whereas in Colombia, the political parties, the labels also got severely hurt. As a matter of fact, since Uribe won office, we haven’t had a single president from any of the traditional parties we had then. But the individual politicians were detached from the parties. So, individual politicians kept their reputation and they were able to move a little bit easier and kind of able to lead. The other alternatives that I put forward that I think could also be at play in both of these countries is the positionality of the opposition. The opposition in Colombia had been in opposition always, for the most part. A lot of these left-wing politicians have always been in opposition.

So, A, they had learned how to do it. But, B, they valued very much the ability to keep their seats in Congress and to protect institutions. In Venezuela, it was the other way around. The people opposing Chávez were not used to being out of power. So, all of a sudden, these guys just turned the tables on them and they don’t know what to do. I was actually very concerned with when Petro won office that we were going to see a similar reaction in Colombia, because it’s the first time that a lot of the people are in opposition. But so far, so good. I feel that if it continues like this, this is going to be an interesting case to study about what makes political elites react in one way or another.

I also think that there is an argument to be made about the perception of resources. As I say, the Venezuelan opposition was very strong and I show you the numbers and the resources they had. Still, I’ve had many conversations with people who say, ‘No, they were not strong. What are you talking about? They were done. Chávez comes to power and he has everything.’ So, there’s this misperception of resources across the board. So, I wonder to what extent sometimes certain positions are just enabled to somehow perceive that they have the ability to fight this some other way.


What is your advice then for an opposition that’s facing an aspiring autocrat? How should they be approaching it? What are the moderate institutional and extra institutional means that they should be taking to be able to preserve democracy and to get to the next election where they can eventually oust the autocrat or at least outlast him?

Laura Gamboa

So, my first advice would be to plan for the next term. Play the long game. So, you have a potential autocrat. The first step is to recognize that that person won elections fair and square and deserves to govern. So, my take on this is to recognize that this person is entitled to govern for the next 4, 5, 6 years. However long it is and look for strategies that protect the resources you have. So, in the case of the US, it was a filibuster, the ability to need a qualified majority. So, how can you protect that? And if you’re going to sacrifice it, what are you going to sacrifice it for? What are you going to get out of that?

So, I always felt with the Gorsuch example that sacrificing the filibuster with him made no sense. That perhaps the filibuster would’ve been a little bit more useful with Kavanaugh. You could have delayed that nomination a little bit. So, think about how can you can use your institutional resources and if you need to sacrifice them, which you might, what are you going to get for it? My second advice is there’s always another set of elections. So, let’s set up for elections. Let’s figure out how to mobilize people. Let’s figure out how to engage them and answer the question, ‘Why they elected this person? What did we miss? What do we need to build? Which kind of program.’ I think using the streets is great, but definitely you need training… A lot of training.

This is a long-term effort. It’s not about calling you on Facebook for a demonstration and that’s it. That training is not only training in keeping nonviolent, but also like new repertoires. Repertoires that do not disrupt are not useful. Protests need to fulfill a goal or you need repertoires that somehow speak to the particular situation. So, the Civil Rights Movement was so successful because the repertoires were so specific. Sitting out in counters right now just doesn’t work out. But at the time in the fifties, in the South, sitting at counters was so defiant. So, you need the training, you need the networks, and you need the repertoire.

So, I think those are good to use, but you need to set them up. I think in the US there are actually really good examples of this. I think there are people doing these things like the mobilization effort in Georgia is amazing. I’ve always thought that the effort they do mobilizing voters is absolutely out of this world. I think the US actually has a distinct situation, because I think at the national level, the country remains democratic. But I think it has subnational authoritarianism. So, I think in some contexts what you need is to set up a situation in which you’re ready to overcome unequal elections, unfair elections. You assume that they’re going to be unfair. You just plan for it.

Now worldwide, again, it depends on the resources available for each country. So, in the US, federalism was a huge resource, but not every country has that resource. In Latin America, the legislature was a huge resource, but that is not necessarily true in Poland. It depends on which resources the opposition has. But my suggestion is to design strategies that aim to protect these resources and to hold them as long as you can and if you need to sacrifice them, make sure you do so for a good reason that gives you back something.

That of course is me speaking from the comfort of my house and I understand that these are just wrenching choices that these autocrats put people’s lives at risk in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine. But ultimately, you don’t want the opposition to be run with your gut. You want the opposition to be run with your brain even if it’s a little bit swallowing a big toad or a bitter pill is the way you say it in English.


Laura, Thanks so much for joining me today. Your new book, Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy, is one of the best books that I’ve read so far in 2022. I’m expecting that I’m going to see this on my top five list at the end of the year. It’s really an incredible book. It touches on some things that are in ways counterintuitive. But the best counterintuitive ideas are the ones that feel so obvious. After they’re told to you the first time, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that makes complete sense. This is so obvious.’ But then you realize I don’t think that I necessarily thought that until I heard the argument. I think that you do a brilliant job explaining that. I think you do a brilliant job laying out some facts, cases both in Colombia and Venezuela. It was just such a joy to read. Thank you so much for writing your book and thank you for talking to me on the podcast.

Laura Gamboa

Oh, thank you for having me and for those kind words on my work. I really hope people enjoy it. I enjoyed it a lot while writing it. I have to say, I mean, it’s really sad in a certain way, but it’s a very uplifting message, I think. Thank you so much for inviting me and for the kind words on my book. I really appreciate it and thanks for reading it.

Key Links

Learn more about Laura Gamboa

The Peace Process and Colombia’s Elections” by Laura Gambia in the Journal of Democracy

Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy by Laura Gamboa

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