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How does insecurity affect a president’s popularity?

Can a sense of citizen insecurity cause a president’s credibility to collapse? Or, on the contrary, could the perception of violence under control, in a context of increasing security, strengthen the prestige of the rulers? Or, do only economic successes and failures count to understand the popularity or unpopularity of the executive in our region?

According to public opinion polls, Latin American voters are immersed in pessimism. The Latinobarómetro study indicates that the proportion of people dissatisfied with democracy went from just over half in 2008 to three out of four people in 2020. The reasons are well known. Except for 2020 and 2021, when the world was immersed in the COVID-19 pandemic, all polls show that for Latin Americans the main problem is the economic situation, especially unemployment and low wages, followed by crime and corruption.

Specifically on the issue of citizen security, 38% of Latin Americans say they live in places where there is organized crime, armed groups, drug traffickers, or “gangs”, and more than half say they change their schedules out of fear.

For some time now, insecurity and the feeling of imminent threat or violence has become for those in power a threat to their authority, comparable to the devaluation of power caused by inflation and other economic uncertainties. What impact can the lack of security problems and predictability of physical and patrimonial integrity have on the evaluation of those in power?

The impact of both the feeling of insecurity and the objective experience of crime on public opinion regarding Latin American presidents is, according to studies, devastating. Hence, the “iron fist” stances and decisions control the perception of threat and transmit a public perception of order that the rulers seek to imprint.

A key question in determining this effect is the degree of constitutional assignment of responsibility for maintaining order and controlling crime, which may be exclusive to the national government or shared. It would be natural to expect that the popularity of national governments, with exclusive responsibility for security, would be more affected by feelings of personal or property vulnerability and a sense of victimization. In other words, voters would tend to punish or reward those in office in contexts where their responsibility for public security is clear.

This suspicion goes beyond academic consideration insofar as it can radically shape the destinies of a government since the perception of its capability ― or inability ― to build a generalized notion of control can make the difference between its survival or fall and ― even more ― between conformity or not with the functioning of democracy.

Surveys such as LAPOP, conducted before the outbreak of COVID-19, indicated that almost half of the Latin Americans interviewed said they felt insecure and, in some countries, this contingent reached 67%, as in the case of Panama in 2016. Meanwhile, the regional average of victimization affected one in four Latin Americans, although in countries such as Mexico, Honduras, and Brazil this percentage exceeded 30 points.

How much, then, do these feelings explain the tremendous variation in presidential popularity that we found in the pre-pandemic period among presidents, capable of oscillating from a level as extremely low as barely 10% for then-President Michel Temer in Brazil in 2016 to an incredibly high extreme with over 70% approval for the government presided by AMLO in Mexico in 2018?

Analyses of the relationship between these measures demonstrate the strong dependence of the ability to govern on the population’s sense of security. Citizens who feel insecure, but also those who reported having been victims of crime recently, tend to present more negative evaluations of their respective mandates.

More specifically, insecurity reduces presidential approval by 24%, thus pulverizing the president’s powers of command and direction. The experience as a victim has a lesser impact (since it is less widespread than the perception of risk and danger) and reduces the credibility of the governments in office by 13%.

These results are exacerbated when the attribution of responsibility for insecurity to the president is very clear. The difference in the weight of insecurity on the credibility of a ruler between a country where the maintenance of public order is concentrated exclusively in the national executive versus another where this power is shared with state or municipal administrations or with the legislative and judicial branches can be as much as 15%. This is the cost of a widespread perception of risk.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign popularized the expression “It’s the economy, stupid!”. The belief then was that the ups and downs of political support, including the president’s popularity during his term, depended largely on success or failure in the realm of material and financial well-being.

This assumption was soon imported to Latin America. However, the results of the aforementioned studies offer a perspective that goes beyond. In other words, government performance on economic issues such as inflation and unemployment is fundamental, but insufficient, to explain the mood of the electorate. In the Latin American context, marked by alarming indicators of violence and crime, government action on public security cannot be discarded in order to understand the direction of governance.

It is not in vain that some political leaders, from Jair Bolsonaro to Nayib Bukele, have reaped high electoral dividends with their speeches of “public order!

*This text is written in frame of the X WAPOR Latin America, Congress:

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Professor of Political Science at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC) and researcher at CNPq, Brazil. speaker at WAPOR Latin America.


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