This article highlights a nefarious effect of elections during civil wars by demonstrating that they can facilitate the displacement of civilians. This occurs through two main mechanisms: they reveal information about civilians’ loyalties directly to armed groups; and they threaten the status quo of local elites’ power, motivating them to ally with outside armed groups in order to regain it. Armed groups strategically displace civilians identified as “disloyal” in order to gain control over a territory. I test implications of the argument with original, micro-level quantitative and qualitative data from northwest Colombia. Using voter censuses and disaggregated electoral returns in the 1990s, I show that residents in urban neighbourhoods that supported the insurgent-backed political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), were more likely to leave the city of Apartadó than neighbors in other districts. However, residents of the nearby rural communities that supported the UP were the least likely to leave. I trace the patterns of violence across the communities using local archival materials and interviews to assess how well the argument accounts for the variation observed, and to explore the unexpected outcome in the rural area. While I find that counterinsurgents attempted strategic displacement in both the city and the mountains, they only succeeded in the urban areas because residents of the rural hamlets were uniquely able to overcome the collective action problem that strategic displacement generates. The findings demonstrate that political identities are relevant for patterns of violence, and that political cleansing resembles ethnic cleansing.
Year: 2011 HiCN Working Paper No. 096