Repression and Dissent Around a Potential Critical Juncture: Panel Data Evidence from Zimbabwe

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During periods of potential democratization, citizens are often exposed to unexpected episodes of protest and acts of repression. How do individual citizens make decisions during these periods of potential change? When citizens are exposed to acts of repression, does it deter them from expressing dissent, or cause them to redouble their efforts? When they are exposed to others’ acts of protest, do they become more or less likely to participate themselves? We use a unique panel dataset of Zimbabwean citizens in the months around the pivotal 2018 election to study these questions. Our data give us visibility on how protest and repression events diffuse throughout the population, and allow us to measure potential mechanisms linking exposure to subsequent political action. We find that citizens who are exposed to more protest events are subsequently more likely to engage in acts of dissent, in line with theories that emphasize that acts of dissent are characterized by complementarities. We also find that citizens who are exposed to more acts of repression are subsequently more likely to engage in dissent. We test for evidence of a range of mechanisms, including affective polarization, emotions, and informational updating.