Category Archives: Chile

A Fragmented Center-Left: Challenges for Chile’s Political Opposition

A time of changes

For some observers, Chile’s political landscape might not have changed that much in recent years. Since 2006, Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera have taken turns to rule the country. However, the 2017 general election brought a series of changes that have important political implications beyond who sits in La Moneda, i.e., Congress’s partisan composition.

The 2017 elections were the first under the new proportional representation voting system (although the former binomial system, a PR in theory, actually prevented small parties from having legislative representation). This long-awaited reform made the elections more competitive and, above all, transformed the composition of Congress. In fact, many emblematic politicians that had occupied legislative seats since 1990 lost re-election last year. Furthermore, the share of legislative seats now held by members of non-traditional parties, those outside of the two traditional electoral coalitions, grew almost five times, from 3% to 17%.

That is, the Nueva Mayoría, the center-left coalition that in 2013 replaced the Concertación(1990-2013), and Chile Vamos, the right-wing alliance led by Piñera, are not alone in Congress for the first time since democracy was restored.This is because Frente Amplio (FA) won a considerable share of the electoral vote and legislative seats. Frente Amplio is a diverse political alliance that is comprised of several — mostly left-wing — small parties, some media personalities, far-left groups and former student leaders. The major differences between Frente Amplio and Nueva Mayoría are not purely ideological, but rather they hinge on their pro or anti-establishment orientation and political style. All these changes, along with worn-down relations within Nueva Mayoría and the defeat of its presidential candidate in the run off, have created a challenging scenario for the center-left opposition.

Opposition at the crossroads

Forming the opposition is not new for the Left, although the part they played during Piñera’s first term (2010-2014) was not a successful one. On the one hand, Concertación had then found itself struggling to maintain its unity and to redefine itself as a key political actor. On the other, this meant that at times they found it difficult to constrainPiñera and his cabinet. One way for the opposition to keep the executive at bay is to resort to interpelaciones(interpellations), a procedure by which ministers are forced to appear before Congress to answer questions, which might entail an important political cost for the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, the number of interpelacioneswas rather small when the left-wing parties were in the opposition (2010-2014). In fact, Piñera’s ministers were interpelados only three times by the Concertación during that period, which is considerably lower than the 14 times Bachelet’s ministers were questioned in Congress — seven secretaries in each of her two administrations — when the center-right parties were in the opposition.

Currently, there is a serious shortage of political leaders behind whom opposition parties and legislators might rally. It is telling that a few weeks ago Michelle Bachelet decided to step up and confront Piñera, who seeks to undo several of her policies. Bachelet met with her previous ministers and they individually criticized Piñera. Interestingly, Bachelet did not team up with the opposition parties or their leaders. As a sign of division in the left in itself, this is not really new. During both Bachelet administrations, relations with parties in her coalition were not entirely constructive. Moreover, she did not groom any important party member as her potential successor which among other factors contributed to handing the presidency over to Piñera twice in less than ten years.

As if this was not enough, the Democracia Cristiana(DC), a pivotal actor along with the Socialist party when the Concertación was in office, finds itself beleaguered by internal splits and power struggles. The DC is facing perhaps its most serious electoral and internal crisis yet, as many of its members debate whether to stay, collaborate with Piñera or move further to the left. Several well-known DC politicians have resigned and some have even decided to work for the Piñera administration.

Piñera and the future of his right-wing coalition

Piñera has attempted to take advantage of the fragmented opposition by resorting to the proverbial “divide and conquer” strategy. Atthe end of March, he asked the opposition to work together on a childhood policy proposal. As expected, divisions quickly arose among the opposition between those that accepted the offer and those that adamantly criticized it, exposing their different political styles and interests even further.

Piñera’s coalition has also witnessed divisions over policy proposals such as homoparental adoption, abortion, and lately between the president and his own party, Renovación Nacional (RN), about partisan appointments. Yet, these differences do not represent a serious threat to the ruling alliance’s stability. While Piñera continues moving his agenda forward — although not without problems— the opposition is still trying to find a footing in this new political scenario. In the short term, the center-left seems doomed to fail considering the fragmentation across and within its parties. The left-of-center opposition need to overcome their differences soon, otherwise not only do they risk losing the local elections in 2020, but also the presidency again in 2021. If the latter materializes, it would be the first time in almost 100 hundred years that the Right would remain in La Moneda for two consecutive constitutional terms.

Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Alissandra T. Stoyan – Gendered Opportunities and Constraints: How Executive Sex and Approval Influence Executive Decree Issuance

This is a guest post by Sarah Shair-Rosenfield and Alissandra T. Stoyan. It is based on their paper in Political Research Quarterly.

Over the last two decades democracies worldwide have elected record-setting numbers of women presidents – in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Liberia, Philippines, South Korean, and Taiwan to name just a few. One of the most frequently touted benefits of electing women to any office is the expectation that they tend to rely on or prefer a model of leadership based on negotiation and consensus-building. Indeed, that very quality is often highlighted by journalism about women’s political successes or sometimes promoted by women themselves.

Portrayals like this are typically built on the actions and behaviors of women legislators, or the behavior of legislatures with substantial proportions of female members. Legislatures may lend themselves to studies of gender and leadership styles or preferences because there are relatively more women legislators to evaluate. Legislatures also vary in the size of their female contingents, so it is possible to compare outcomes across different levels of female representation. Perhaps most importantly, it is also easier to understand why negotiation and consensus might be useful for governance: legislatures are themselves collective bodies that must form at least a majority to accomplish most tasks.

Conversely, it has been difficult for political scientists to study how leadership styles might translate to governance strategies of presidents. Although women presidents are more common today, they are still relatively rare. Furthermore, presidents may need to work with legislative counterparts to affect the policy agenda, but they also often have a range of unilateral powers at their disposal. This may reduce their reliance on or preference for negotiation and consensus. How might we expect the assumptions about women’s leadership styles to shape women’s use of their unilateral presidential powers, such as the ability to issue executive decrees?

In our new work, we use a paired-comparative approach to evaluate rates of executive decree issuance in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica between 2000 and 2014. In each case, a woman president succeeded a man from the same political party. The advantage of this research design is that each pair of presidents faced the same institutional constraints, the same or highly similar partisan opponents, and the same or similar own-party policy preferences. This means we can eliminate a host of alternative factors that might explain variation in decree issuance. Instead, we are able to narrow our focus to the effect of gender on a president’s tendency to make use of her or his unilateral decree power.

We find that gender by itself matters somewhat to rates of decree issuance; women do appear less likely to rule by decree overall. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina) and Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica) are much less likely to use such power compared to their predecessors, while Michelle Bachelet (Chile) is slightly less likely to do so and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) issues decrees at higher rates than her predecessor. Collectively this provides some evidence that there is a gender-based difference in the use of this type of presidential authority.

However, a more nuanced look at when and why presidents wield such power reveals additional information about the gender-based difference. Presidents are presumed to have the option of “going public” in order to influence the policy agenda. For example, a president may consider that high public approval ratings indicate a public mandate or support for action. Rather than trying to bargain or work with congress to pass legislation, a popular president may feel confident in issuing more decrees to accomplish her or his policy goals. A president motivated to work collaboratively or build consensus should be less interested in this “go public” option, and should rely on it less frequently.

When we account for a president’s approval rating, we see very different trends emerge in the decree issuance of women and men presidents. This figure shows that the (relatively low) rate at which women issue decrees is largely unaffected by how popular they are with the public. In contrast, men become much more likely to issue decrees as they get more popular. The gap in decree issuance by women and men is widest and most consistent with high levels of approval, but this gap narrows as presidents face declining approval that prevents them from being able to assert their will.

Scholars have often assumed that Latin American presidents are prone to abusing their unilateral authority, especially when they are or become more popular. At higher levels of popularity, presidents might be emboldened to “go public” with their policy preferences, rather than wasting their time and resources negotiating with the legislature. What we find suggests that this assumption may be true for Latin America’s presidentes in general, but that its presidentas tend to be less abusive of their authority even when they are popular enough to potentially do so.

As more women run for high office around the world, it seems important to consider this evidence of gendered differences in leadership that point to a new model of presidential self-restraint. Further analysis could illuminate distinctions in women’s motivations for governing as they do, in terms of both their strategic motivations and also the substance of the policies they may pursue.

Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault – The influence of the presidential system on the character of Latin American democracy

This is a guest post by Manuel Alcantara, Jean Blondel and Jean-Louis Thiébault. It is based on their recent book, Presidents and Democracy in Latin America, London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

The aim of this book is to study the effect of the presidential form of government on democracy in Latin America. The adoption of the presidential system, specifically the personality type of those who have occupied the presidential office, the leadership style of those presidents, and the type of government they have led, helps to explain the consolidation of democracy there.

In this study, six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) were chosen. They were chosen because they have successfully completed the process of democratic consolidation. Within each of the six countries, two presidents were chosen, reflecting broad trends in the political and electoral life of these countries. The goal was to select presidents belonging to one of the key political ‘families’ of the country, grouped under the banner of a political party, or who were representative of two particular approaches to the same problem in the same political family. These presidents were in office in the 1990s or the first decade of the 21st century. Some were liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing populists, socialists or social democrats, leaders of a political party or ‘outsiders,’ members of parliament or technocrats. They are:

  • Carlos Menem (July 1989-December 1999) and Nestor Kirchner (May 2003-December 2007) for Argentina.
  • Fernando Henrique Cardoso (January 1995-December 2002) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (January 2003-December 2010) for Brazil.
  • Patricio Aylwin (March 1990-March 1994) and Ricardo Lagos (March 2000-March 2006) for Chile.
  • Cesar Gaviria (September 1994-September 2004) and Alvaro Uribe (August 2002-August 2010) for Colombia.
  • Ernesto Zedillo (December 1994-November 2000) and Felipe Calderon (December 2006-December 2012) for Mexico.
  • Alan García (July 1985-July 1990 and July 2006 to July 2011) and Alberto Fujimori (July 1990-November 2000) for Peru.

In practice, these presidents were all center-right or center-left leaders. They were not members of the military, dictators, or revolutionaries. Right-wing populist presidents (Menem, Fujimori and Uribe) were chosen based on the idea that populists can be either on the right or on the left. However, García and Kirchner were chosen as moderate populists, claiming to be an Aprist and a Peronist respectively; both represent different periods. These choices make it possible to analyze processes in a consolidated democracy, but not in military regimes or in dominant party systems.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, these Latin American countries had a long period of instability. Argentina wavered between three types of political regimes: military dictatorship, a populist-corporatist regime, and restrictive democracy. From 1930 to the reestablishment of liberal democracy in 1983, there were six major military coups (1930, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976). There were eighteen presidents, and all those elected were overthrown except one, Peron, who died less than a year after his election. Governments in Peru have been more unstable than in any other South American country. Between 1945 and 1992, Peru’s government was civilian and constitutional almost 60 percent of the time, and a military regime 40 percent of the time. There were nearly two decades of military rule in Brazil and Chile. A military coup overthrew President Goulart in 1964 and began the longest period of authoritarian rule in Brazil’s history. With the collapse of democracy in September 1973, Chile was abruptly transformed from an open and participatory political system into a repressive and authoritarian one. General Pinochet was selected as the junta’s president by virtue of his position as leader of the oldest military branch. Unlike many of its continental neighbors, Colombia has avoided military rule, but there was intense violence between members of the two major parties in the late 1940s and 1950s, known as « la violenca » (the violence). A coalition government resulted from party negotiations. From 1958 to 1974, all governments in Colombia consisted of a bipartisan coalition. The main factors commonly associated with good prospects for democracy have long persisted in Mexico without producing full democracy.

Presidential regimes in Latin America are now a success, despite the pessimistic comments directed at this form of government. There are indeed manifest reasons why the Latin American presidential government should be considered a success. Latin American countries have overcome the fundamental dangers to which they were exposed. Although difficulties continue in a number of countries, presidential government in the region is no longer interrupted as it so frequently was in the past. Democratic development also mean that the number of countries regularly holding free and fair elections has increased. Executive governments are often elected by voters mobilized by clientelistic ties or by a candidate’s personality, rather than programmatic, appeal, all in the context of weak parties that are, moreover, rejected by citizens. The presidential elections of Zedillo in 1994 and Calderon in 2006 were intricate and controversial. Both involved critical moments of acute social tension and political instability that produced distinctive results.

Latin American governments have been influenced by the adoption of the presidential system. They set up institutions drawn largely from the US constitutional model. But Latin American presidents represent another type of executive. In the United States, there is a president, but there is no government. Latin America has a large number of presidential regimes characterised by a high degree of consistency and similarity. They constitute a type of intermediary regime, comprising many elements of presidential regimes, but with some of the features of parliamentary systems with coalition governments so as to ensure a majority in congress. For almost twenty years, Brazil has been considered an extraordinary case of « coalition presidentialism ». This explains why the president’s leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The Brazilian party system is highly fragmented. Dealing with loosely disciplined parties is thus a major problem for presidents because it makes the formation of stable congressional majorities much harder to achieve due to the excessive number of party factions. But there were also the broad multi-party coalition governments seen in Chile. Presidents of these countries have demonstrated leadership skills, arising from a good political performance and cohesive majority coalitions that support them: Aylwin and Lagos in Chile, Cardoso in Brazil. It is impossible to explain the stability of these coalitions without referring to the various mechanisms of coalition management and to presidential leadership. Most importantly, these three presidents facilitated the transition to democracy following the failure of authoritarian regimes in Chile and Brazil. They did not have the same authority as Lula, but they showed great skills of conciliation and moderation during the difficult transition period, namely the restoration and the consolidation of the democratic regime in Chile and Brazil.

This explains why the presidential leadership is important and has an impact on the nature of government. The key feature of the popular election of the president has been the inherent tendency of Latin American countries to emphasize the role of personalities in political life. Latin American political regimes have been markedly affected by patronage and clientelism; with the extension of the right to vote, elections were deeply influenced by these practices. The impact of personalities on the political life of Latin American countries has continued to this day, but it is less substantial. There is a decline in the extent to which Latin American presidentialism is personalized compared to the extent it had been previously. In the past personalization undoubtedly rendered presidential rule more chaotic and less rule-based. The fact that, on the whole, presidencies have tended to follow previously adopted rules during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first century has surely resulted in the personalization of presidents being been less marked than in the past. Whereas presidents often enjoy high levels of popularity, these levels vary from president to president as well as over time in the case of each president. One president exhibited exceptional leadership boosted by his personal dominance: Lula. His performance was strengthened by the fact that he had an interesting experience as founder and president of the Workers’ Party. He is often regarded as one of the most popular politicians in the history of Brazil, boasting approval ratings over 80 percent and, at the time of his mandate, one of the most popular in the world.

A new type of personalised populism emerged with the appearance of formulas promoting demobilization and anti-political behavior. Fujimori in Peru, Menem in Argentina, and Uribe in Colombia. These three presidents have adopted a more or less authoritarian manner, being hostile to or even repressing the opposition. They used exceptional means, such as a state of emergency or government by decree, to implement their economic and social policies, as well as the fight against armed rebellions and drug trafficking. However, these exceptional means did not enable them to achieve the expected results. Their presidency was characterized by an authoritarianism and corruption. The populism of Carlos S. Menem in Argentina was strengthened by the political machine of the historic Justicialita Party. Carlos Menem governed within the framework of « peronism » and enjoyed remarkable popular support. Menem’s economic policy involved profound structural reforms, including the privatisation of public enterprises, economic deregulation and the opening up of the economy to foreign trade and investment. This policy created the conditions for monetary stability and remained in force after Menem left office in 1999 and until the crisis of December 2001. However, the policies of the Menem era led to a deepening of social inequality and a rise in unemployment. However he was considered a true peronist. He was the main player in the political regime, with a negative view of parliament and the judiciary. Menem’s leadership has been labelled neopopulist and delegative due to the continuous use of unilateral measures and emergency legislation. It was of a different nature to the populism of Fujimori in Peru. Fujimori sought to distance his government from politics, disdaining the social and/or political mobilization that could have been mounted through some movement or party. Fujimori outlined a strategy in which criticism of the traditional parties was a part of his discourse. He decided to confront the political class instead of building bridges with it. Instead, he expressly renounced such mobilizations, and depoliticized all the other political bodies. Uribe presented himself as the saviour of a Colombia that seemed to be on the brink of destruction. He portrayed himself as a messiah who would redeem Colombia of all its evils and built a strategy around certain core components. He adopted a radical discourse against armed groups and proposed resolving the internal conflict through war and the subjugation of guerrillas. He withdrew from the Liberal Party, to which he had belonged throughout his political life. He spoke out against the parties and the political class despite having belonged to both and adhering to their norms and rules throughout his political career.

Some presidents demonstrated weaker leadership skills (Kirchner in Argentine, Gaviria in Colombia, Zedillo and Calderon in Mexico). They came to power without holding important positions in the governments headed by their predecessors. They have become second-rate candidates, indirectly because of events that have upset or disrupted the appointment of the first office holder. They have never been able to exercise strong authority, muddling through in the face of significant obstacles and divisions.

The fact that the presidential system had become ‘established’ in Latin America by the second half of the 20th century does not mean that these countries have not suffered serious problems. In the 1990s, democracy spread across the region, even if Colombia, Brazil and Mexico experienced marked political violence, the state being unable to maintain order and public security. What is clear is that, in the context of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil in particular, one very serious problem was identified: violence, and this problem affected the regular development of the presidential system in these three countries. The amount of violence that has affected Colombia has been huge, to the extent that it is surprising that the regular conduct of the electoral process has not been prevented from taking place. The policies of the two Colombian presidents, Gaviria and Uribe, were fundamentally different, the first having pursued the ‘war effort’ against the rebels, whereas the second attempted (unsuccessfully) to find a peaceful solution: his successor was able to make substantial progress in that direction, however. In Colombia it has thus been possible, rather surprisingly, to maintain the main electoral rules of the liberal democratic process, although, at least in a substantial part of the country, confrontation has taken in effect the form of a civil war.

In recent decades, presidential elections have taken place regularly in Latin America. Certainly, some presidents have been more popular than others. Some have been unable to conclude their terms. Others have gradually learned to adjust to the particularities of the institutional system. Overall, though, the presidential form of government has gradually begun to function smoothly. The fact that presidents have tended to follow democratic rules has resulted from the presence of patterns of parliamentary presidentialism. In spite of serious problems (political violence, corruption), the emergence of these tools (coalitional presidentialism, the (de-) institutionalization of party systems, the internal organization of the executive branch) must be seen as having constituted the key institutional development of democracy in Latin America.

Chile – Presidential Election Goes to Run-Off

On Sunday, Chile went to the polls for the first round of their presidential election. Voters also had to elect all 155 lower house deputies and half of Chile’s senators. The former billionaire, center-right president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera (2010-214), despite a clear lead in public opinion polls, was forced into a second round run-off due to a late surge by candidates on the left.

Piñera, with his right-leaning Chile Vamos coalition, won 36.4 per cent of the vote, while the left-leaning representative of the incumbent coalition, Alejandro Guillier, came second with 22.7 per cent and Beatriz Sánchez Muñoz, also on the left, came third with 20.3 per cent of the vote. The right wing candidate of the Unión Demócrata Independiente, José Antonio Kast, came fourth with 7.9 per cent.

Guillier a former news anchor, is the candidate of the centre-left Nueva Mayoría governing coalition led by current incumbent Michelle Bachelet and during the election campaign, he pledged to continue the reform agenda of the Bachelet administration. Sánchez, also a former journalist, represented the left wing Frente Amplio coalition, a party that emerged from the Chilean student movement of 2011. Sánchez ran on a platform that emphasized redistribution and higher taxes for the wealthy. This was the first time that the Frente Amplio has competed in a presidential election.

Piñera’s victory reflects divisions among the left in Chile. The Partido Demócrata Cristiano decided to leave the governing leftist coalition and contest the election on their own for the first time. Their candidate, Carolina Goic, received 5.8 per cent of the vote. It is also a product of  the falling popularity of the current incumbent, Michelle Bachelet. Her popularity has plummeted a long way from the eighty plus rating that she enjoyed towards the end of her first term in office. Her administration has been beset by a number of corruption scandals, one of which involved one of Chile’s largest corporate entities, Penta Group, and the right-leaning Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). More significantly however, one of the scandals involved the President’s own son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos was accused of using his political influence to arrange a US$10 million bank loan for his wife’s firm, Caval, which then used the funds to purchase land in central Chile that was promptly resold for a profit. The national banking regulator cleared Dávalos of any wrongdoing, but Congress launched an investigative committee to explore the allegations.

The emergence of the Frente Amplio, an anti-establishment coalition, was partly a response to this corruption crisis.

The low turnout at 46.7 per cent probably also helped Piñera. A run-off is now scheduled for December 17. The big question of course will be whether the supporters of Sánchez will weigh in behind the incumbent candidate, Guillier. Sánchez has been highly critical of Piñera in the past. A right-leaning victory in Chile would continue the recent swing to the right in other South American countries, including, Brazil, Peru and Argentina.

Fernando Meireles – Latin American presidents and their oversized government coalitions

This is a guest post by Fernando Meireles, Ph.D candidate in Political Science at Federal University of Minas Gerais (Brazil). E-mail:

In many countries, presidents have a difficult time governing because their parties lack a legislative majority. In fact, because of the combination of separate elections for executive and legislative branches with multiparty systems, this situation is far from uncommon: during the last two decades in all 18 Latin American countries with presidential systems, only 26% of the time has the president’s party had a majority in the lower house. Due to this constraint, as a vast amount of research now highlights, minority presidents usually form multiparty government coalitions by including other parties in their cabinets. Again, only four Latin American presidential countries in the last twenty years were not governed by a multiparty coalition at some point since the 1980s.

However, the need to craft a legislative majority alone does not explain why presidents frequently include more parties in their governments than necessary to obtain a minimum winning coalition – forming what I call an oversized government coalition. The distribution of this type of coalition in Latin America is shown in the graph below. As can be seen, it is not a rare phenomenon.

If government coalitions are costly to maintain, as presidents have to keep tabs on their coalition partners to ensure they are not exploiting their portfolios to their own advantage – not to mention the fact that by splitting spoils and resources between coalition partners, the president’s own party is worse off – then why are these oversized coalitions prevalent in some Latin American countries?

In a recent article in Brazilian Political Science Review, I tackled this puzzle by analyzing the emergence of oversized government coalitions in all 18 presidential countries in Latin America[1], followed by a case study focusing on Brazil, spanning from 1979 to 2012. To this end, I gathered data on cabinet composition[2] from several sources to calculate the size of each government coalition in the sample: if a coalition had at least one party that could be removed without hampering the majority status of the government in the lower house in a given year, I classified it as an oversized coalition.

Specifically, I examined three main factors that, according to previous research, should incentivize presidents to include more parties in their coalitions than necessary to ensure majority support: 1) the motivation party leaders have to maximize votes, which would make joining the government attractive to opposition parties (vote-seeking); 2) the motivation presidents have to avoid coalition defections to implement their policy agendas (policy-seeking); and 3) the institutional context, considering the effects of bicameralism, qualified majority rules, and party system format on government coalition size.

The results support some of the hypothesis suggested by the literature. First, presidents are more prone to form oversized coalitions at the beginning of their terms, which shows that the proximity to the election affects Latin American presidents’ decision to form, and opposition parties to accept being part of, large coalitions – as others studies argue, this is mainly due to parties defecting from a coalition to present themselves as opposition when elections are approaching. Second, party fragmentation also has a positive effect on the emergence of oversized coalitions, consistent with the hypothesis that presidents might include additional parties in their coalitions anticipating legislative defections. Yet on the other hand, presidential approval, party discipline, and ideological polarization do not have the same positive effects on the probability of an oversized coalition being formed.

The factor that has the most impact on the occurrence of oversized coalitions, however, is the legislative powers of the president. As the literature points out, legislative decrees and urgency bills could be used by skilled presidents to coordinate their coalitions, facilitating horizontal bargaining between coalition partners. The comparative results show that this is the case in Latin America: the difference in the predicted probability of a president with maximum legislative powers in the sample forming an oversized coalition and another with minimum powers is about 32 percent points.

By exploring the Brazilian case in more depth, I also found that bicameralism dynamics and qualified majority rules impact the emergence of oversized coalitions. With two chambers elected through different electoral rules, parties in Brazil are often unable to secure the same seat share in both houses; to make things worse for presidents, party switching is still widespread in the country. In this context, as my results uncovered, differences in the number of seats controlled by the government in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate positively affect the emergence of oversized coalitions. Finally, as some bills require supermajorities to be approved, such as constitutional amendments, reformist presidents also tend to form and maintain larger coalitions: the maximum value in this variable predicts increases by up to 10 percentage points on the probability of an oversized coalition being formed.

Taken together, these results show a more nuanced picture of why and how presidents form multiparty government coalitions in Latin America: often, obtaining a legislative majority is not enough to implement their legislative agendas, and so they might resort to a complementary strategy: to form larger coalitions. And presidents with greater legislative power, at the beginning of their terms or facing fragmented party systems, are in the best position to pursue such a strategy. In this way, both electoral and programmatic factors, as well as the institutional context, become key to understand variations in the size and the composition of government coalitions in presidential countries.


[1] These countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

[2] The criteria employed to identify a government coalition is the party affiliation of the ministers of the principal ministerial portfolios in each country – taking into account that ministers are not always recruited due to their connections or their congressional influence, and that in some cases they are not recognized by their parties as legitimate representatives of the same.

Johannes Freudenreich – The Formation of Cabinet Coalitions in Presidential Systems

This is a guest post by Johannes Freudenreich, Postdoctoral research fellow at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Munich. It is based on an recent article in Latin American Politics and Society

In the beginning of the 21st century, prospects of Latin American presidential democracies were good. The dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s had vanished, economies were constantly growing, and comprehensive social welfare programs were implemented. Many political scientists link these successes to the ability of Latin American presidents to form, maintain and manage cabinet coalitions (Cheibub 2007). The differences between presidential and parliamentary systems of government seemed to have become rather marginal. Both presidents and prime ministers achieved legislative majorities by forming broad cabinet coalitions and critics of the presidential form of democracy, such as Juan Linz (1994), seemed to be proven wrong. However, soon presidential impeachments became the new pattern of political instability in the region (Pérez Liñan 2007). Cabinet reshuffling remains constantly high and broad corruption schemes, directly linked to coalition politics, have been disclosed, such as the Mensalão Scandal in Brazil, where the ruling party of President Lula da Silva used illegal side payments to secure the legislative support of members of the ruling coalition.

My recent article in Latin American Politics and Society takes a systematic look at the formation of cabinet coalitions in presidential systems over the past 25 years. It analyzes the extent to which presidents in 13 Latin American countries have formed coalitions that increase their law-making capabilities, and whether presidents form coalitions tailored to find majorities in Congress especially when presidents have low independent influence over policy based on their institutional law-making powers.

The study complements the perspective that cabinet coalitions are largely an instrument for finding legislative majorities with the idea that presidents use cabinet posts to honor pre-electoral support. The reason is the following: presidential elections provide strong incentives for electoral coordination because they tend to favor two-candidate competition. In a multi-party setting, this means that parties have incentives to form pre-electoral coalitions to present joint presidential candidates. When negotiating pre-electoral pacts, parties are likely to agree on how to share the benefits of winning including cabinet posts. After the election, presidents find it difficult to abandon these agreements as they need the trust and support of other parties within and outside of their coalition during their presidential term. Thus, it is expected that cabinet coalitions are likely to be based on the electoral team of presidents and that other legislative parties are invited to join the cabinet only additionally to parties of the existing pre-electoral coalition.

The study further argues that parties attractive as pre-electoral coalition partners are not necessarily the ones that would achieve cabinet participation if the negotiations of cabinet posts were an unconstrained post-electoral process. For example, in a one-dimensional policy space, extreme parties, parties more extreme than the president to the median legislator, are relatively unimportant for legislative decisions and thus unlikely to be included in the cabinet for legislative reasons. In a presidential race, however, extreme parties can provide valuable votes and campaign resources and therefore have far stronger blackmailing power. Furthermore, presidential contests produce a strong antagonism between the president and the parties of the president’s electoral rivals. Since the president’s survival in office is not contingent on the support of other parties in parliament, parties that present a strong presidential candidate are likely to be excluded from the cabinet, even if their inclusion is rational from a lawmaking perspective. It is therefore expected that the party of the runner-up is generally excluded from the presidential cabinet and that the overall explanatory power of variables of legislative bargaining increases once one controls for the effects of pre-electoral coalition formation and competition.

The study empirically evaluates this argumentation on the basis of so-called conditional logit models, presenting a new empirical strategy to analyze cabinet formation under this type of regime. The tests are conducted on a new dataset of 107 democratic cabinets in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Based on the new method and data, this study presents the most comprehensive test yet of the determinants of the partisan composition of presidential cabinets.

The most note-worthy empirical results are:

First, presidents try to form majority coalitions, but it is the upper house majority not the lower house majority which makes cabinet coalitions significantly likely to from. One potential explanation for this phenomenon is that there are generally fewer parties in the upper than in the lower chamber, due to the disproportionality of electoral systems used to elect upper chambers in Latin America. Thus, the president’s party is often overrepresented in the upper house, which makes it easier for presidents to find majorities. Furthermore, upper chambers are generally strong in Latin America (Nolte and Llanos 2004), and controlling an upper chamber is often sufficient for the president to prevent a veto override.

Second, contrary to expectations in the literature, extensive presidential decree powers decrease the probability of the occurrence of cabinets which control only a minority of seats in the lower house of congress. A potential explanation for this phenomenon is similar to the argument developed by Strøm (1990) for minority governments in parliamentary systems. Parties prefer to stay in opposition when the government has a weak independent influence on policy. The other explanation is that pre-electoral coalition formation is more prevalent when presidents’ institutional authority is high, as political actors make a relatively simple calculation about the benefits and the costs of coordination in presidential elections. The more powerful the president, the higher the incentives for pre-electoral coalition formation (Hicken and Stoll 2008; Freudenreich 2013). And if the a coalition is in power anyway, it is easier to extend this coalition to secure a majority in the lower house of congress.

Third, considerations of governability and pre-electoral bargaining describe two distinct yet compatible sets of factors that influence cabinet formation in presidential systems. Many cabinet coalitions in Latin America are congruent or extended versions of the pre-electoral coalition of the president and parties of the main presidential competitor are generally excluded from the cabinet, but these factors are distinct to the incentives of legislative bargaining. The explanatory power of variables associated with governability increases once variables of pre-electoral bargaining are included in the statistical model. For example, cabinet coalitions are more likely to form when they include the median party in the lower chamber of congress, but this effect is only statistically significant when one controls for the effects of pre-electoral bargaining.

Overall, the paper tries to show that an inclusive approach is necessary to study coalition dynamics in presidential systems. Pre-electoral commitments strongly affect cabinet formation and thereby also confound the relationship between cabinet formation, legislative bargaining and governability.


Cheibub, José A. 2007. Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Freudenreich, Johannes. 2013. Coalition Formation in Presidential Systems. Ph.D. diss., University of Potsdam.

Hicken, Allen, and Heather Stoll. 2008. Electoral Rules and the Size of the Prize: How Political Institutions Shape Presidential Party Systems. Journal of Politics 70, 4: 1109–27.

Linz, Juan J. 1994. Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference? In The Failure of Presidential Democracy: The Case of Latin America, ed. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 3–89.

Nolte, Detlef/Mariana Llanos. 2004. “Starker Bikameralismus? Zur Verfassungslage lateinamerikanischer Zweikammersysteme.” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 35: 113-131.

Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Strøm, Kaare. 1990. Minority Government and Majority Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Farida Jalalzai – Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?

This is a guest post by Farida Jalalzai, the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University

In his article “On Election Day, Latin America Willingly Trades Machismo for Female Clout” New York Times contributor Simon Romero asserts “Up and down the Americas, with the notable exception of the United States, women are soaring into the highest political realms” (Romero 2013). In exploring this development making headlines, my book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? (Routledge 2016) analyzes four recent women presidents also known as presidentas: Michelle Bachelet (Chile, 2006-2010; 2014-), Cristina Fernández (Argentina, 2007-2015), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica, 2010-2014) and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil, 2011-2016).  Given the powers presidentialism affords presidents, women’s increasing tendency to play these very strong political roles present a puzzle.  Since institutional factors account heavily for women’s success and presidentialism appears the most difficult system for women to break through (Jalalzai 2013), how can we explain women’s ability to gain the presidency in Latin America?  Historically, women leaders in presidential systems (particularly women directly elected by the public) were generally limited to relatives of male leaders and this proved to be a personal factor linking women presidents worldwide, including those from Latin America. With the election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, these traditional patterns appeared to be shifting.  What conditions, therefore, allowed for a broadening of routes, beyond family ties, for women in Latin America?  While an important question, I was also interested in the larger implications the election of powerful women posed. Once in office, do the presidentas make positive changes on behalf of women? My findings were primarily based on responses derived from over 60 elite interviews conducted between 2011 and 2014 in these countries. Respondents included political elites and experts of diverse partisan leanings such as cabinet ministers, legislators, party leaders, consultants from think tanks and academics, and a sitting president (Chinchilla)..  I supplemented interviews with data from public opinion polls, media and scholarly analyses, and information from governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In addressing my first question, I found that all presidentas benefitted from centralized and exclusive presidential nomination procedures (see also Hinojosa 2012). Not only were they essentially handpicked by their predecessors, their publics’ were largely supportive of the outgoing president’s policies.  While benefitting from continuity, with the exception of Fernández (as the former first lady, the only political wife in the group) they did not enjoy top placement or independent bases within their parties.  As such, their nominations were perceived as somewhat surprising and occasionally met with party resistance.  Yet, their outsider statuses likely explain why they were viewed as appropriate successors in the first place.  Critically, Chinchilla, Bachelet, and Rousseff also campaigned on how they would change the face of politics.  The combined approach of change and stability proved fruitful.

Regarding their impact, I examined three types of potential effects of their leadership on women:

  1. Appointing more women to political offices
  2. Positively influencing levels of political engagement and participation, political orientations, and support for women in politics among the general public
  3. Supporting policies on behalf of women

Throughout, I compared women to their male predecessors.  Because of their strong ties to the outgoing presidents, we might have expected the presidentas to behave fairly similarly.  Yet, as women, they may have done more to empower women than their male counterparts. My analysis identified mixed evidence.   While presidents Bachelet and Rousseff prioritized appointing more women than did their male counterparts, this did not seem to hold true for either Chinchilla or Fernández. In analyzing data from representative surveys and from my interviews, findings confirmed key differences between the presidentas.  More positive shifts in public opinion and participation were linked to Rousseff’s presidency (my book only covered her first term—it does did not account her cataclysmic fall from grace and subsequent impeachment) while Bachelet’s showed little consistent or significant effects.  In interviews, respondents easily identified positive influences Rousseff’s and Bachelet’s presidencies offered.  In contrast, both the representative surveys and interviews concerning Chinchilla and Fernández regularly indicated backsliding.  Support for women’s policies proved most prevalent in Bachelet’s presidencies.  Rousseff, to a lesser degree, also made women’s issues an important part of her first term.  While many programs were extensions of Lula’s, Rousseff added more depth to existing programs.  She also connected seemingly gender neutral policies to women, particularly poor women.  We see little prioritization of women’s issues, in contrast, during Fernández’s and Chinchilla’s presidencies, affirming the variability in positive effects of presidentas on women.

Three years after the article quoted above was published, another journalist for the New York Times, Jonathan Gilbert, posed the following question: “What has happened to the powerful women of South America?”  The previous fervor had given way to disappointment as the presidentas analyzed here encountered plummeting approval ratings, much of which is related to economic travails, and nearly all were ensnared in corruption scandals. While this book suggested mixed effects of women presidents, I wonder if women face greater scrutiny for their lackluster performances or alleged engagement in inappropriate behavior. These remain open questions, but ones worth pursuing in future investigations as enhanced scrutiny shapes women’s abilities to exercise power generally and behalf of women specifically. These questions will be even more salient with the United States on the brink of electing its first woman president. As Hillary Clinton is a former First Lady, her path to power is not very puzzling.  Still, no doubt this historic moment will soon give way to investigations regarding what Clinton’s presidency offers women and whether she too receives undue scrutiny because of her gender.


Gilbert, Jonathan. “South America’s Powerful Women Are Embattled. Is Gender a Factor?” The New York Times. May 14, 2016.

Hinojosa, Magda. 2012. Selecting Women, Electing Women: Political Representation and Candidate Selection in Latin America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Jalalzai, Farida. 2016. Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties? New York: Routledge Press.

Jalalzai, Farida. 2013.  Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Romero, Simon. “On Election Day, Latin America Willingly Trades Machismo for Female Clout.” The New York Times. December 14, 2013.

Farida Jalalzai is the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science. Dr. Jalalzai’s research analyzes the representation and behavior of women and minorities in politics and the role of gender in the political arena. Her work focuses on women national leaders. Her first book Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (Oxford University Press 2013, updated paperback 2016) offers a comprehensive analysis of women, gender, and national leadership positions. Her second book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?  (Routledge 2016) examines several case studies of the behavior of women national leaders including presidents Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina). Her current projects include a co-edited volume “Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment Worldwide” (with Amy C. Alexander and Catherine Bolzendahl, under contrast at Palgrave) a co-authored book Senhora Presidenta: Women’s Representation in Brazil during Dilma Rousseff’s Presidency (with Pedro dos Santos), and  “Blood is Thicker than Water: Family Ties to Political Power Worldwide,” a global analysis of the prevalence of family connections among executive political office holders (with Meg Rincker).