Category Archives: Panama

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.

Panama – Incumbent Vice-President Juan Carlos Varela Wins Presidential Election

In my last blog post, I mentioned the expansive political business cycle of incumbent President, Ricardo Martinelli, to secure victory for his party, the center-right Cambio Democrático, and its candidate, José Domingo Arias, in Sunday’s presidential election. Well, this policy has not paid off. At least not in the way Martinelli intended.

Contrary to pre-election polls, and with 93.51 per cent of all votes counted, Juan Carlos Varela of the Partido Panameñista, has won the presidency with 39.19 per cent of the popular vote. José Domingo Arias was second with 31.55 per cent, while Juan Carlos Navarro of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático, was in third place with 27.91 per cent. Between them, the other four remaining candidates did not manage to secure more the two per cent of the vote.

Juan Carlos Varela is the current Vice-President of the incumbent Martinelli, but he was not Martinelli’s chosen successor. Far from it, in fact. Varela, from one of Panama’s richest families and owner of the Varela Hermanos rum distillery, ran in the 2009 presidential race, but stepped aside to support Martinelli in exchange for the vice-presidency. In 2011 however, Martinelli and Varela fell out, when Varela refused to back Martinelli’s plans to change the constitution to allow consecutive presidential terms. Varela was stripped of his additional role as foreign minister and faced vigorous opposition from Martinelli throughout the course of the campaign.

Martinelli, constitutionally barred from running again, but with a 67 per cent approval rating, threw his weight behind his party’s candidate, Arias, a former housing minister. Indeed, Arias’ running mate was Marta Linares, Martinelli’s wife. He energetically swelled the public economy before the election and campaigned from one end of the country to the other. However, this was not enough, despite Varela trailing in polls for the majority of the campaign. In fact, no incumbent party in Panama has managed to retain the executive since the US invasion in 1989.

With economic growth of 8.5 per cent last year, this election was largely contested on valence issues such as crime, albeit with some focus on rising prices. In Panama, the canal looms over all economic policy and Varela, a free-market conservative, is unlikely to alter the economic trajectory set by Martinelli.

The new president takes office on July 1st.